Denying NEH donations and “the promotion of Islamic cultures”

So in today’s news, an Eastern Carolina congressman wants a community college to refuse a donation of books and DVDs from the National Endowment for the Humanities because the books are on the subject of Muslim culture and history.

According to Congressman Walter Jones, “It is appalling to me that a federal agency like NEH is wasting taxpayer money on programs like this.  It makes zero sense for the U.S. government to borrow money from China in order to promote the culture of Islamic civilizations.”

So a couple of things about this story stand out to me.  Firstly, where the heck is Eastern Carolina?  Seriously, in every story and blog post I can find about this, it’s capitalized, as if it’s the name of a specific place.  I assume they just mean in the eastern part of one of the Carolinas (North, as it happens), but it really looks like we got a new state and it already has congresspeople, and somehow I missed this.

More on track, however, is the idea that 1.) there’s a reason a library at a college shouldn’t have books about Islamic history or Muslim culture and 2.) the idea that the NEH makes up a serious portion of our debt.

I admit, as a lifelong student of the humanities, no. 2 is something that always and immediately drives me up the wall.  The 2013 request budget for the National Endowment for the Humanities is $154,225,000.  That includes a 5.5% increase from 2012.  By comparison, the National Science Foundation budget for 2012 was $7.03 billion.  And the net interest on our debt in 2012 was $227 billion.

Now, big numbers can be hard to understand, so let’s look at those numbers side-by-side:

Humanities: $154,225,000

Science: $7,030,000,000

Net interest: $227,000,000,000

See the difference?  Humanities funding, even having been raised this year, doesn’t break 1 billion.  Congress would have a better chance of reducing the deficit by recycling the light bulbs in the Capital building than by cutting the NEH.

Okay, so maybe the humanities just shouldn’t be funded by the government?  I mean, the government doesn’t care about having people who can correctly speak and write in English, or who understand our nation’s and our world’s history, cultures, religious traditions or languages, right?

The thing is, as little funding as comes from NEH, that actually makes up the bulk of humanities funding in the US.  Private foundations and companies are happy to shell out money for science and technology research, but not so keen on history or philosophy.

So the NEH?  Really, really important to people like me.  But they’re not just important because they fund research – they’re important for doing exactly what they’re doing in Carolina.  The availability of sources has a huge impact on what people learn.  A hundred years ago, most Americans learned reading, writing and arithmetic out of the Bible and Farmers’ Almanac.  Why?  Because these were books that most families owned, so they saved schools, especially those in rural areas, from having to have supplies.

Americans have spent most of the last two decades wringing their hands about “Islamic extremism” and trying to understand what it is and why it exists, but at the same time, there are only a few hundred schools in the US that teach any Middle Eastern history at all.  There are only a handful of libraries in the whole of the United States that carry books on early Islamic history.  When I came back to the States to rewrite my thesis, that’s how I picked locations – I’m in Boston because the Harvard library is here.

Twenty-five books and a DVD is a small start, but it’s a start.  It means students at that community college can look up something about Islam when they have questions.  It means that the college could start teaching courses on Middle Eastern history without worrying about the expense of buying supplies.  And an equal collection of books of Christian and Jewish history means a start at studying and understanding the cultures of hundreds of millions of people worldwide, and areas of the world that have heavily influenced American politics for the last half-century.  I honestly don’t understand how that’s not something that we, as Americans, are willing to spent 154 million on.

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About askanislamicist

I'm an academic who specializes in early Islamic history and the history of religious interactions, who, in her free time, enjoys shouting into the internet.
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