Usually, Republicans direct their bitter hatred for all things intellectual at individual people—like, for example, our “professorial” president. This week, Alabama Senator Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III got a little more fundamental and decided to wage war against humanistic inquiry in general. In a letter to the chair of the National Endowment for the Humanities, Carol Watson, Sessions demanded to know why the NEH was doling out so much grant money for projects that struck him as obviously worthless. His list of questionable grant expenditures is as follows:
- “What is the meaning of life?” ($24,953)
- “Why are we interested in the past?” ($24,803)
- “What is the good life and how do I live it?” ($25,000)
- “Why are bad people bad?” ($23,390)
- “What is belief?” ($24,562)
- “What is a monster?” ($24,999)
- “Why do humans write?” ($24,774)
As if the NEH’s interest in these frivolous topics weren’t enough, Sessions has also uncovered evidence that the government agency’s “Bridging Cultures” program is “distribut[ing] books related to Islam to over 900 libraries across the United States.” Books about Muslims in Uncle Sam's libraries? What nefarious plot is this?!
Sessions makes no bones about the purpose of his letter, which is to establish his reasons for trying to gut the NEH’s budget. As he notes, his counterparts in the U.S. House of Representatives have already proposed cutting the agency's funding by half for fiscal year 2014. “Using taxpayer dollars to fund education program grant questions that are very indefinite or in an effort to seemingly use Federal funds on behalf of just one religion, does not on its face appear to be the appropriate means to establish confidence in the American people that NEH expenditures are wise,” he writes menacingly. “Hopefully, your answers will help alleviate these concerns.”
I’ve written in the past about the humanities’ struggle to stay solvent as Americans in general, and Republicans in particular, decide that the sciences give more bang for your buck. As I noted last month: “According to 'The Heart of the Matter,' a report on the woeful state of the humanities released by the American Academy of Arts & Sciences this summer, the government pays for well over 50 percent of the scientific research done in universities, and close to 75 percent in some disciplines. Meanwhile, the humanities are fronting all but 20 percent of their own costs.” In addition to the ruinous cuts lawmakers have proposed for the NEH, they have suggested scaling back National Science Foundation grants in “non-essential” areas like the social sciences, too.
Strictly speaking, Sessions isn’t wrong that the meaning of life is “very indefinite,” and that $24,953 probably isn’t enough funding to nail down that answer, once and for all. Luckily, that didn’t deter a few guys whose books Sessions might want to check out—like Plato, and Descartes, and, for good measure, Avicenna.