[Smt-talk] Advocating for the humanities

Noriko Manabe oenophilia at msn.com
Tue Apr 8 11:10:48 PDT 2014

Earlier, Dr. Whitcomb raised the point that there are other ways to fund the humanities than the government. 

While $155 million may be "budget dust" to the federal government, it would raise a major funding problem for the humanities if the NEH were to be completely eliminated. It could take years of building fund-raising infrastructure and campaigning to make up that kind of money. 

In my experience, governments in many European countries and Japan are far more generous about supporting the arts and humanities than the US. For example, governments in Denmark and Norway have funded multimillion-dollar initiatives to study rock music in their countries. Japan has at least one (and I think two) government-funded humanities research centers. 

I would also add that it may be more likely that ideological strings be attached to private money than public money, particularly if that money comes from one (or a few) individuals or a corporation. When Nichibunken (the national humanities center in Kyoto, Japan) was opened, critics were skeptical because it was instigated by then prime minister Nakasone, who has been criticized for his nationalistic tendencies. However, my personal experience with this nationally funded institute is that it houses researchers of many leanings, including those that openly criticize Japanese government policies. 

On the other hand, much of scientific research in Japan has been funded by corporations. The problems behind such a scheme have come to light with the recent nuclear disaster. Many scientists in nuclear physics and related areas are funded by TEPCO, Hitachi, and the vast network of companies that participate in the nuclear industry. Some of these scientists served on the former nuclear regulatory agency that looked the other way on maintenance issues, which the now defunct Fukushima Daiichi had. After the accident, a parade of scientists from prestigious universities came on television to say things like, "It's safe to drink plutonium" and "If you smile, you won't be affected by radiation."  Meanwhile, antinuclear physicists had difficulty obtaining funding. Would we want all food-related research to be funded by Monsanto? 

At NEH, projects are evaluated and discussed by a panel of five or more people, and they generally avoid policy studies or projects promoting a particular political view. I find Dr. Whitcomb's accusation that NEH has political leanings to be curious. 

I would also add that large donors often seem more enthusiastic about giving money for something that has a very visible result. Every time I go back to a class reunion at my alma mater, another building has yet another name attached to it. It's a lot more sexy to donate one's money and get one's name onto a stadium, arts center, etc., than to finance a music theorist's year off to develop a theory the donor may or may not appreciate. Of course, there are exceptions (like the Kluge Center, the Library of Congress center funded by John Kluge's sale of Metromedia to Fox), but they seem rarer than the named buildings. 

In 2008, David Koch gave $100 million to renovate the New York State Theater and put his name on it. In 2008-9, the New York City Opera was without a home while the theater was being renovated. It lost millions that year and was never able to claw back. While its demise was due to a number of factors, that year of lost revenue was often cited as a large contributing factor. 

In summary, I think that while private money might help to allay some cutbacks in NEH, it would certainly not be without problems and would probably not be able to replace it. Some balance of public and private money is probably best for the long run. 
And on that note, I would personally like to see academic societies—SMT, AMS, SEM, MLA, etc.—band together to advocate for the humanities. This way, the societies could raise the alarm regarding funding of the humanities in a public manner, but each individual member can still vote as s/he wishes. 

Noriko Manabe
Assistant Professor of Music
Princeton University

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