Boosted Federal Funds Give Arts, Humanities New Significance

At the end of October, President Obama signed a bill into law which will increase the budgets of the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities by $12.5 million each. Host Liane Hansen speaks with NEH Chairman Jim Leach about the increased funding and how he views the role of the humanities in today's political life.

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Im Liane Hansen.

At the end of October, President Obama signed into law a bill which will increase the budgets of the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities by $12.5 million apiece. The budget for each agency is now $167.5 million.

The new chairman of the NEH is Jim Leach. He was appointed by President Obama in July, confirmed by the Senate in August and began his four-year term in September. Chairman Leach joins us in the studio. Welcome to the program.

Mr. JIM LEACH (Chairman, National Endowment for the Humanities): Well, good to be with you, Liane.

HANSEN: Briefly, could just give us an explanation, what does the National Endowment for the Humanities do?

Mr. LEACH: Well, first, let me make a distinction between the National Endowment for the Arts, and then the National Endowment for the Humanities. Theyre sister institutions. The Arts basically funds the living arts and it emphasizes creativity: theater, easel painting, the crafts.

The National Endowment for the Humanities is more an institution dedicated to perspective. And so, we do scholarship but also public humanities. And in the scholarship, it's history, literature, philosophy and lots of related disciplines from sociology and anthropology on. These are two institutions with kind of linked disciplines and some overlaps.

HANSEN: During past administrations, there has been tension about the funding of the arts and the humanities. Has that changed with the Obama administration?

Mr. LEACH: Well, there is always a tension on public funding in the arts and humanities. Interestingly, if you go historically, a vastly greater percentage of the GDP was federally funded in the arts and humanities in the middle of the Great Depression, where Americans felt that it was important to chronicle events of the times and to understand them; and where Americans wanted not only visual but historical perspective brought to what was happening.

HANSEN: You touched on this just a bit. But how do you respond to those who are critical of increased funding for the arts and for the humanities, given that the country is fighting two wars and slowly emerging from the worst recession in recent history?

Mr. LEACH: Well, first, it's an understandable criticism. But then one of the great questions is: Is it costly not to fund the humanities, which is where I am posited.

And if you take, for example, circumstances we're in. Would it have been helpful in the decisions had been made in this process if people had looked at some of works that we have produced on French involvement in Algeria? Is that relevant to our understanding going into the Middle East? Is the experience of the British and the Russians in Afghanistan, is that relevant to the discussions today? Should we have been studying more about Islamic religion and the Islamic cultures, which are multi-faceted in many, many ways? Would that have been helpful to policymakers?

And so, arguably, shortchanging the humanities is a very dangerous thing. And, in fact, one of the great lessons of history is that military might is insufficient to dictate terms to almost any society anywhere. You see situations where there are lessons that exist that dont seem to be learned.

There's one from the American colonial experience that I think is very profound and no one pays attention to, and that relates to a South Carolinian patriot named Francis Marion who was known as the Swamp Fox. And he basically, with a very small band of men, was bedeviling to the British - which were the great army in the world - because he would attack at night from the side and then disappear in daylight in the impenetrable swamps. And so, it was a classic example of asymmetric warfare that we were employing. And now we're seeing similar tactics in a way used against us, and I dont think we should be surprised.

HANSEN: You spent 30 years in Congress as a representative for southeastern Iowa. And during that time you founded and co-chaired the Congressional Humanities Caucus. What in that job prepared you for this job that you have now?

Mr. LEACH: Well, I wouldnt say that there's any perfect preparation for any job. It does mean that I bring the baggage of my background to the job. And so I know a little bit about how Congress operates, and I have a sense for how the public feels in a varied way on a spectrum of issues.

But, as I look at past chairmen, I think some have had better backgrounds than Ive had. I think some really wonderful academics have served as head of the agency.

HANSEN: I think a lot of people may not know that in addition to your service in government and academia, that you're a member of the Wrestling Hall of Fame, and the International Wrestling Hall of Fame. Anything from that experience that you'll apply to your current position?

Mr. LEACH: No. I consider the circle the wrestling mat to be the greatest equalitarian circle of the world. And in wrestling, you learn a lot of things, and then one is it's a sport that obviously rewards somewhat athleticism, but it's a sport for pluggers. It's for dedicated people that really work at it. And wrestling is not weightlifting. It's helpful to be stronger than the other guy but that does not dictate outcome.

HANSEN: Jim Leach is the new chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities. Thank you for coming in.

Mr. LEACH: Well, thank you very much, Liane.

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