In its draft budget, the Trump administration has proposed the abolition of the National Endowment for the Humanities, as part of a dramatic reduction in non-essential discretionary spending. The NEH’s budget is so small (0.004 percent of the federal budget) that its elimination would serve as a mere gesture.
In fact, Trump-inspired conservatives have overwhelming reasons for preserving it. We can repurpose the NEH and transform it into a force for the disruption of the cultural Left and the rebuilding of our nation’s memory and sense of identity.
The $146 million spent annually on the NEH is literally within the margins of rounding errors. It represents just over one-hundredth of a percent of total discretionary spending.
But isn’t the NEH, no matter how small its cost, a paradigmatic example of federal overreach, of spending on supposedly worthy “programs” unwarranted by the United States Constitution? The correct answer is, resoundingly, No.
Reform of the NEH would begin by refocusing it exclusively on undergraduate and high-school education in the great books of the Western world and in American history, with proper emphasis on the history of ideas, religion, the military, and the great men and women whose achievements have shaped of our civilization.
Is the preservation of our national identity, our shared memory of our past, not a federal responsibility? Then we should shut down all of our national monuments, beginning with the Washington Monument and the Jefferson and Lincoln Memorials. Our identity as Americans depends upon this collective memory, and this is one of the “necessary and proper” functions of our government. Roughly a third of the NEH’s budget assists in the preservation of documents and artifacts in museums across the country.
The fundamental problem with the NEH as presently constituted is the peer-review system by which it disseminates research grants (approximately one-third of the budget). Once the Left has captured an academic field, the peer-review simply perpetuates that hegemony. This is the case in many of the core fields in the humanities, including English and history. Moreover, the last thing our country needs is more humanities “research” that results in politically tendentious papers published in obscure journals. Mark Bauerlein at Emory University has demonstrated that the average article in such journals is read by slightly more than one reader!
Reform of the NEH would begin by refocusing it exclusively on undergraduate and high-school education in the great books of the Western world and in American history, with proper emphasis on the history of ideas, religion, the military, and the great men and women whose achievements have shaped of our civilization. We can do this by introducing the National Humanities Honors Examinations at two levels, one for graduating seniors in high school and one for college seniors. These Oxford-like examinations would recognize and reward excellence in learning about our common heritage, following the “Great Books” model defined by Mortimer Adler at the University of Chicago and by the Encyclopedia Britannica. Those 18-year-olds earning top ranks in the examination will be given the right to enter the college of their choice, and the top-scoring 22-year-olds will have the right to enter the professional or graduate school of their choice.
When students register for the honors exams, they will identify the four teachers who contributed the most to their education. Teachers with multiple students winning top ranks will be given the right to take up a tenure-track job in a nearby college. Those with exceptional track records over a prolonged period will be assured promotion to tenure. In this way, conservative, moderate, and other unfashionable scholars who are excellent teachers would be enabled to infiltrate our institutions of higher learning.
The honors exams would also solve the problem of grade inflation and falling academic standards, a growing threat to the very survival of our higher education system. The percentage of grades that are As in our nation’s colleges has climbed from 15 percent 30 years ago to more than 40 percent today. As Richard Arum and Josip Roksa have demonstrated in Academically Adrift, 36 percent of all college students show no improvement in their cognitive skills over their college careers, partly because they spend on average less than half the time studying than a typical college student spent 30 years ago. The National Honors Exams will reward both students who work hard and academic programs and teachers who maintain high standards, reversing this catastrophic decline.
The NEH should not be abolished. A reformed NEH could be the spear point for cultural renewal on a large scale. The NEH budget is a drop in a bucket when compared to total spending on the humanities in the United States (about 0.3 percent of the total), but it would represent a doubling or tripling of the total resources available to students seeking a classical curriculum.