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<< Return to SBL Forum Archive A Jefferson Day Conversation with John Hammer Executive Director of the National Humanities Alliance

March 22-23, 2002 is Jefferson Day. Jefferson Day is an advocacy event organized by the National Humanities Alliance (NHA) and co-sponsored in part by the AAR and SBL to promote support for the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH). For more information, see

Editor's Note: This interview appeared in the AAR version of RSN. We reprint it here as it is of interest to all scholars in the humanities.

RSN: What is the purpose of Jefferson Day?

JH: Jefferson Day was created two years ago to bring together scholars and other members of the humanities community to advocate for NEH to members of Congress and staff. In a sense, Jefferson Day was created because the 15-year-old Humanities on the Hill (HoH) was so successful. HoH was begun by the Federation of State Humanities Councils (FSHC) in the mid-1980s, and has been growing ever since. The NHA has been a co-sponsor of HoH for several years and will continue to be. It was decided, however, that a second advocacy day was needed to highlight the scholarly end of NEH, just as HoH has emphasized public humanities and the work of state humanities councils. Feedback from Capitol Hill is that the increased advocacy is appreciated. The two advocacy days are compatible and the FSHC was among the original co-sponsors of Jefferson Day-a role they continue to play.

RSN: It may be obvious to some, but why "Jefferson?"

JH: The name "Jefferson Day" was selected to associate the event with attendance at the NEH's annual Jefferson Lecture. More broadly, Jefferson stands out among the founding fathers as an individual actively interested in the world of ideas, and one who brought the political philosophy of the Enlightenment to the emerging nation. It was Jefferson who articulated the importance of an educated public for democracy. In a letter to George Wythe, Jefferson wrote, "I think by far the most important bill in our whole code is that for the diffusion of knowledge among the people..."

RSN: When did Jefferson Day start, and how has it changed since then?

JH: The first Jefferson Day was in 2000. For this year's event, scheduled for March 21-22, 2002, we will have more than 20 co-sponsoring organizations and will hold a reception in honor of Bruce Cole, an art history and comparative literature scholar, who was recently selected by President Bush to become the eighth chairman of the NEH.

RSN: How do these activities fit with the rest of the mission of the Alliance?

JH: The centerpiece of NHA's mission is to advocate for improved appropriations and other legislative and administrative policies for the NEH. Jefferson Day is evolving as an important vehicle for raising the profile of NEH on Capitol Hill while at the same time acquainting legislators and staff with important work in the humanities.

RSN: What makes it important for scholarly societies to become involved in advocacy?

JH: Legislation to establish NEH was in the pipeline for some time, but was actually enacted in the flood of Great Society legislation in 1964-1966. It did not result from the humanities community rising up and demanding such legislation. For several years thereafter, the agency enjoyed growth without major advocacy efforts. Since 1980, however, it has been important and necessary to demonstrate public support for the agency, to make the case that work supported by NEH is valuable for the general public, and that the scholars and others carrying out the work help to preserve the nation's cultural and historical legacy. Learned societies and related groups established NHA in 1981 to coordinate and focus advocacy for the NEH, which is the lead agency supporting scholarship and other humanities work.

In the coming months and years, the NHA will be turning to the scholarly societies and other member of the NHA to intensify and make clearer grass roots support for NEH. By grass roots, we mean individuals who advocate for NEH to their members of Congress as constituents. My point here is that our community gained an incredibly valuable resource in 1965 with very little effort by the American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS) and a few other organizations. Scholarly societies have an ongoing need to articulate the value of their disciplines to the public. Federal support for research will not continue without advocacy directed to Congress. Finally, it should be noted that NEH itself plays an important role in making the public aware of the fruits of scholarship.

RSN: What are you worried about in terms of the new administration's approach to the humanities?

JH: My worry is that the new administration may not see the importance of the humanities in preserving our historical and cultural heritage and will, therefore, seek reductions in future appropriations. Since some of the federal cultural agencies received draconian cuts in 1995, from which the agency has not fully recovered, a new round of cuts would be especially damaging.

RSN: What are you excited about in terms of the new administration's approach to the humanities?

JH: For more than two decades, the proportion of NEH funding for scholarship has been declining. While all parts of the NEH grant-making programs suffered in the 1995 cuts, the relative decline of research and fellowships funding has been especially severe. The new administration at NEH may be able to secure new resources for scholarship. Given the overall constraints brought on by the war on terrorism, a weakened economy, and the massive tax cuts of last year, a dramatic improvement in funding is not likely. At the same time, we do see an opportunity to re-articulate the importance of the humanities in everyday lives. In the wake of September 11, there seems to be an openness on the part of average citizens to re-examine priorities, as well as increased need for the types of activities offered by the humanities-from documenting personal reactions, to developing a better understanding of world cultures and religions.

Citation: Moira Bucciarelli, " A Jefferson Day Conversation with John Hammer Executive Director of the National Humanities Alliance," SBL Forum , n.p. [cited March 2005]. Online:


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