“Paterson Prism” and the Ambivalences of NEH Funding

Here’s an item in the spirit of “when the state does more good than harm” (a conversation Roderick and I are having below): my university recently got a $100,000 NEH grant to run a series of courses and create a minor on the role of the city of Paterson, New Jersey in regional and American history.

Obscure as it is, Paterson has a long and interesting history, going back before the American Revolution. It was, for better or worse, the first government-planned “industrial city” in America, most famously associated with Alexander Hamilton. Not coincidentally, I guess, it’s associated with the early twentieth century labor unrest–the famous Silk Strike of 1913–that led to the institutionalization of the eight-hour working day. It’s also associated with the work of William Carlos Williams and Allen Ginsburg as well as John Updike, Junot Diaz, and Rosa Alcala, among others. More recently, and notoriously, it was the main locus of the 9/11 celebration rumors, and even more recently, it was the subject and location of a charming independent film starring Adam Driver (which I definitely recommend).

The program is being run out of the English Department, with an assist from faculty in Art and Music.

I feel a weird libertarianish ambivalence about the whole thing. I don’t consider myself a libertarian, strictly speaking, but I am a fellow traveler of sorts, and have always been leery of government funding for the arts and humanities.* Since there’s no viable way of avoiding it altogether, the principle I’ve adopted (somewhat arbitrarily) is to restrict my role to consumer of NEH-funded programs (e.g., concerts, art exhibits) rather than active participant. That doesn’t really make sense–the distinction doesn’t represent any obviously relevant principle–but psychologically, I suppose, I feel better adopting a rule than not.

It occurs to me that had I been a member of the English Department, my participation in the program would have been mandatory, a condition of continued employment at Felician. Hard to know how to handle that kind of thing–resign your position over the $100,000 of NEH funding that a colleague won?–so I just find myself watching the whole thing from afar with a weirdly uneasy sense of gratification and tempered enthusiasm. It’s great pedagogy, and I’m glad my colleagues are doing it. That said, half of me wishes I was part of the action, and half of me is glad that I’m not.

At least I don’t have to sell it. As a bonus, make sure to watch my Dean doing just that in the video embedded in the very first link.

*Ayn Rand’s various essays on the topic make some fairly good points. See the ones on B.F. Skinner in Philosophy: Who Needs It (“The Stimulus and the Response,” and “The Establishing of an Establishment”) and essays 21-23 in The Voice of Reason. That said, her essays on government scholarships and on NASA (“The Question of Scholarships,” and “Apollo 11”) in Voice of Reason  end up complicating her view. But that’s a topic for a different post.

3 thoughts on ““Paterson Prism” and the Ambivalences of NEH Funding

  1. I have no qualms about accepting the state’s money. It’s likely to do less harm in my hands than in theirs, as I have e.g. no plans to bomb, shoot, tase, or imprison anyone. I think of it as liberating resources from state control, with the foolish consent of the state.


  2. A colleague objects to this sentence in my post on the grounds that it implies that participation in the Prism Paterson program was coerced.

    It occurs to me that had I been a member of the English Department, my participation in the program would have been mandatory, a condition of continued employment at Felician.

    My point wasn’t that participation was coerced. Nor was it that the participants in the program were unwilling to participate, or unhappy about doing so. My point was hypothetical: if one’s department undertakes a large-scale program, no individual member of the department can hold the program at arms’ length and insist as a condition of contract on refusing to make any contribution to it. Even a faculty member who is not directly participating in the program indirectly makes a contribution to it by participating in a scheduling process that involves scheduling the classes in it.

    In other words, no department would tolerate a faculty member who, on ideological grounds, refused to make any accommodations of a program that the department was committed to. Given the program’s centrality to the English Department, if I were a member of that department, it would be mandatory for me to swallow any scruples I had about government funding of the humanities and participate in scheduling classes around the requirements of the Prism Paterson program. I couldn’t just cut out of the scheduling process on the grounds that, given my objections to NEH funding, I found the program ideologically objectionable and wanted to have nothing to do with it, up to and including washing my hands of any scheduling process that involved it.

    That isn’t a criticism of anyone, much less a criticism of Prism Paterson or of Felician. It’s just how academic scheduling works. My aim wasn’t to criticize anyone, but to identify a dilemma that arises for anyone ambivalent about where the money is coming from for a program in his own department.

    I’d originally neglected to mention the Art Department’s contribution to the program. Now fixed.


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