August 27 marks the centennial of President Lyndon B. Johnson's birth. Recent legislation naming the U.S. Department of Education building for the thirty-sixth President acknowledges his extraordinary contributions to education. Because the former classroom teacher believed deeply that education is the answer to the nation's problems, his Great Society agenda included more than sixty education initiatives, from Head Start and the Elementary and Secondary Education Act to the Higher Education Act and Adult Basic Education.

One educational measure that has enriched the lives of Americans of all ages is the National Foundation on the Arts and Humanities Act of 1965. Observing that the scientists always seem to get the penthouse while the arts and humanities get the basement, LBJ emphasized that "the values of our free and compassionate society are as vital to our national success as the skills of our technical and scientific age." Thus in creating the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Endowment for the Arts, he sought to establish two related institutions equivalent in scope to the National Science Foundation but dedicated to the support of the nation's cultural and artistic life.

President Johnson envisioned NEH as supporting a strong partnership between the nation and its academic institutions—one that would encourage scholars to serve as "the pathfinders for the Nation’s imagination and understanding." But LBJ also recognized that government could be only a catalyst. The ultimate success of the partnership would depend on the participation of states, communities, private foundations, and individuals.

Through more than four decades, NEH has advanced Johnson's vision. The Endowment has supported teacher enrichment seminars, encouraged the publication of significant historical and literary works, underwritten blockbuster exhibitions and public television documentaries, and preserved documentary and archeological treasures—all for the common good. In doing so, NEH has helped to preserve our democracy, for, as President Johnson declared, "universal, free, public education is the very best foundation upon which our entire society rests."

Michael L. Gillette.
President Lyndon B. Johnson signs the legislation creating the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Endowment for the Arts in September 1965. Photo courtesy LBJ Library and Museum.