Federal Aid to Lost Dogs

January 08, 1995|By GEORGE F. WILL

WASHINGTON — Washington. -- "Our job,'' says Everett Albers, ''is to get the people of North Dakota busy writing to Congress.'' In defense of agriculture subsidies? No, Mr. Albers, quoted in the Chronicle of Higher Education, is executive director of the North Dakota Humanities Council and wants North Dakotans to rally in defense of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Extinction may be the fate of the NEH and its Great Society siblings, the National Endowment for the Arts and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Extinction will be their fate if Republicans mean a syllable of what they say about rethinking federal functions.

Every state now has a humanities council. By these, and the travels of peripatetic culture bureaucrats, and by the spreading of subsidies across the continent, culture agencies build constituencies of articulate letter-writers.

Jane Alexander, head of the National Endowment for the Arts, is proud as punch of having visited all 50 states in her less than two years tenure. Dante Ramos reports in The New Republic that she considers this travel ''her best achievement.'' Ms. Alexander believably reports that wherever she goes disbursing money, she is warmly received. The headlines she generates (''Alexander Brings Message of Arts' Balm for Society,'' Arizona Daily Star; ''Arts Touted as Solution to Violence, Racial Strife,'' Fort Worth Star-Telegram) cause Mr. Ramos to conclude that in her utilitarianism -- art as social improvement -- ''there's a point where art gives way to social work.''

And it becomes just another jobs program. Directing Mr. Ramos' attention to a pot, Ms. Alexander says its maker ''is already a professional and he intends to make a career as a ceramicist.'' Absent arts endowment, would the pot not have been made? If so, just how very interested is that fellow in becoming a ceramicist? Ms. Ramos says Ms. Alexander has ''improved the mood of the agency and the artists who depend upon it.'' What sort of ''artist'' develops such dependency?

The current head of the National Endowment for the Humanities, Sheldon Hackney, is organizing a ''national conversation,'' the implicit supposition being that Americans converse too little, or too clumsily, or come to incorrect conclusions, and need government guidance. Guidance galore has come for teachers of history in the form of new ''standards.'' Writing in the same issue of the Chronicle, Arnita Jones, executive secretary of the Organization of American Historians, exults that the teaching standards ''offer nothing less than an escape from the rote learning of factual matter.'' Now there's a problem for government to tackle -- American students knowing too many historical facts.

Ms. Jones warns that the standards will be ''expensive.'' She says they will be ''meaningless'' unless lots of money is spent on the appropriate training of teachers and the writing of appropriate texts. This money that must be spent because of the money already spent will promote the predictable -- ''history'' as ethnic boosterism, and as reparations for various victimizations, past and present.

The standards for American and world history miniaturize great men (because they were men, and because it is democratic to celebrate common people) and marginalize Western civilization. Students are asked to study, for example, ''the achievements and grandeur'' of the 14th-century West African Monarch Mansa Musa. Note that in this ''inclusive history'' certain ''grandeur'' is stipulated, not questioned.

Defenders of public TV in this era of abundant cable choices cloak themselves in ''concern'' for ''the children,'' arguing, with antic illogic, that Sesame Street and Barney serve huge audiences but could not find alternative broadcast venues.

Regarding public radio, in a nation with almost 9,500 commercial radio stations, exactly why is it necessary to give federal subsidies to about 600 public stations? The answer from Leonard Garment, President Nixon's counsel, is: to preserve stations like WVMR in Dunsmore, West Virginia, which ''offers local programming that no commercial station would consider: lost-dog ads, funeral announcements, school closings, junior high sports broadcasts.'' Actually, some commercial stations do some of that, and even if none did, that fact would not generate a federal lost-dog-ad responsibility.

The hysteria about proposals to terminate these programs seems synthetic, as when the New York Times says that to ''cripple'' the Corporation for Public Broadcasting would be ''barbaric.'' What adjectives does the Times hold in reserve to describe, say, ethnic cleansing? If Republicans merely trim rather than terminate these three agencies, they will affirm that all three perform appropriate federal functions and will prove that the Republican ''revolution'' is not even serious reform.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

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