As if the life of a college professor weren't easy enough, millions of taxpayer dollars are going to fund monthlong vacations for sightseeing scholars in Europe and South America, part of the $144 million budget provided for the National Endowment for the Humanities.
Government watchdogs say those trips are a waste of taxpayer money, and they're not alone on an eye-popping list of NEH funding for projects, including:
- $400,000 for an exhibition "exploring the importance of plants as a source of inspiration for noted American poet Emily Dickinson"
- $350,000 to explore the "cultural significance of the circus poster"
- $725,000 to produce a two-hour documentary on the history of American whaling.
- $130,000 for 16 professors to study the "truth and meaning" of life according to Aristotle
- $50,000 to build a computer model of an ancient city in Pakistan complete with "animated and interactive 'inhabitants'"
"Everybody should be angry ... that federal taxpayer dollars are being used on projects at a time when we have such bigger priorities, like getting the national debt under control," said Pete Sepp of the National Taxpayers Union.
"They're being done with tax money we don't have. We are mortgaging our future with projects people may never even see."
The NEH is a lesser-known cousin of the National Endowment for the Arts, a grant-making agency that supports research and education initiatives in the humanities.
Funds from the NEH have helped produce 15 Pulitzer Prize-winning books, and much of the agency's budget goes to finance museums, schools and cultural foundations.
But educators who get favored with NEH grants could also be headed for all-expenses-paid trips to desirable destinations to further their studies, including:
- $200,000 for 5 weeks at the Hebrew Centre in England to study the "medieval European conception" of Jewish otherness
- $210,000 to send 25 teachers packing off to Italy for five weeks to study "themes of house and household" in Ancient Rome
- $131,000 for a four-week trip for 16 professors to study 20th century urban Brazilian fiction
- $199,000 to send 25 professors to Barcelona for a month to study interactions among Christians, Muslims and Jews in old Europe
- $199,000 to send 25 professors for a month in Vienna to study Mozart's German operas
- $185,000 to send two dozen primary school teachers to Mexico for a month to research the indigenous people of Oaxaca
- $147,000 to send 25 professors to Berlin for a month to study the life of Johann Sebastian Bach
- $156,000 for a 5-week teacher study in London of historical interpretations of the industrial revolution in Britian
- $167,000 for a four-week seminar for 16 teachers on "how British and American poetry ... reflects the patterns of life"
Taxpayer dollars also pay to produce dozens ofmovies and videos, including:
- $390,000 to produce a 30-minute TV movie about Christopher Columbus and the Santa Maria
- $625,000 for a video biography of American painter James Whistler
- $600,000 for a movie about starvation in the Soviet Union in the early 1920s
- $511,000 for a documentary about an interracial medical team in the South
The NEH released a statement stressing the importance of the humanities and defending the selections of the controversial grants. The agency said it received 4,267 applications last year and approved only 786.
"The NEH staff scrutinized each application to ensure that it met strict written criteria," the statement read. "Scholars who received the grants must account for every penny."
The NEH added that its budget accounts for just "six thousandths of one percent of the federal budget," and noted that the council that oversees grants is "currently made up entirely of appointees of President George W. Bush."
But critics say that with people losing their jobs and houses in the struggling economy, Americans shouldn't be taxed to cover non-essential projects.
"Sending academics abroad may be important for the academicians and their careers, but maybe a little bit less so when it comes to the federal budget and the taxpayer dollars," said Pete Sepp of the National Taxpayers Union.
"That's really something that the universities themselves should be able to fund through private endowments ... [that] alumni could support instead of taxpayers."
Fox News' William La Jeunesse contributed to this report.