Once again the NEH has announced the “Enduring Questions”
grant competition:


The announcement raises many troubling questions.

Does the NEH not realize that philosophy
departments currently offer courses on exactly these subjects?  Surely that is impossible.  They are not idiots.  Since they do realize it, perhaps they think
philosophers are not doing a good enough job teaching their courses, especially
their ethics courses.  Why would they
think that?  Surely it is not related to
student enrollments, since ethics courses offered by philosophy departments
tend to be enormously popular.

According to the announcement, questions such as “is there
such a thing as right or wrong?” are “predisciplinary.”  I have never seen this “word” outside of this
grant announcement.  OED turns up no
results.  They seem to mean that these
questions arose before any academic discipline began studying them.  Perhaps this is true.  Nevertheless, an academic discipline arose to discuss them: 
philosophy.  What is to be gained
by pretending that this discipline does not exist?

According to the announcement, no discipline can lay
“exclusive claim” to these enduring questions. 
But one discipline, ethics, has been devoted to answering these
questions for centuries.  I think this
gives us, if not an “exclusive claim” (whatever they mean by this), at least
some reason to think that we have special expertise in teaching courses on
these subjects.  Do they think we lack
this expertise?  Do they think it is
beneficial to have people with less expertise teaching courses on these
questions?  So beneficial that they
should spend money to bring it about?

The NEH is spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to help
non-philosophers teach courses on philosophical questions.  This might be appropriate if there were not
sufficient philosophers to do the work. 
But there are plenty.  In fact, as
we all know, there are a great many unemployed philosophers who are ready to
teach courses on “enduring questions” and do not need a grant to help them
learn how to do it.  (Maybe they would
need a grant to help find a piece of artwork that sheds light on the question
of whether there is such a thing as right or wrong.)  So this seems like a monumental waste of
.  [Edit: in light of some of the comments below, especially Mike Austin's, I take this back.  The NEH should totally give Mike Austin money to teach philosophy classes!]  Why is this happening?  Are there any philosophers at the NEH?

(PS. Sorry, Jussi, for posting right over you! Some rants just can't be contained!)

Update:  see this reply the NEH gave to Rob Stainton.

24 Replies to “What does the NEH have against us? (Updated and edited)

  1. No worries Ben! I’m with you on this one. I wonder though why a philosopher could not apply for the grant too to develop a particularly exciting course. Doesn’t seem to be ruled out by the ad and I’m sure we could come up with far better courses than others.

  2. I gather that Jussi’s correct: the ad openly invites submissions from humanities faculty members, and that seems to include philosophy faculty (though not exclude others). Looking at their samples of previously funded programs, 3 of the program directors listed are English faculty (one of which apparently started a “great books” program at the community college where he teaches), one a French professor, one from psychology, and – yes – one philosopher. It’s unclear if the “Program Director” was also the instructor (the ad seems to suggest this isn’t necessary, but I would imagine it’s often the case regardless).
    As far as what motivated this grant, assuming with Ben that it’s not ignorance, it could be the perception that philosophy courses have become too narrow in focus and need to become more universal in scope. Alternately, maybe the NEH perceives a lack of these types of courses at many schools where there isn’t even a departmental presence of philosophers. If you’re an English professor at a smallish community college who’s often relegated to teaching historical survey courses that fill degree requirements, maybe it’s liberating to have independent funding to pursue the bigger questions, and offers an opportunity students wouldn’t otherwise have on account of the administration not considering philosophy faculty a necessary budget expense.

  3. I think we can charitably interpret the NEH as offering these grants in light of the presupposition that there are credible ways for people to deepen their understanding of the “enduring questions” other than by addressing them directly and precisely, in the manner of philosophy. For example, we might want students to grasp at those questions (or ask rough versions of them) as part of reflecting on relatively concrete phenomena that make those questions salient: they might find themselves asking broad questions about human nature or good government in psychology or political science classes, when they study motivation or legislative processes. Or we might want students to reflect on normative features of interpersonal relationships, or form complex emotional responses to problems in the “human condition,” by considering those problems as they are represented in art and literature–where the affective character of those issues can be presented particularly keenly and subtly, and where salient dimensions of them can be captured or evoked even when they cannot be precisely expressed.
    It’s at least fairly plausible that philosophy isn’t, and shouldn’t be, particularly concerned with accomodating or encouraging all of the dimensions of this sort of reflection, and that there are dimensions of it that other disciplines can do as well or better on. Moreover, it’s also plausible that such reflection can be a valuable (and maybe essential) part of an adequate undergraduate education. So if this is the sort of thing we take the NEH to be interested in, we don’t have to take them to be straightforwardly ignorant or contemptuous of philosophy as a discipline.

  4. Jussi, yeah, philosophers aren’t ruled out. And of course philosophers should be able to come up with good courses on all those topics- we already teach them. The problematic part, for me, is the insistence that the course be taught in a “predisciplinary” way. They want these questions to be addressed, but without trying to actually do philosophy in the process. I don’t think I could in good conscience offer such a class, if I could even figure out how to do it.
    Tony- if the idea is to encourage non-philosophers in community colleges to offer philosophy classes that would not otherwise be offered, this seems less objectionable to me. But I don’t think this is the idea; if it were, they might have mentioned philosophy just once in the announcement, rather than going on about how these questions belong to everyone. And I would still ask: wouldn’t it be better for community colleges to hire philosophers to offer philosophy classes? Your other thought- that they think philosophy is too “narrow” – is more likely correct, and more worrying. It is the frequent complaint of people who just want to chit-chat without giving arguments.
    (other) Ben- I don’t think this can quite be what they are after either. At least, they say that the course should be taught in a predisciplinary way. I assume that means no serious psychology, political science, or whatever, can be part of the course. Otherwise I don’t understand what they mean by predisciplinary. I assume they don’t mean to exclude only one discipline.

  5. Ben,
    Dude. Calm down. Send them your intro ethics syllabus. Say (in appropriate anguished-though-sincere academese) “Gosh, I’ve thought and thought about just this lack in the academy, and, wow, now that you’ve made this generous offer, I see that I could, if you might help me, be able to teach something like [current syllabus description], because [usual explanation for taking a phil course]”. Easy couple of bucks.
    [Oops, forgot a Rorty reference.]

  6. “predisciplinary.” I have never seen this “word” outside of this grant announcement.
    Yes! In the announcement, it seems to mean some blend of “introductory,” “interdisciplinary,” and “easy.”
    I also like the repeated specification that the proposed course must use readings drawn from works prior to the twentieth century. Imagine! In fact, this specification appears in tandem with the “prediscipinary” requirement–perhaps they believe academic disciplines are a recent phenomenon?

  7. I’m baffled that people are so upset about this grant program. It’s a piddling amount of money ($25K) for course development for people who don’t have much access to such funds anywhere else.
    All of the humanities disciplines, not just philosophy, can and should be addressing these questions. Philosophy has no claim to exclusivity on these things.
    Most importantly, people need to remember the intense political pressure both NEH and NEA have been under for decades. A little non-controversial program like this, that gets some curriculum development money out to schools that don’t typically rake in the big research bucks, is a big help to NEH when it goes to Congres every year for its budget. Members of Congress want to see evidence that NEH is not just sending its money to the elite, research schools, but also has programs that other kinds of schools have a shot at.
    I see some prestigious colleges on the list of 20 schools that got the first grants in fall 2008, but plenty of non-prestigious, non-famous schools around the country also benefitted.
    This kind of politically smart grant program helps carry along the more esoteric funding programs for pure research that taxpayers and many in Congress have more trouble swallowing.
    Get over it!

  8. I’m a philosopher at Eastern Kentucky University, and applied for and received one of these generous grants. Given this, I’ll weigh in on this issue.
    Ben B., from my experience with the application and feedback process, it seems to me that what pre-disciplinary means is not a blend of “introductory, interdisciplinary, and easy,” as Adrienne M. says, nor is it the case that “They want these questions to be addressed, but without trying to actually do philosophy in the process.” The enduring question for my course is this: Do we need God for the good life? This type of course is taught in many philosophy departments, though it is not one I have taught. This grant frees me up to spend some significant time reading and thinking about pedagogy that otherwise I would not devote to this course. And it is a philosophy course, using philosophical readings:
    Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle
    Summa Theologiae, Aquinas
    The Genealogy of Morality, Nietzsche
    Fear and Trembling, Kierkegaard
    Value and Virtue in a Godless Universe, E. Wienberg
    These are difficult readings, philosophical readings, and in my proposal I took predisciplinary to mean a preference for the more humanistic style present in these works in contrast to the style of analytic philosophy done since roughly 1930 or so that many people currently associate with our discipline. I also will have the students read some Tolstoy, consider the historical context of much of these writings, and discuss the relevance of neurobiology to this issue. I don’t think that the NEH has a problem with philosophy.
    In fact, it seems to me that even though these are the types of questions discussed in philosophy courses, the grants encourage an interdisciplinary exploration of philosophical questions which in the long run is good for philosophy. Or so it seems to me.

  9. “Predisciplinary” reads to me like Benedict XVI’s sense of the “prepolitical”. I doubt it’s intended to discount current disciplinary engagement so much as speak of questions that have instigated subsequent disciplines.
    Much of your critique here could be repeated with a switch of “philosophy” to “theology”. But I don’t think the NEH is trying to discount theological or philosophical work on “enduring questions” that might find a home in either discipline. Such attempts to reach back to intellectual roots are often intended to invigorate already ongoing work, and not to dismiss it.

  10. Julie- your points are well-taken. Given how hard it is to get funding in the humanities, I had (and still have) second thoughts about posting this. I want to emphasize that I didn’t intend to suggest that non-philosophers shouldn’t teach courses about some of these questions, or that philosophers own them. My main worry was about the insistence on a “predisciplinary” approach to teaching. It suggested to me just what it suggested to Adrienne- that the course should be easy. Mike Austin’s post is reassuring on this point – if it is sufficient for predisciplinarity that the prose style of the readings is accessible to non-specialists, that’s obviously fine. Funding courses like the one Mike describes is good with me. I confess I still do not understand what predisciplinary means. But anyway, thanks everyone for the comments.

  11. I’ll agree with you that the “predisciplinary” language is odd. Guidelines are vetted by numerous NEH staffers, political and otherwise. We won’t ever know the whole story, but it might be that they were trying to avoid accusations that this was just another way of getting money to esoteric, specialized endeavors in particular disciplines, instead of more generalist, historical, or traditional approaches to the humanities.
    A funny historical example of how language choices get made at NEH: When Bill Bennett arrived as chair in late 1981, he told a big staff meeting that he no longer wanted to encourage “innovative” grants, as he thought that encouraged gimmickry and novelty for its own sake. When staff asked him what he did want to give priority to, he hemmed and hawed a bit and then said, “imaginative”! He wanted to encourage projects that were “imaginative,” not “innovative.” Can you tell the difference? No matter. Dutiful program staff returned to their offices to start informing future applicants to revise their proposal language, and the word “innovative” starting disappearing from guidelines and other NEH literature.
    Seem silly? Sure, but this is a government agency that has been seriously buffetted by political pressures, yet has managed to survive.
    And, yes, although I’m now a tenured philosophy professor, I am a former NEH program officer, so I have a certain bias in defending the place.

  12. mike austin: it’s ‘e. wielenberg’.
    benbradley: i think you’re being too accommodating to julie. yes, non-philosophers can address ‘enduring questions’, but only philosophers seem capable of doing it well and doing it without making an obscure, jargon-filled clusterfuck (albeit a sexy-sounding one).

  13. I am cheered to see that it has occurred to some readers of this blog that studying history or literature can shed light on what justice is or whether there is such a thing as right or wrong. Does it take too much charity to suppose that this insight is driving the NEH folks more than any special animus against philosophy?
    I would bet that “predisciplinary” is supposed to mean that the course should not be taught with the methods and assumptions of a single discipline (not disciplinary) or with the methods and assumptions of multiple disciplines, either (not interdisciplinary). As such, a “predisciplinary” course is similar to an “introductory” course because it does not presuppose familiarity with any particular discipline. But it differs from an “introductory” course because its goal is not to introduce a particular discipline but to encourage a wider ranging exploration.
    I regularly teach such a course to first-year undergrads that covers “great” discussions of political questions from Thucydides to Machiavelli. This sort of course, which differs significantly from the introductory philosophy courses I also teach, is not the be-all and end-all of undergraduate education. But I don’t think why the NEH should not encourage them.

  14. I take the enduring questions to be exclusively philosophical, not “predisciplinary” at all. Of course, there are related questions that may arise in other humanities courses. One might, for instance, study how ethical attitudes were expressed through fiction in a Literature course. One might analyze the attitudes of scientists of a certain era toward human nature in a Rhetoric course. One might study how a changes in religious belief changed balances of political power in a History course. And so on. However, to ask these enduring questions directly and attempt to answer them oneself is to begin to do philosophy, and expertise in philosophy is required to effectively teach a course directly addressing an enduring question. The grant itself is harmless and probably helpful to philosophers (as points made in the comments seem to show), but the suggestion that there’s no such thing as expertise on philosophical topics (that they are “predisciplinary”) is truly insulting.

  15. This proposal makes good sense to me. I’ve trained in many fields in my academic career – geography, sociology, international development, political science, religious studies and philosophy – and every single one of them took it for granted that the field was “inherently interdisciplinary,” learning from all fields of knowledge. Except one. Guess which?
    In my experience with a typical philosophy department, its members see very little to be gained from understanding the historical context of the great thinkers and arguments they study, or the literary genre of the philosophical dialogues they read. Nor do they read much philosophy written by anyone who wasn’t Greek, English or American, unless his first name happened to be Immanuel. This isn’t to dismiss the significant contributions of analytic philosophy; it’s to say that there is much to be gained by creating a space in which philosophical questions can be studied in a way that goes beyond the boundaries of philosophy departments.

  16. This is slightly off-topic, but I have to disagree with Amod’s comment about philosophy departments ignoring other disciplines. It seems to me, as a grad student, that those who study history of philosophy do think it is quite important to also be knowledgeable about the historical context involved; contemporary analytic philosophy has much more in common with mathematics, sciences, and linguistics than with literature or history. And my department, as well as my previous department, recognizes this. Indeed, a great deal of philosophy that I have come across requires at least rudimentary knowledge of one of these fields of study. I’m not sure there is anything wrong with the interdisciplinary focus being on math, science, linguistics, computer science, etc. rather than literature or history. Except, perhaps, that it confuses philosophy’s role as being one of the humanities rather than one of the sciences. But I take this to be a good thing.

  17. The exchange between the Canadian scholar and the NEH staffer is enlightening on many counts.
    NEH grants are limited to U.S. non-profit organizations, including state government agencies and organizations with 501(c)(3) tax-exempt status. This eligibility requirement (which is set by Congress, not the NEH) can be found on the NEH site for programs of interest:
    NEH is a U.S. federal agency. NEH receives funds appropriated by the U.S. Congress, provided by the U.S. taxpayers.
    Canadian scholars in the humanities might look to their Canadian counterpart for support, The Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council: http://www.sshrc.ca/SITE/home-accueil-eng.aspx
    For anyone thinking of applying to this NEH program, it’s important to remember who will be reading your proposal. With a few exceptions (mainly, the traditional individual fellowship programs), your review panel will consist of a cross-section of scholars in several humanities disciplines. In contrast with the Arts Endowment, NEH is organized programmatically (by type of activity), not by discipline, and panels are established accordingly.

  18. I don’t like “predisciplinary.” I also don’t like “Enduring questions can be tackled by reflective individuals regardless of their chosen vocations [and] areas of expertise.” For that matter, I don’t like labelling topics in ethics, aesthetics and metaethics “enduring questions.” It all conspires to reinforce (and is, perhaps, motivated by) the prejudice that most non-philosophers I’ve encountered have towards philosophy (and, especially, normative philosophy) – that it’s a lot of silliness that should be undertaken, if at all, as a rite of passage; that its questions should be studied not in order to find their right answers, but to master the art of blarney (to learn some fancy rhetoric and a smattering of venerable catch-phrases that can be deployed when displays of erudition are called for). After all, how can ethics be a serious academic discipline if no special skill is required to do it well (if ethical questions can be “tackled by reflective individuals regardless of their…areas of expertise”) and, moreover, its questions are unanswerable (which is what calling them “enduring questions” suggests)? And if ethics isn’t a serious academic discipline, then it need not be studied with the attitudes appropriate to a serious academic discipline (inter alia, it needn’t be studied with the intensity with which one studies something in order to arrive at the truth). Instead, it can be approached “playfully,” which is precisely how most of those outside analytic philosophy approach it (all the while basing many of their own, more important, decisions on inchoate ethical principles they’ve accepted because, to borrow yong kim’s phrase, they’re “sexy-sounding”).

  19. I was a reviewer for the NEH Enduring Questions grant this past year, and am posting anonymously. For any who are interested, I posted a longish reply to this thread at the insidehighered site. I tried to post it here, but it got automatically rejected (because of length, I suppose).

  20. I should add that the post at IHE I refer to above was automatically chopped into uniform-sized paragraphs by their software, irrespective of content. Just ignore the paragraph breaks.

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