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Draconian Budget Cuts Imperil National Humanities Endowment's Schools Program

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Washington--Recent federal planning aimed at revitalizing the teaching of the humanities--languages, literatures, history, philosophy--in the schools is likely to be scuttled by the new Administration's draconian spending recommendations for federal cultural activities.

And the Reagan proposals come just at a time when nervousness about the growing political clout of religious conservatives is also discouraging state and local involvement in humanistic activities.

New Commitment

The National Endowment for the Humanities (neh), following four years of real decline in its support for elementary- and secondary-education programs, was this year on the verge of making a new and significant commitment to early education.

But early-education programs are now likely to be dramatically curtailed rather than expanded, according to endowment officials, given the Administration's 1982 budget proposal, which would reduce neh funding by half.

According to Francis Roberts, director of the neh program in early education, the Endowment spent $4.5 million in the fiscal year just ended, the bulk of it on teacher-enrichment programs and curriculum-reform projects.

Major grantees included, for example, the National Humanities Faculty in Concord, Mass., which deploys college and university professors to school classrooms to assist teachers in updating and modifying curricula, and the National Writing Project, which provides stipends for teachers to attend summer writing institutes in over 80 locations around the country.

Like most school-related projects funded by neh, these are designed to provide teachers with the kind of intensive work in their disciplines that is often lacking in teacher-training programs. But administrators of both programs have been told by neh officials to curtail their plans for the future.

The humanities endowment has also decided to eliminate a program of summer seminars in the humanities designed for school administrators, a move Mr. Roberts predicted would be especially detrimental. "Unless principals and superintendents are familiar and sympathetic with the humanities," he said, "not much is going to happen at the local level."

Although the humanities endowment's elementary- and secondary-education program is modest by comparison with the total federal investment in education, it provides a service to schools that is unique, beneficiaries say. According to Solomon Lausch, principal of the Baltimore City College High School in Maryland, endowment programs managed to bring teachers and scholars together for discussion--a phenomenon that rarely occurs in the absence of funding.

"Classroom teachers know how to work with students, but even at the graduate level, their training emphasizes methods," he notes. "Academicians are much stronger on subject matter."

Mr. Lausch's high school recently overhauled its curriculum after receiving consultation from the National Humanities Faculty.

The endowment has been involved in elementary- and secondary-education programs since its creation in 1965, but funding for the programs peaked in 1976 at $5.4 million. The Carter Administration reduced that funding level; it has been maintained at the lower level since 1977 while officials conducted a complete re-examination of the endowment's role in early education.

The decision was made in part because of the Carter plan to establish a new Department of Education, but since the creation of the department, Mr. Roberts added, the reports of two national commissions have underscored the importance of strengthening humanities education in the schools.

National Investment

Strength Through Wisdom, the 1979 report of the President's Commission on Foreign Language and International Studies, called for a massive national investment in linguistic and cultural studies, labeling the American people's incompetence with languages and parochial world view a threat to national security.

Soon afterwards, the Commission on the Humanities, sponsored by Rockefeller Foundation, called attention to the "decay" of the humanities in the schools and identified the improvement of humanities education as the highest "national" priority for elementary- and secondary-school educators in the 1980's.

In its September 1980 final report, The Humanities in American Life, the 32-member blue-ribbon commission specifically faulted neh for underestimating its potential for strengthening school humanities programming.

In the wake of those reports, Mr. Roberts said, funding applications for school-related projects have doubled. But while Joseph D. Duffey, chairman of the humanities endowment, and the agency's advisory council both support a revival of the endowment's effort, the resources for such a revival are now doubtful.

"Damaging Effects"

"One of the most damaging effects is going to be the discouragement of local initiative just when it was beginning to build," Mr. Roberts said.

Signals from outside Washington indicate that such local and state initiatives may be problematic for a variety of reasons, political as well as economic.

According to Harold Raynolds, commissioner of education in Maine and a former member of the Commission on the Humanities, there is almost no possibility that the state will step in when the federal government pulls out.

Although he thinks highly of neh-supported summer seminars, which he says are an invaluable antidote to the cynicism and weariness that often overcomes teachers, he adds that such activities are luxuries that states cannot afford.

But even if they did have the funds, Mr. Raynolds explains, many states would still shy away from any prominent role in the humanities, because the humanities are associated by many people with humanism, a philosophy under constant attack from the religious right.

Mr. Raynolds says that many of his fellow commissioners, especially those who are elected, are badly frightened by the religious right. "If the electorate is moving in the direction of the Moral Majority, I think we will see increasingly limited interest in the humanities," he says.

A. Craig Phillips, superintendent of public instruction in North Carolina, agrees.

"We're in the midst of the Moral Majority's criticism of secular humanism here, and there is a tendency for that to flow over into criticism of the humanities,'' he says. ''It's a distortion, but there is no question that it affects people's support for the humanities in the schools."

Mr. Phillips says that his concern is that the withdrawal of federal support will fuel such criticism by signaling that the humanities and the arts are not legitimate areas for public support.

The National Endowment for the Arts (nea), is also confronting a 50-percent cut, and it plans to suspend temporarily its funding for school programs, hoping that states and local districts will fill the gap.

Within the nea, the major program involving the schools is the Artists in Education program, which provides residencies in schools for writers, artists, and performers.

Because it is funded one year in advance, the program will not be affected during the current academic year, but nea officials have decided not to fund it for the following year should the endowment receive the drastically reduced budget that the Administration wants. Only if the Congress appropriates additional funds will the Artists in Education program continue, say nea officials.

The House has passed an appropriations bill which would provide both endowments with budgets only slightly below the 1981 level, an action attributed to the dogged efforts of Congressman Sidney R. Yates, Democrat of Illinois, a longtime supporter of the arts and humanities.

The full Senate has yet to consider the recommendations of the Senate appropriations committee, which wanted to cut support for the arts and humanities by approximately 25 percent.

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