Speech to the 35th Session of the General Conference, UNESCO, Paris, France, October 8, 2009

As chairman of the U.S. National Endowment for the Humanities, I would like to underscore traditional American cultural interests and note certain initiatives of the Obama Administration and their implications for the future of UNESCO.

The United States is a young country that has benefited from the greatest cultural aid in history: the ideas, traditions, faith and family systems brought to us from all over the world—from Europe, the Middle East, Africa, Asia, the Caribbean and Latin America.

We consider ourselves, like all countries, to have a unique national culture, and as a sprawling, immigrant society, a mosaic of subcultures. This circumstance coupled with our debt to so many cultural sources obligates us to respect and leads us to help preserve fundamental aspects of various cultures the world over.
The United States does not have a centralized Ministry of Culture. International cultural initiatives are heavily the province of the private sector, but they are also the province of a variety of governmental institutions, such as the Departments of State, Education, and Energy, the National Science Foundation, the Library of Congress, the Smithsonian Institution, the Institute of Museum and Library Services, the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities, and two broad-based cultural funding institutions: The National Endowment for the Arts, which supports creative endeavors such as cinema, theater, the arts and craft, and the National Endowment for the Humanities, which emphasizes the perspective of history, philosophy, and literature.

I would like to outline the responsibilities and programs of the institution I head. The work of the National Endowment for the Humanities is principally domestic, but between a quarter and a third of our grants have traditionally been awarded for projects on the history and culture of other countries. What follows is a sampling of the range of international programs countries. What follows is a sampling of the range of international programs we have supported:

• Resources to allow for the creation of an Afghanistan Digital Library and an online version of the Encyclopaedia Iranica as well as financial collaboration on the creation of the Encyclopedia of Egyptology and the revision and updating of the Encyclopedia of Islam.
• Funding for the development of a Web-based archive of the indigenous languages of Latin America, digital documentation and reconstruction of an ancient Mayan temple for a UNESCO heritage site, and curricular modules to explore the African roots of Latin music.
• Resources to create a grammar, dictionary, and texts of the Dogon language of Mali, a Web-based trilingual dictionary for Kinyarwanda, Swahili, and English, and an exhibition of dynasty and divinity in Yoruba art.
• Financing the creation of a dictionary of the Gandhari language, documentation of two endangered Papuan languages—Western Pantar and Nedebang (Indonesia), translation of early Buddhist manuscripts, re- imaging of the ancient Buddhist caves of Xiangtangshan, digitization of archaeological collections from Mongolia’s High Altai region, and assistance to a Harvard-Fudan University collaboration on creation of an authoritative geographic information system covering over two millennia of Chinese history.
• Assistance to advance the publication of a multi-volume (online as well as printed) edition of Skaldic Poetry of the Scandinavian Middle Ages, as well as the development of a parallel history project on NATO and the Warsaw Pact.

In a new emphasis on “bridging cultures,” the National Endowment for the Humanities is open to partnering with UNESCO and member states in international initiatives that in our unique NEH system are competitively peer-reviewed by experts in diverse fields drawn largely from the academic community.

We are particularly interested in advancing the digital humanities. The Internet, combined with the computer and smart phone and a panoply of new digital-age devices, represents the greatest breakthrough in knowledge accumulation since the book and the greatest impetus to providing access to learning on a non-class, non-gender, non-state basis ever.

As with the digital library, a concept advanced so nobly by UNESCO in partnership with the Library of Congress and others, the United States is committed to open communications and information sharing with all peoples in all corners of the globe.

Today’s world is hallmarked by change and acceleration. Unfortunately, as has been made too evident, rapid change can be destabilizing and sometimes violence-inducing. In this global setting, it is our assumption that shared learning with open dialogue is more likely to lead to pacific relations between peoples of the world than any other circumstance. Knowledge is unifying.

As President Obama so presciently observed in Cairo in June 2009, “All of us share this world for but a brief moment in time. The question is whether we spend that time focused on what pushes us apart, or whether we commit ourselves to an effort—a sustained effort—to find common ground, to focus on the future we seek for our children, and to respect the dignity of all human beings.”

Accordingly, the President suggested as a goal that a young person in the American Midwest be able to communicate on a regular basis with a young person in the Middle East. By analogy a young person in Europe or Africa should be able to communicate with a young person in Asia or South America. And, perhaps as significantly, a person of any age should be able to reach out and communicate with anyone in his or her own society. A twittering world is a communicative place, a global neighborhood more likely to live with itself.

In an age where terrorism has become globalized and genocidal acts are recent memory, we must be ever mindful of Einstein’s warning that splitting the atom has changed everything except our way of thinking. We have no choice except to improve upon what has been an historical constant— human nature. If this is too daunting an immediate task, we must take an intermediate step and, in concert, expand shared experiences. Increasing knowledge, particularly of each other’s cultures, is probing humanity, sharing the human condition. It widens senses of family and community.

As the UNESCO charter affirms, peace must be founded “upon the intellectual and moral solidarity of mankind.”

With respect for the charter, the United States is fully committed to working constructively within the multi-lateral framework of UNESCO and, in addition, supports a number of complementary bilateral initiatives.

The Obama Administration, for instance, is committed to advancing basic education the world over, particularly in Africa where a quarter of a billion dollars in education aid is targeted over a one year period. U.S. international basic education funds have increased eight-fold over the last decade, and the Obama Administration is prepared to take the next step, increasing access to higher education through an emphasis on community colleges and the development, among other techniques, of robust courses that can be taken online. Few educational initiatives have more potential to help equalize access to learning around the world.

The Obama Administration is also committed to significantly increasing support for science on the assumption that we are at an historic juncture where advances in science and the technologies applicable to basic research are the most exciting aspect of life on the planet. We are learning more and more about ourselves, our origins, and our capacity to cope with disease and extend life. Unlike gold or precious metals, science cannot be kept in vaults. It is the most quickly shared commodity on earth.

In a world where overall economic activity has slowed for the first time in several decades, the U.S. remains committed to doing its part by playing a constructive role in UNESCO and helping advance cultural understanding between all peoples of the earth.

By Jim Leach

Jim Leach is the ninth Chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities. Leach was nominated by President Barack Obama and confirmed by the Senate in 2009. Leach previously served 30 years representing southeastern Iowa in the U.S. House of Representatives, where he chaired the Banking and Financial Services Committee, the Subcommittee on Asian and Pacific Affairs, the Congressional-Executive Commission on China, and founded and co-chaired the Congressional Humanities Caucus. After leaving Congress in 2007, Leach joined the faculty at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School, where he was the John L. Weinberg Visiting Professor of Public and International Affairs until his confirmation as NEH chairman.