In 2010, Jim Leach, chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, finished his first year on the job and a 50-state “civility tour.” Today, when aggressively hyper-partisan politics leave the nation feeling more deeply divided than ever, the idea of a federal agency leader preaching civility can seem weirdly idealistic. But Leach had spent 30 years in Congress prior to the NEH, which might damage a person’s idealism, but should hopefully add to their realism – at least about what we should ask of the federal government.
Leach told Congress, “I have come to see that culture can be used either to unite peoples of differing backgrounds, or magnified as a lightning rod to accentuate their differences.” That’s the challenge that he set the NEH to tackle – to deepen Americans’ understanding of their own and others’ cultures in order to better unite us as a nation, and to help us deal successfully with the rest of the world as well.
There have been reports of possible proposals to eliminate the NEH as a federal agency (as well as the National Endowment for the Arts and Corporation for Public Broadcasting). We do not know what lies ahead for the NEH, our major funder, and thus for the WHC. We do know that the schools, libraries, museums and other local groups across Wisconsin who receive WHC grants tell us over and over that these are critical seed funds that help them leverage four times those federal funds in local, private contributions.
We know that thanks to the WHC’s federal funds, people throughout Wisconsin – from our cities to our smallest communities – have an opportunity to reflect together on real community issues, like human trafficking. They explore and deepen their knowledge of Wisconsin’s history, our many cultural traditions, and what makes our state so special. And students develop skills and knowledge needed to succeed in the 21st century.
Jim Leach championed the humanities as critical to building cultural bridges that reduce domestic and international conflict. His successor, William “Bro” Adams, has promoted the humanities’ power to galvanize debate about what “the common good” might mean for Americans in our democracy. Here in Wisconsin, thanks to the NEH, we’ve been able to work for more than forty years with Wisconsinites of every stripe. Together, we ensure that we can learn and dream and explore what matters to each of us, and to all of us together. It will be up to Congress to decide if that work is still in the public interest today. We look forward to some day sitting down with another dedicated, visionary leader of the NEH.
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