I credit the NEH with introducing me to the joys of historical research and setting me on a path to becoming a professional historian. And all it cost me was a few bucks in library late fees and a (self-diagnosed) mild case of scoliosis. Let me explain.
As a junior history major at SUNY‒Buffalo, I took a seminar on constitutional history and ended up writing a paper on the New York Anti-Federalist Melancton Smith. When it came time to decide on a senior thesis topic later that year, I just stuck with the ratification controversy in New York. The reason was simple. I was a student at a state university. There was no funded summer archival research trip in the offing. But there was The Documentary History of the Ratification of the Constitution.
For those who don’t know, the DHRC is a gargantuan project run out of the University of Wisconsin, funded in large measure by the NEH and National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC) (don’t forget, that’s on the chopping block too). A team of editors transcribes and annotates every known piece of manuscript and printed material—letters, diaries, newspaper essays, pamphlets, and so on—related to the “great national discussion.” By the time I started the thesis, four of the five projected DHRC volumes on New York were already out. The fifth appeared in the spring, as I was finishing up. All told, I had over 2,500 pages of material to work with.
This is where the back problems come in. I lugged these heavy volumes around in my backpack for the better part of a year. All in all, a small price to pay for being able to write a senior thesis with a source base fit for a dissertation.
I should say here that I also benefitted from correspondence with John P. Kaminski, who directs the DHRC project. Not only did John offer me sage advice, he also shared some still-unpublished material, including the comprehensive index for the New York volumes, which made the research process easier still.
The payoff for me was enormous. The writing sample based off the thesis got me into graduate school. Another piece of that project became my first peer-reviewed article. This NEH and NHPRC-funded project enabled me to satisfy my intellectual curiosity and jumpstart my career as a historian.
There are two main takeaways here. First off, government funding for the humanities makes possible transformative experiences not only for professional scholars but also for students. Second, this story lays bare the abject hypocrisy of certain prominent politicians who score cheap political points by bemoaning declining constitutional understanding one minute and attacking the NEH the next.