University President Steven Knapp told the National Humanities Association Tuesday afternoon that it is more important than ever to fund the study of humanities.
Knapp, a former professor of English literature, emphasized the implications of the economic crisis on funding for advanced humanities studies and research during a speech in the Marvin Center. About 200 scholars and professionals attended the NHA’s annual conference.
As the conference’s keynote speaker, Knapp defended funding humanities research at a time when many are focused on reinvigorating the economy. The University plans to build a $250 million Science and Engineering Complex and Knapp has pledged to build GW into a top-tier research university, but in his speech, the president emphasized the humanities.
“Advanced studies in humanities are not any less effective than those of science,” he said. “The goal of humanities is not to find a solution, but to illuminate a topic, advance the conversation surrounding it and open new avenues of discussion. That, in a time of crisis, is the problem.”
Knapp said the current levels of federal financial support for the humanities – like history and philosophy – are “not even mildly promising,” noting the absence of funding for the National Endowment for the Humanities in the recent economic stimulus bill. The bill gave no money to the NEH, but gave about $13 billion to the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation.
His speech also addressed the belief that government funding that does not immediately improve the economy is debt for later generations to inherit.
“It has always been a hard case to make, but we now face an audience that is less patient and more skeptical than even a year ago,” he said. “Economically, though, investing in humanities is cheaper [than sciences].”
Emphasizing the importance of a balanced education, Knapp argued that students who study humanities are better prepared to participate in public life.
“What academics do and what the public sees are closely linked,” he said. “But we have failed to close the perceptional gap between the two.”
The solution, he said, is to give life to humanities by doing, rather than talking.
“Put policymakers directly in touch with the passionate and contagious excitement of humanity students and professionals,” Knapp advised. “Participation is far more likely than any argument to have an effect.”
Executive Director of the National Communication Association Roger Smitter called Knapp’s address “a tough speech with unexpected themes.”
“He spent most of the time telling us what not to do. It wasn’t a pep talk, but it was helpful to shape how we think about humanities in a broader sense,” Smitter said.
Allida Black, a GW research professor of history and international affairs, said she agreed with Knapp’s belief in the real-world applications of humanities.
“When the economy is under stress, racial tension and class conflicts escalate and aggression in the U.S. and abroad increases,” Black said. “This is why it is so important to remain committed to conversing with one another through humanistic studies.”
The National Humanities Alliance is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization based in Washington, D.C. According to its Web site, the NHA “advances national humanities policy through research, education, preservation and public programs.” Its supporters range from Harvard University to the Popular Culture Society.