Eliminate the National Endowment for the Humanities! That was a plank of the "Contract with America," the manifesto with which the GOP became the majority party in the House of Representatives in 1995.
That year conservatives pushed to eliminate the NEH and its sister, the even more controversial National Endowment for the Arts. But the agencies survived, and a decade later they are bigger than ever. Republican goals have changed, too. Now GOP leaders want to keep the NEH-but make it a force for conserving America's heritage instead of undermining it.
The National Endowment for the Humanities began in 1965 as part of Lyndon Johnson's Great Society initiative. Proponents saw it as a parallel effort to the National Science Foundation, established in 1950 under President Truman. Just as the government funded scientific research in the national interest, it would fund projects in the humanities (that is, history, literature, language, philosophy, and the like).
Over its 40 years of existence, the NEH has helped pay for archeological digs at Jamestown and other important historical sites, accurate editions of the works of classic American authors, museum exhibitions such as "Treasures of Tutankhamen," and documentary films such as Ken Burns's Civil War series. In addition to these relatively popular projects, NEH gives grants to support professors' research projects and academic seminars, which some critics label "welfare for college professors."
The most intense controversy over the NEH came as the academic world became more and more radicalized. Taxpayers sometimes had to foot the bill as researchers set about deconstructing the traditional humanities and constructing new approaches grounded in gender, race, and multiculturalism.
Under Ronald Reagan, William Bennett headed the NEH and brought its focus back to the conservation of American culture. Lynne Cheney, who served under Presidents Reagan and George H.W. Bush, succeeded Mr. Bennett and was even more aggressive in using the NEH to challenge current academic trends.
When Democrats returned to power, however,the NEH turned liberal again. The "National Conversation on Diversity" initiative funneled grant money to liberal activist groups such as the National Council on Aging and the American Bar Association. Then the NEH released educational standards for teaching history that left out George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Thomas Edison. Instead, it presented what historian Richard Jenson called "a highly negative image of American history as basically the story of how heroic women and minorities resisted oppressive white males."
The history standards were so extreme that the Senate, in a bipartisan stand, voted 99-1 to repudiate them. Mrs. Cheney, the endowment's former director, called for its abolition.
But with Republicans back in power and the agency under new leadership, those days seem long gone. The overall NEH budget is back up, to $162 million for 2005, with strong GOP support. And overall, under the Republican administration, the NEH is funding culture in a distinctly conservative direction. Not conservative politically, so much- politicizing the humanities is what the academic liberals do-but in the sense of "conserving" America's history and great ideas and trying to transmit them to future generations.
President Bush's NEH director, Bruce Cole, has the specific goal of combating what he calls America's "amnesia" about its own history. Mr. Cole, an art historian from Indiana University, is the author of 14 books, including the popular Art of the Western World, and one of the founders of the Association for Art History.
He sees the NEH as parallel to the Department of Homeland Security. The global terrorists we are fighting aim squarely at America's culture, values, and heritage. "On 9/11," he told WORLD, "we were attacked for the very fact that we have liberties, freedoms, rule of law. These things are anathema to our enemies. If we don't know what our liberties are, how can we defend them?"
Mr. Cole points to several studies documenting that large numbers of American teenagers, college students, and adult voters know almost nothing of their own national history (see box). High-school seniors are worse at history than they are at science and math, with 57 percent scoring below "basic" in American history.
Mr. Cole believes that this "American amnesia" is dangerous to the survival of the nation. "Our democracy is not self-sustaining," he said. "Democratic values need to be passed down and renewed, generation to generation." When that chain of knowledge is broken, "the republic is threatened." He cited the analogy of cut flowers offered by David McCullough, author of the best-selling biography John Adams: Cut flowers are beautiful for a while, but cut off from their roots, they are not really alive. After a while, they wither. An America cut off from its history could have the same outcome.
The cornerstone of the NEH attempt to address this problem is the "We the People" initiative, started in 2002. NEH has been giving grants to develop model curriculum for the teaching of American history, culture, and civics; to establish web-based resources for teaching about America's colonization, the Revolution, early American history, and Abraham Lincoln; and to hold a national history bee, a competition for young people modeled after the national spelling bee.
Other projects include challenge grants for programs that advance the knowledge of America's founding principles; publishing the papers of James Madison, the First Federal Congress, Frederick Douglass, and Thomas Edison; a television documentary about John and Abigail Adams; databases on the history of the West; and new exhibits at Baltimore's Star-Spangled Banner Flag House and the U.S.S. Constitution.
The NEH itself has initiated several "We the People" programs. Since educators themselves often lack knowledge in history, the Landmarks of American History Teacher Workshops offer seminars for teachers, held at key historical sites such as Jefferson's Monticello and Jackson's Hermitage. The NEH is also sponsoring a lecture series on the "Heroes of History" and an essay contest for 11th-graders.
With the "We the People Bookshelf," the NEH is trying to encourage young people to read great literature. Schools and libraries that develop a plan to use the program can apply to receive a complete set of books, broken down by age level. Last year the program's theme was courage, with books ranging from The Hobbit to The Red Badge of Courage. This year the theme is freedom. That collection will include The Chronicles of Narnia, the Christian classic that deals with the spiritual dimension of freedom from the bondage of sin.
In another ambitious project the NEH is converting to digital files 140,000 historical newspapers from every state in the union, thus recording the day-to-day, region-to-region events and ideas going back to our nation's founding. These will then be available on the internet for everyone, which, as Mr. Cole says, "democratizes" the historical record.
This reflects another change in the NEH, the desire to reach beyond academia. "Part of our plan has been to reach out and serve underserved communities," Director of Communications Erik Lokkesmoe told WORLD. "We have made a concerted effort to reach out to homeschoolers." Homeschooling parents "can go to teacher workshops, teacher seminars, apply for the bookshelf, for the essay contest, for the history lecture." He reported that four out of the six essay contest winners were homeschooled.
Many conservatives still object to agencies like the NEH on principle. But just as there is more to culture than the moral wasteland of Hollywood, there is more to the culture war than debates about specific moral issues. The culture war, like the war on terrorism, is between those who want to protect America's culture-which includes the nation's religious, moral, aesthetic, constitutional, and historical heritage-and those who want to destroy it in favor of a very different kind of culture. Under President Bush, the NEH is at least using its resources for the national defense.
American amnesia, according to the following examples from the NEH, is in need of a cure:
· 51 percent of American high-school students think Germany, Japan, or Italy was an ally of the United States during World War II.
· 40 percent of seniors at America's top 55 colleges do not know within 50 years when the Civil War took place.
· 56 percent of seniors at America's top 55 colleges do not know that Abraham Lincoln was the president during the Civil War.
· 40 percent of seniors at America's top 55 colleges do not know that the document establishing the separation of powers in our government is the U.S. Constitution.
· 69 percent of voting-age Americans think that Karl Marx's principle of "from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs" either is (35 percent) or might be (34 percent) a quotation from the U.S. Constitution.
· Zero percent of America's top 55 colleges have an American history requirement.