Features

The conservationist

Culture | Under the direction of Bruce Cole, the once-radical National Endowment for the Humanities has returned to the role of preserving America's heritage

Issue: "Bush: Hail to the chief," Jan. 29, 2005

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).

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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.

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