Support Full Funding for NEH and NEA

As past presidents of the Modern Language Association of America, an organization founded in 1883 and devoted to research and teaching in the humanities, we petition our representatives in the House and the Senate to restore full funding to the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) and the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA).

Over the last three decades, funding for the NEH and the NEA has often been the target of substantial cuts. But the proposed 2018 United States federal budget now aims for total defunding. This proposal demonstrates exceptional disregard for our nation’s cultural legacies and a distrust of the curiosity and inventiveness that drive scholars, artists, and those who find pleasure in the humanities to reanimate the past, observe the present, and imagine possible futures. The founders of this aspirational nation were readers of history, literature, philosophy, political theory, and scientific treatises. So were the activists, like Frederick Douglass and Jane Addams, who emerged to prod the nation ever closer toward those aspirations. A vibrant democratic nation rests on a commitment to preserve and analyze its diverse cultural legacies, which are embedded in humanistic learning and creativity, and to promote their growth for the future.

Established by Congress in 1965, the National Foundation on the Arts and Humanities Act declared that “the arts and the humanities belong to all the people of the United States. . . . While no government can call a great artist or scholar into existence, it is necessary and appropriate for the Federal Government to help create and sustain not only a climate encouraging freedom of thought, imagination, and inquiry but also the material conditions facilitating the release of this creative talent.”

Millions of people across this country have benefited from the grants awarded by the NEH and the NEA, from individual scholars funded by the NEH, to students in our institutions of higher education, visitors to our museums and art galleries, and avid supporters of local theaters and historical societies. Millions of dollars have been spread across every one of the states through state humanities councils and arts councils. The beneficiaries include humanists who turn their love of reading and of the visual arts, their storytelling talents, their passion for history, and their powers of critical analysis into careers in the for-profit and nonprofit sectors, public policy, and courts of law. As the American Alliance of Museums has noted on its Web site, in the United States in 2011 far more tickets to visit museums were sold (around 850 million) than tickets to attend major sporting events and theme parks (around 483 million). In fact, federal and state support for the NEH and the NEA sustains and creates thousands of jobs for artists and clerical workers, for scholars and electricians, and for museum and library staffs and their interns.

We need to support the crucial work of scholars and artists in our communities and in our great institutions of higher education. Jim Leach, a former chairman of the NEH and a former Republican Congressman from Iowa, recently wrote that the NEH has facilitated the creation of “over 7,500 books. . . . The agency has supported the digitization of the papers of figures from George Washington to Albert Einstein. It has helped fund hundreds of documentaries, like Ken Burns’ series on the Civil War. In addition, the 56 NEH affiliated state and territorial humanities councils annually put on more than 50,000 educational programs, all selected by individuals in decentralized jurisdictions to respond to local interests. Through book, film and programmatic outreach, millions of citizens on a yearly basis have been uplifted by the work of this unique government agency.”

Our core cultural values include creative thought and action, humanistic inquiry, and knowledge preservation. It is vital to democracy to preserve the nation’s cultural heritage and to foster the creation of new ideas that can become groundbreaking works of the future. Funding the NEH and the NEA at roughly $170 million each year costs less than one dollar annually on a per capita basis—a minimal amount when compared with the billions of dollars in proposed budget increases. To defund the NEH and NEA is tantamount to destroying their invaluable contributions to the United States and imperils the definition worldwide regard of Americans as talented, dynamic, creative, thoughtful, and aspirational.

With one voice, we, the past presidents of the Modern Language Association, petition our representatives in Congress to restore full funding to the NEH and the NEA. Funding the humanities and the arts is necessary to preserve and advance America’s reputation for excellence in these areas. We urge all those who support and benefit from the work of these two agencies to add their voices and to insist that knowledge, free inquiry, and creativity be protected and defended.

Past Presidents of the Modern Language Association

Kwame Anthony Appiah
Russell A. Berman
Michael Bérubé
Victor H. Brombert
Margaret W. Ferguson
Sandra M. Gilbert
Sander L. Gilman
Gerald Graff
Stephen J. Greenblatt
Roland Greene
Marianne Hirsch
Linda Hutcheon
Louis Kampf
J. Hillis Miller
Sylvia Molloy
Marjorie G. Perloff
Catherine Porter
Mary Louise Pratt
Elaine Showalter
Barbara Herrnstein Smith
Sidonie Smith
Domna C. Stanton
Catharine R. Stimpson
Helen H. Vendler

Additional Signatories

Current MLA Officers and Members of the Executive Council

President: Diana Taylor
First Vice President: Anne Ruggles Gere
Second Vice President: Simon E. Gikandi
Executive Director: Rosemary G. Feal

Emily Apter
Angelika Bammer
Brian Croxall
Gaurav G. Desai
Lenora Hanson
Eric Hayot
Margaret R. Higonnet
David Palumbo-Liu
David Tse-chien Pan
Rafael A. Ramirez Mendoza
Tracy Denean Sharpley-Whiting
Evie Shockley
Vicky Unruh
Dana A. Williams

This petition will be delivered to:
  • US Senate and House Appropriations Subcommittees


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