A Call to Mend, Not End the NEH

By | 2017-06-02T18:30:05+00:00 April 24, 2017|
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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.

About the Author:

Robert C. Koons
Robert C. Koons is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Texas at Austin where he has been since 1987. His areas of specialization include metaphysics and epistemology, philosophical logic and philosophy of mathematics, and philosophy of religion. He is currently working on the logic of causation and the metaphysics of life and the mind. He holds bachelor’s degrees in philosophy from Michigan State University and in philosophy and theology from Oxford University. He holds a doctorate in philosophy from UCLA.


  1. frank April 24, 2017 at 6:14 pm

    Wrong on all counts. The fact that the NEH is only 0.004 percent of the federal budget is irrelevant, unless you consider that the citizens of the US are being nickled and dimed by the federal government at precisely 0.004 percent at every damned turn! It adds up, professor Koons. It adds up to a whole lot. And the more it adds up, the more enslaved we are to your precious pet programs, and the less free we are as citizens.

    Moreover, it’s not the place of professionals such as yourself to “preserve our national identity;” no, that place is properly given to the citizens of our country. The idea that we need the NEH to preserve our identity is preposterous, and the idea that we should trust conservatives to steward the NEH better than liberals have is equally absurd. We have only to look at the sad state of much of our country’s programs to see that less government we have, the better we are.

    You want to fix a government program? How about you start with the awful mess both sides have made of social security, or the VA!

  2. tz1 April 24, 2017 at 6:36 pm

    You cannot reform such things – I’d like even one example of a converged ultra left agency that was fixed and stayed fixed through the next two administrations. I can’t think of one.
    You are asking a crocodile to be nice. It is not in the nature of such a bureaucracy to promote conservatism or libertarianism. Shifting it by doing something like mandating the States pay for it is just as bad.
    Your “honors exams” will be called racist and/or sexist if the majority who get high marks are white and/or male. There aren’t many african or asian “great books”.
    Do you really think you could keep the NEH around but fire every last employee, put in the people you want, and change the law so they will be around longer than the Supreme Court?

    If Humanities are so inexpensive and important, PAY FOR IT YOURSELF. Find a few million people willing to spend $50 or $100. Or to start a charter school chain for humanities or a homeschool curriculium (A Thomas Jefferson Education already exists).

    You sound like one of those billionaires who complain about the Federal Debt and Deficit. Write a check.

    Everyone has his own pet program, and they are all “just a tiny fraction”, but that is why we have a $20T debt.

    I’ll make a deal – get rid of all this, and AFTER we’ve paid down the debt (including unfunded liabilities like Social Security and Medicare), and have a slight surplus, I’ll be for restoring the NEH along your lines. Not one day before.

  3. Ed O'Brien April 24, 2017 at 9:28 pm

    “…National Humanities Honors Examinations …” No. Respectfully, not buying this Dr. Koons. This is a variation on what the leftists always want: a NATIONAL program, with NATIONAL STANDARDS ultimately run out of the NATIONAL capital, Washington, DC. Some of the ideas your article expresses are good ones. Get a conservative private donor to fund them & locate them on conservative campuses that refuse to accept government funding. If left in the federal government’s hands, as sure as the sun comes up in the morning, in no time at all, the “revised NEH” for which you advocate will fall victim to regulatory capture.

    “Regulatory capture is a form of government failure that occurs when a regulatory agency, created to act in the public interest, instead advances the commercial or political concerns of special interest groups that dominate the industry or sector it is charged with regulating.”


  4. Lawrence Duffield April 24, 2017 at 11:39 pm

    The great mass of our Federal programs are “comparatively” inexpensive. But until, at a minimum, we balance our budget and begin to pay down the Federal Debt, the real question is not, “can we afford it?” Of course we can’t. We go deeper into debt by the minute. The question is, “Can we do without it until we get our finances back in order?” The underlying question is “How can we find another thousand or so things we can do without for the foreseeable future”? Our grandchildren might well thank us profusely.

  5. Andy April 25, 2017 at 5:48 pm

    The right lost the culture war when it married itself to religious conservatives. Mending, or eliminating the NEH won’t revise that history.

  6. Thesecondsailor April 26, 2017 at 2:29 am

    For many decades now, it has been patent that, over the long run, all that government touches is taken over by the Left. It is naive to think that an arm of the government itself can have a beneficial long-term role in changing that. To the contrary, the effort can do nothing but further corrupt, or eliminate, the study of great texts in a search for truth.

  7. yerkiddenright April 26, 2017 at 3:05 pm

    Cut it out! The budget is loaded with non-meritorious items that are only “0.004 percent of the federal budget.” Add ’em up, and, all of a sudden, you’re talking real money.

  8. James Oswald April 26, 2017 at 11:06 pm

    Ronald Reagan’s Sec’y of Ed, Bill Bennett said the same thing about the nascent Dept. of Education. It was staffed top to bottom with Marxists, Communists, feminists and fisters….but old Bill thought he could ‘direct’ it to be a force for good. I’ve often wondered how an inside Wash., DC kind of guy could be so naiive. Anyway, our children have been taught to reject God, and hate Americans and themselves for 30 years now. Thanks Bill.

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