Promoting Culture: Senator Jeff Sessions and the National Endowment for the Humanities

CatCultureHappens

What role should the humanities play in American civil society? What role should the government play in supporting the humanities as a field of inquiry?

These are the questions Alabama Senator and chair of the Senate Budget Committee Jeff Sessions has brought to light in a recent letter to the National Humanities Endowment. The Chronicle of Higher Education reports that Sessions sent a letter to the acting chair of the NEH asking her to provide details about the NEH’s funding and peer-review practices.

Mr. Sessions asked for a detailed explanation of the process behind the NEH’s Muslim Journeys grants. “One would think that the NEH takes a fair and balanced approach to promoting culture,” the senator wrote. He asked for “an itemized list,” covering the last five years, “of all spending related to Christianity (e.g., Protestantism—Baptist, Methodist, Episcopal—or Catholicism) or Judaism where books or forums promoting one point of view were provided to libraries, etc.”

Mr. Sessions also asked Ms. Watson “to explain the peer-review process” and provide lists of peer reviewers for all education-program grants disbursed after April 30, 2013. “In the current fiscal environment, I question the appropriateness of such grants, and believe the public would benefit from a fulsome explanation of the entire review process,” he wrote.

The letter names several specific education-program grants (about $25,000 each) and the general topics they support—for instance, “What is belief?” and “What is a monster?” It does not mention that the grants go to scholars to develop and teach undergraduate courses centered on those topics. According to the NEH’s Web site, the Enduring Questions program supports “question-driven” courses that encourage students and professors “to grapple with a fundamental concern of human life addressed by the humanities, and to join together in a deep and sustained program of reading in order to encounter influential thinkers over the centuries and into the present day.”

You can read the full letter here.

Mr. Sessions argument that the NEH must take “a fair and balanced approach to promoting culture,” struck me as rather odd. Mr. Sessions seems to be working from misunderstanding about culture. One does not promote culture. Culture is. It is not promoted or demoted. “Promoting culture” makes as much sense as “promoting gravity.”

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Culture is a tricky term. A term that very smart people like Raymond Williams have spent a lot of time and energy thinking through. In one such piece of thinking Williams outlined three different general categories for definitions of culture. The first he called “ideal” where culture “is a state or process of human perfection, in terms of certain absolute or universal values.” Here culture is that which is greatest, wisest, most beautiful–in short, Truth. Second, culture can be “documentary.” In these definitions culture is a body of intellectual and imaginary work. In this view, art, music, and literature are culture. The newspaper would not be culture. Lastly, a third set of definitions are “social.” In these, culture is a particular way of life and a particular set of meanings and values associated with that way of life. Here the meanings and values are not confined to art and learning but extend out to institutions and ordinary behavior.

Returning to Senator Sessions, it seems his definition of culture aligns most with the notion of culture as “ideal.” Culture is a stand in for Truth. Indeed, it is also a stand in for “religion,” as his only examples of culture are various religious traditions. But his definition has a twist. It’s culture as ideal/Truth/religion in a plural society. For Mr. Sessions, culture is not simply the ideal toward which all humans, or even all Americans, are striving. No, it seems that what is greatest, wises, or most beautiful is up for grabs. Truth is up for grabs. There is a competition. It’s a cultural free market. So, the NEH must be sure it does not pick winners and losers. When he writes that the NEH should be balanced in “promoting culture” he means it should be balanced in promoting various claims to Truth.

But if we look at the purpose of the NEH and examine its founding document, the “National Foundation on the Arts and Humanities Act of 1965,” we find a different definition of culture.

(6) The arts and the humanities reflect the high place accorded
by the American people to the nation’s rich cultural
heritage and to the fostering of mutual respect for the diverse
beliefs and values of all persons and groups.

(9) Americans should receive in school, background and
preparation in the arts and humanities to enable them to recognize
and appreciate the aesthetic dimensions of our lives, the
diversity of excellence that comprises our cultural heritage,
and artistic and scholarly expression.

(10) It is vital to a democracy to honor and preserve its
multicultural artistic heritage as well as support new ideas,
and therefore it is essential to provide financial assistance to
its artists and the organizations that support their work.

These sections of the law outline an understanding of culture that most closely resembles the “social” or “way of life” definition. Interestingly, like Mr. Sessions, this 1965 legislation also sees culture as plural, as “multicultural.” But here there is no competing claims to Truth. Rather there are diverse ways of being in the world, ways of life, ways of making meaning. There are diverse beliefs and values to be appreciated, not various claims to ultimate Truth to be adjudicated. In this definition culture cannot be promoted. It can only be “appreciated” to a greater or lesser extent. The NEH was meant to help us appreciate culture as a nation.

Since 1965 the meaning of culture has continued to shift. We have pop culture, subcultures, drug culture, campus culture, the culture of a workplace. Similarly, the definition of culture is fraught among those of us who claim to study it for a living. Yet, culture is still with us. This is why, to me, the “promotion of culture” makes as much sense as the “promotion of gravity.” At the end of the day there is something that tells us who we are, who others are, what we should do, what we shouldn’t do. There is something that has trained me to respond “Roll Tide!” when necessary. There is something that makes the words on your screen meaningful. There is something that makes cat memes funny. What is that? Culture is a pretty good name for it, I guess. And so, again, promoting culture is like promoting gravity. It doesn’t need promoting, it just happens.

Figuring out how it happens and what it does takes money, time, and expertise. That’s why we have the NEH. For now.

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