I was in Austin, Texas, visiting the Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library on the campus of that “other UT.” Walking through the exhibits, I was awed by the number of pivotal laws that LBJ signed during his five years as president and his view of The Great Society:
The Great Society is a place where every child can find knowledge to enrich his mind and to enlarge his talents. [. . .] It is a place where the city of man serves not only the needs of the body and the demands of commerce but the desire for beauty and the hunger for community.
One law in particular created a sea change in my field of study: the National Foundation on the Arts and the Humanities Act of 1965 (P.L. 89-209). With this act, Johnson signaled to the world that the U.S. upheld cultural study and humanities inquiry and believed that both were public goods in the nation’s--and the world’s--best interest.
A year after my trip, I was working as the Graduate Student Humanities Programs Intern for the University of Tennessee Humanities Center. The Center gave me the opportunity to advocate for the organization that Johnson’s Act created: the National Endowment for the Humanities.
Hosted by the National Humanities Alliance, a nationwide coalition of humanities organizations that was founded in 1981, “Annual Advocacy Day” brought me and hundreds of humanities educators, museum directors, and administrators to Capitol Hill to speak to Congressional staffers about what the humanities offers to our nation’s citizens, veterans, students, and visitors each year. In Washington, DC for the first time in my life, on an experiential-learning trip funded by the UTHC, I was given information and advocacy training by the NHA, and I gained hands-on experience navigating the halls of Washington while visiting six congressional offices. I met new people and learned much from them.
My experience on the Hill also re-energized my commitment to foster undergraduate humanities research. Often, undergraduates do not recognize that the work they do in their history, philosophy, music, theatre, literature, languages, art, or religious studies classes constitutes humanities research. What is more, they don’t know that the UT humanities departments and centers of research provide many streams of financial support for undergraduate humanities research so they can build small ideas into socially and intellectually valuable research projects. The ideas and perspectives of this next generation of scholars are important to nurturing creative solutions to our problems today.
Throughout the NHA conference and Advocacy Day, I learned how essential the NEH is to my work in the humanities and how important it is to grow the arts and humanities at the University of Tennessee.
Coralyn Nottingham is a Ph.D. candidate in English Literature. She served as the UTHC Graduate Student Programs Intern for academic year 2018- 2019.