In an October 22 letter to Carole Watson, Acting Chair of the National Endowment for the Humanities, Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama, ranking member of the Senate Budget Committee, questions grants the agency has issued to consider questions like “What is the good life and how do I live it?” Sessions “[affirms] the value of the humanities” but insists that “care and discipline must be exercised by any government agency that decides to favor some projects over others.”
I am surprised and disappointed that a conservative who “[affirms] the value of the humanities” would target the Enduring Questions program, which supports the development of courses that enable “undergraduates and teachers to grapple with a fundamental concern of human life addressed by the humanities, and to join together in a deep and sustained program of reading in order to encounter influential thinkers over the centuries and into the present day.” In my own Enduring Questions course–“What is Love?”–which I offer at Ursinus College, students and faculty read, in their entirety, among other things, Plato’s Symposium, Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, and Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra and Romeo and Juliet. The grant, of a little less than $25,000, freed me up to develop, assess, and improve the course, not a part of my regular offerings as a professor in our politics department, over a two-year period.
My course is not an anomaly. The Enduring Questions grant program exists, as the description shows, to put students in touch with fundamental human questions and those who offer help in pursuing them. As the National Association of Scholars (NAS), an organization founded to “confront the rise of campus political correctness” has recognized, the Enduring Questions program is the opposite of politically correct because it engages students in a struggle “over the core issues of the human condition,” in “debating, weighing evidence, and conversing with others” about those issues. And as NAS President Peter Woods reminds us, the NAS journal Academic Questions includes the question how “do we recenter liberal education on the enduring questions of the human condition?” in its statement of editorial purpose. Enduring Questions is the very program critics of the politicization of higher education have been looking for.
Of course, some classes recommended by faculty review committees will fulfill the purpose of the program much better than others. But there is no question that over the history of the Enduring Questions program, more undergraduates than would otherwise have been reached have been engaged in challenging courses, asked to reflect on important, timeless questions, and encouraged to take seriously what great books have to say about them.
So when Senator Sessions asks whether $25,000 should be spent so that students can ask “what is the good life, and how do I live it?” the NEH and conservatives should, for once, be of one mind in answering “Hell yes.”