By Scott Wallsten
February 6, 2017 at 5:00 am ET
Yet again, the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities are on the chopping block, supposedly to reduce government spending. But with combined budgets of about 0.008 percent of the federal budget, that won’t help much. While the costs of the NEA and NEH are tiny but easy to measure, their benefits are likely larger but difficult to measure. Arts and humanities are crucial to innovation by promoting creativity and original thinking — the seedcorn of discovery.
It has become common in the past decade to worry about whether Americans are sufficiently proficient in science, technology, engineering and math. This is an important concern, and STEM skills are necessary in a high-tech economy. But STEM alone is not enough. It must be paired with creativity, for creativity yields breakthroughs. And that means recognizing the importance of arts and humanities. Already that is happening, with some educational curricula moving from STEM to STEAM, adding arts and design as a complement and inspiration to STEM.
Even the president has acknowledged this importance. In response to a question in March 2016, then-candidate Donald Trump noted: “Critical thinking skills, the ability to read, write and do basic math are still the keys to economic success. A holistic education that includes literature and the arts is just as critical to creating good citizens.”
Emphasizing creative thinking may be a competitive advantage the United States has over other countries, like China. Stanford University professor Dan Edelstein noted once that his Chinese students struggled with creating an original thesis or argument because that was generally not part of their educational system. Edelstein also noted that Mark Mills, a physicist who served in former President Ronald Reagan’s White House Science Office, and Julio Ottino, dean of Northwestern University’s School of Engineering and Applied Science, argued: “Perhaps art, literature or music portfolios [should] become part of the science and engineering application processes…. Innovation… requires…creativity, artistry, intuition, symbology, fantasy, emotions.”
While the arguments above point to indirect linkages between STEM, innovation, and arts and humanities, in some cases the two are direct complements. Consider, for example, the digital humanities — an approach to studying the humanities that, among other things, includes big data, machine learning and textual analysis. As Stanford’s digital humanities group notes, the field “sit[s] at the crossroads of computer science and the humanities.” This kind of intellectual mashup is the type of activity likely to yield unexpected discoveries or new ideas that would not happen through STEM alone.
Studying the arts and humanities yields other, less tangible benefits to society, as well. Christina Paxson, an economist and president of Brown University, argued in The New Yorker in 2013 that: “We don’t want a nation of technical experts in one subject. We want a scintillating civil society in which everyone can talk to everyone…. We want politicians who have read Shakespeare — as Lincoln did. We want bankers and lawyers who have read Homer and Dante. We want factory owners who have read Dickens.”
To be sure, even though the NEA and NEH are small and the arts and humanities are important, the agencies must pass certain economic tests. In particular, they should ensure that their grants do not crowd out other funding sources. The agencies should fund only projects unlikely to receive funding elsewhere. Funding projects that would have received money elsewhere yields no benefits.
The effects of public funding on private contributions in the arts is not clear-cut. Arthur Brooks, now president of the American Enterprise Institute, found in earlier research that at low levels of support, public funding leveraged additional private support, but at high levels the opposite was true. A later study reached the same conclusions about grants to theaters.
Politically, it is not surprising that NEA and NEH are often threatened. Their small size and narrow target audience for grants means they have no popularly sympathetic constituency to appeal to Congress. Moreover, if a conservative Congress and executive branch believe the agencies are supported primarily by liberals, they may find it more politically beneficial to eliminate the agencies than to appoint like-minded directors and try to change the agencies.
The NEA and NEH have survived existential threats before. It is tempting to say that they are likely to survive this time, as well, but the politics of federal spending may be shifting. As a denizen of New York City, Trump must understand the role culture has played in making that city great. Perhaps he will keep that in mind and save the NEA and the NEH.
Scott Wallsten is president of the Technology Policy Institute.
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