The NEH Can’t Be Mended, So End It

By | 2017-07-12T14:38:08-07:00 April 25th, 2017|
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My friend Rob Koons is less cynical than I am. He thinks that a “reformed [National Endowment for the Humanities] could be the spear point for cultural renewal on a large scale.”

Having a lower estimation of the essentially unshiftable denizens of the NEH (and NEA) bureaucracy, I think Trump was right to zero the budgets for the Endowments and other such destructive, federally funded cultural initiatives (the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, for starters).

But there is a pragmatic and a principled reason to favor the abolition of federal funding for the Endowments. The pragmatic reason is that they are captives of the cultural Left and no new Chairman, be he the reincarnation of Pericles, can do anything about that.

Rob believes that conservatives 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.” I believe that is a fond hope. We’ve already tried, with sound chairmen of the Endowments like Lynne Cheney, Bruce Cole, and Dana Gioia. Doubtless they all did some good.

But their tenures left the malevolent core to the institutions untouched. The Endowments are staffed by exactly the sort of bureaucratic swamp dwellers that Donald Trump came to Washington to drain.

Rob says that the “fundamental problem with the NEH as presently constituted is the peer-review system by which it disseminates research grants.” I think that the fundamental problem is that the endowments represent an illegitimate extension of federal power. The arts and the humanities ought to be supported by private initiative, not taxpayer dollars.

But what about​ the preservation of our cultural patrimony? What about the Washington monument and Lincoln Memorial? An edifice, I would point out, is not a grantmaking institution.

Rob thinks that by introducing National Honor Exams, we can recapture the cultural high ground.

I think there are manifold problems with that proposal. First of all, he envisions a system whereby top scoring high-school students would “be given the right to enter the college of their choice,”  while top-scoring college students “will have the right to enter the professional or graduate school of their choice.” Who is going to bestow that right? What if Yale or Harvard or Princeton does not not recognize the “right” that Rob wishes to manufacture?

More fundamentally, what he proposes is yet another federal bureaucracy, one apparently with extraordinary coercive powers over the nation’s educational institutions.

Partisans of the Endowments, from the Right as well as the Left, oscillate between telling us what a derisory sum of money they command—hardly worth paying attention to, don’t you know—and insisting that the work of the arts and the humanities is absolutely essential to the future of civilization as we know it.

Important it may be. But there is a pragmatic and a principled reason to favor the abolition of federal funding for the Endowments. The pragmatic reason is that they are captives of the cultural Left and no new Chairman, be he the reincarnation of Pericles, can do anything about that. The oft-told litany of pathological, anti-American garbage supported by the Endowments can never be effectively countered until the character of elite culture changes.

The principled reason the Endowments should be abolished is that they represent initiatives into which the federal government should not venture. You might love the arts and the humanities, as do I, you might think they are things that make life worth living. But that does not mean that they should be supported by the administrative apparatus of the state.

Because the Endowments cannot be mended, they should be ended.

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About the Author:

Roger Kimball
Roger Kimball is Editor and Publisher of The New Criterion and President and Publisher of Encounter Books. Mr. Kimball lectures widely and has appeared on national radio and television programs as well as the BBC. He is represented by Writers' Representatives, who can provide details about booking him. Mr. Kimball's latest book is The Fortunes of Permanence: Culture and Anarchy in an Age of Amnesia (St. Augustine's Press, 2012). He is also the author of The Rape of the Masters (Encounter), Lives of the Mind: The Use and Abuse of Intelligence from Hegel to Wodehouse (Ivan R. Dee), and Art's Prospect: The Challenge of Tradition in an Age of Celebrity (Ivan R. Dee). Other titles by Mr. Kimball include The Long March: How the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s Changed America (Encounter) and Experiments Against Reality: The Fate of Culture in the Postmodern Age (Ivan R. Dee). Mr. Kimball is also the author ofTenured Radicals: How Politics Has Corrupted Our Higher Education (HarperCollins). A new edition of Tenured Radicals, revised and expanded, was published by Ivan R. Dee in 2008. Mr. Kimball is a frequent contributor to many publications here and in England, including The New Criterion, The Times Literary Supplement, Modern Painters, Literary Review, The Wall Street Journal, The Public Interest, Commentary, The Spectator, The New York Times Book Review, The Sunday Telegraph, The American Spectator, The Weekly Standard, National Review, and The National Interest.