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Delbert R. Oswald, who has directed the Utah Endowment for the Humanities ever since it was organized in 1974, runs a low-key operation; and he's become accustomed to benign neglect in the media, though he's not content with it.

More public attention seems to focus on the NEH's sister-organization, the National Endowment for the Arts, and its related Utah Arts Council."That's perhaps inevitable, because the arts are flashy; they entertain as well as stimulate ideas, while the humanities make the public work by thinking," said this pleasant man with a patient smile. "The humanities are suspect. Since we deal with the way people think, the public frequently equates us with secular humanism, with undertones of atheism."

The arts give performances and concerts and exhibits, and attract people to very visible dance, music, theater and the visual arts. The humanities concern themselves with everything else in a culture.

But if the arts are a showy blossom, then the humanities are the calyx, stem and leaves that nourish and support them - even the thorns that protect them. The arts are the "what," and the humanities are the "why" in culture - a distinction which the federal government recognized when it authorized two side-by-side endowments, rather than one culture agency.

As enumerated in the National Foundation for the Arts and Humanities Act of 1965, the humanities include "the study of history; philosophy, languages, linguistics, literature, archeology, and jurisprudence; the history, criticism and theory of the arts; ethics, comparative religion, and those aspects of the social sciences that employ historical or philosophical approaches."

NEH Chairman Lynne Cheney traces the word's origin to the Romans, "who called (the humanities) `the good arts,' recognizing that poetry, history and philosophy serve ends beyond knowledge. They enlarge understanding by showing us that we are not the first generation to grapple with moral dilemmas: How is it best to live? What deserves our commitment? What should we disdain? . . . How do we reconcile the rights of the individual with the needs of the community?"

The National Endowment for the Humanities has a budget not much smaller than the National Endowment for the Arts. For fiscal 1988, the endowments received $140 million and $167 million respectively. The NEH awards grants in five categories: education programs, fellowships and seminars, general programs, research programs and state programs.

The UEH works directly under the NEH in Washington, D.C., and has no Utah appropriations; hence Oswald's appointment is permanent, and not beholden to local political shifts. The UEH re-grants federal funds to those projects deemed most deserving. Oswald relies on a citizen board of 22 to review applications, award the funds of the UEH, and evaluate completed projects.

In its own quiet way, the UEH contributes significantly to Utah's economy and the wellbeing of its artists, writers and lecturers. "We brought $476,000 into the state during 1988," said Oswald. "Since 1974, we have brought $6.5 million in, and generated locally an additional $11.5 million, counting matching cash and in-kind contributions. With this money we have supported, in whole or in part, approximately 1,200 projects, serving audiences and education in every region of the state."

Oswald is guided in determining his priorities by the goals of the UEH: (1) to exist as a permanent institution for humanities programming in Utah; (2) to have a beneficial impact on the cultural and intellectual life of the state, and on individual lives and minds; (3) to contribute to the discussion of scholarly issues; and (4) to influence and improve humanities education.

The Utah Arts Council and Utah Endowment for the Humanities often jointly fund projects, especially lectures on arts events, and Oswald acknowledges there is often a fine line between the two. "People fall through the cracks between us, because they are told at each organization that the project seems more in the purview of the other," he said.

He cited recent co-funding of the Elfie Huntington exhibit - photographs by a deaf Springville photographer of the early century. "The arts did the mounting, framing and publicity," he said, "and we paid for the lectures and brochures."

Education and humanities are inextricably intertwined; and he's excited about teaching teachers on all levels more about their subjects.

"They come out of college filled with pedagogical skills, but after a few years, if they aren't excited about their subjects, they get burned out," he said. "If they learn about the critical thinking in their fields, the history, the 20th century trends, they become excited again."

The same applies to learning of children. "Why do students reach the point where learning is not fun?" he asked. "In general, elementary teachers are doing a great job, kids are eager to learn. But along about late elementary and secondary grades, they begin to see learning as dull tasks to be accomplished. They lose the sense that subjects - history, geography, arithmetic, English - are interrelated disciplines, comprising a fascinating whole. We are working to restore this humanistic interest."

A graduate of Idaho State in Pocatello, Oswald did graduate studies at BYU, where he taught social sciences before his present appointment. He usually curls up with a good book every evening that he's home, and he's also personally renovating his home in the Avenues. But he is frequently traveling, to Washington, or about the state.

His travels will increase, since he was recently elected to a 3-year term on the board of directors of the Federation of State Humanities Councils in Washington, D.C., an organization that supports the state humanities endowments.

Knowing that you must ask in order to receive, he likes to help take the mystery out of writing applications for grants. "Many worthy organizations forfeit funds they might have, because applying is just too intimidating," he said. Oswald also feels that Utah's good teachers should have more national recognition. "There are a lot of honors for teachers out there, but our teachers won't get them because they don't apply."