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An Interview With Jim Leach, Chairman Of The National Endowmenf For The Humanities

The United States is the only country in the world that was founded on the idea of "the rights of man". That's according to Jim Leach, Chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities. Leach will give a lecture tonight at Northern Arizona University. And he spoke with Arizona Public Radio's Constance DeVereaux about the power of the humanities.

JL: The power of the humanities is the power of ideas but in a broader sense humanities are much more than an academic discipline. They are the human condition, how people interrelate with each other, how societies interrelate with each other.

CD: The big push in education in our country right now is in STEM education: science, technology, engineering and math. So, what happened to the humanities? Don't they have any value in education anymore?

JL: Well, I think one of the myths of our time is that we ought to be single minded in what it is we educate people to do. I am a huge advocate of all of the STEM disciplines. And the humanities without science would be a stagnant society but science without humanities; we'd be in danger of mutual destruction. THe National Endowment for the Humanities was founded in 1965. It's one of the few acts of Congress that has some beautiful words in it. There is a phrase that really is the motivating cause for the creation of the NEH: A great country cannot stand simply based upon its economic power, based upon its wealth, based upon its military prowess. It has to lead in the realm of ideas and of the spirit. We are the first country founded on an idea; the idea of the rights of man.

CD: The big question for many people is what can you do with a humanities degree?

JL: If you talk to CEOs at major companies, they all say they want people that have a background in a relevant discipline and then a broader background as well in history and literature. They want people that can write well. How do you learn to write well if you don't read great literature?

CD: Given the present economy and the battles in Washington over budget cuts, what's in store for the NEH?

JL: I happen to think that the NEH is at the heart of trying to bring people together rather than to pull them apart. I think that there is nothing dumber than to war on ourselves. Just as you need roads and bridges, we need an infrastructure of ideas.