What’s the Use? The Decline in Support for Humanities Studies

By Rebekkah McKalsen

It is no secret that scholarly studies are suffering greatly in the current economic climate. Sequestration and budget cuts have hit both individual scholars and university departments alike, resulting in tighter resources everywhere. However, one particular area has been hit harder than all of the others: the humanities. 

The National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) is the largest agency funding humanities research, and it is struggling now more than ever. The government organization’s budget is roughly a third of its budget from thirty years ago–adjust for inflation and the picture looks even worse. The National Science Foundation, which deals with many more grant applicants than its counterpart in the humanities, supports approximately 27.5% of applicants each year with a budget of $7 billion in the 2012 fiscal year. By contrast, the NEH only had the power to grant 14.7% of applicants in the 2012 fiscal year, and operated with a budget of $146 million. According to the National Humanities Alliance, those numbers represent “the lowest funding rate in NEH’s 45-year history.” Although science tends to need more funding because of its dependence on specialized equipment, many other factors contribute to the widening disconnect between funding science and funding the humanities.  

Politicians often question the reason for the very existence of the NEH, such as Alabama senator Jeff Sessions. In a recent letter to Carol Watson, the Acting Chairman of the NEH, the GOP senator wrote, “Using taxpayer dollars to fund education grant program questions that are very indefinite … does not on its face appear to be the appropriate means of establishing confidence in the American people that NEH expenditures are wise.” Sessions referred to grants given last year for scholars studying questions such as “What is the meaning of life?” and “Why do humans write?” The question is, why do politicians (and, often, the general public,) fail to see the need for inquiry about the human condition, particularly in our technology-soaked society?

Little is being done to publically address the uses of the humanities (much less the uses of the NEH), resulting in a lack of understanding and a lack of coverage outside of elite scholarly circles. If a senator does not understand the point of researching the meaning of life, that not only raises questions about our politicians but also about how accessible humanistic studies are. Perhaps this lack of accessibility is because most humanities research is only publicized in scholarly arenas to begin with. Most major news outlets, such as BBC, NBC, and CBS, have an entire subsection dedicated to Science/Science & Tech to carry news about scientific research and its potential uses. A similar category for any type of humanities study is much more difficult to find. Singular stories pop up here and there, but nothing to compare with the emphasis given to science. 

Regardless of the reasons behind the separation between researchers and the public, a modern understanding of disciplines under the “humanities” umbrella is essential to societal progress. Imagine running a judiciary system with a limited understanding of philosophy and history or being a policymaker with outdated ethical theories. Quickly, the humanities emerge as indispensable. 

However, it is no longer possible for these studies to get by without more communication with the American public. A 2013 Commission on the Humanities and Social Sciences that was backed by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences reports, “If scholars in the broad humanistic disciplines expect the public to be more financially supportive, they must make the case for the public value of their work much more effectively than they have in recent years.” The commission continues, “Renewed funding may arise together with renewed effort to remind Americans of the meaning and value of the humanities and social sciences. It is unlikely to come without it.”

Rebekkah McKalsen is a senior at Wells College majoring in English. Wells College is home to the Xi of New York Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.