NEH, humanities deserve support, funding

Samer Ali

The Chronicle of Higher Education reported Oct. 24 that Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Alabama, had submitted a letter to the National Endowment for the Humanities. Sessions, the senior Republican on the Senate Budget Committee, asked the NEH to justify grant funds it has awarded this year. 

The NEH made awards this year to promote discussions among the general public about perennial questions, such as “What is the meaning of life?” Likewise, it has sponsored discussions about Muslim cultures, under the auspices of its Bridging Cultures program. In the letter sent to the NEH, Sessions states that he questions the value of these “indefinite” questions and worries that the NEH is “promoting” Islamic culture at the expense of Christian and Jewish cultures. As a UT scholar involved in the Muslim Journeys program at the local library in Smithville, I find Sessions’ understanding of the “humanities” to be fundamentally misguided.

First, the humanities do not promote a parochial culture or vision. Rather, the humanities of the world have been in creative dialogue for the past 7,000 years, since the dawn of cities and civilizations, in the form of art, stories and poetry that have crisscrossed the world. They represent the best of humanity in general, regardless of cultures of origin. In principle, the humanities of the world cultivate self-reflections, independent thinking, as well as communication and community across lines of difference.

Second, deep philosophical questions, such as those proposed and funded by the NEH, bring us together as Americans, regardless of our identities, so we can talk about what matters and share our values as human beings and citizens.

Third, NEH programs about Islamic cultures serve a key purpose in helping to defuse unwarranted fears of Muslims in the United States and around the world. If there were widespread fears of Catholics or Jews, the NEH would have a duty to promote dialogue in the U.S. and help allay those anxieties. These programs are designed and led by scholars and educators to foster healthy debate, dialogue and mutual understanding.

The humanities in the U.S. should never be a partisan issue: They are prime examples of the very best in American public life and democratic values, which should instill dignity and pride. But as Ronald Reagan said in his 1989 farewell speech, for pride to count, it must be “grounded in thoughtfulness and knowledge.” What better way to encourage thoughtfulness and knowledge than to support and fund our society’s great humanities projects.

Ali is an associate professor of Arabic studies in the department of Middle Eastern studies from Chicago.