Leach offers thoughts on stability amidst constant change


Jim Leach

Patrick Hosken | Staff Writer

Government decision-making can be difficult, especially in an age characterized by perpetual change.

For Jim Leach, chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, American society faces many challenges, few more pressing than the need for constants.

“A sense of the humanities is an imperative field of study for any human society,” Leach said, “but most particularly for democracy and in times that are fast-changing. It means we need anchors of thought and events.”

Leach will speak at 10:45 a.m. today in the Amphitheater, beginning Week Two’s theme of “Applied Ethics: Government and the Search for the Common Good.”

President Barack Obama nominated Leach as NEH chairman in July 2009. He began his four-year term the following month, bringing a diverse background to the position.

Formed in 1965, the NEH provides grants for humanities projects typically undertaken by cultural institutions — libraries, museums, archives, colleges and the like. The NEH has funded Ken Burns’ documentary The Civil War, the “Treasures of Tutankhamun” exhibition and more.

Leach focuses his leadership of the NEH on the changing mechanisms of American government.

“I’ve chosen to emphasize the manner in which American democracy works and the manner in which public decisions are made,” Leach said.

After receiving a political science degree from Princeton University and a master’s degree in Soviet politics from Johns Hopkins University, Leach was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. He represented southeastern Iowa for more than 30 years.

While serving in the House, Leach headed several groups, including the Banking and Financial Services Committee, the Subcommittee on Asian and Pacific Affairs, the Congressional-Executive Commission on China and the Congressional Humanities Caucus.

Leach also helped author the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act of 1999, which allows customers access to the information-sharing practices of financial institutions.

After his time in the House, Leach returned to Princeton, this time as a professor of public and international affairs. He also taught politics at Harvard University in 2007.

A commentator on both art and American life, Leach believes in the importance of using different disciplines to find common solutions to federal problems.

“All of these fields of study are extraordinarily relevant to how government works and how individuals relate to their neighbors,” he said, “and how social conventions in a community develop and proceed.”

As NEH chairman, Leach has spoken at the National Archives, the American Council of Learned Societies and the University of Maryland. He gave his most recent speech at the Borough of Manhattan Community College last month, titled “Poetries of the Islamic World.”

Today is Leach’s first visit to Chautauqua, and he said he’s excited to speak.

“I do believe that humanities are a wonderful discipline to stretch the mind and to allow thinking outside the box,” Leach said.

In addition to today’s lecture, Leach will lead two special events this week: a town hall/listening post at 3:30 p.m. Tuesday at the Athenaeum Hotel parlor, and a panel of government officials at 12:15 p.m. Wednesday at Smith Wilkes Hall.