Mocking America at U.S. expense

March 13, 1995|By Lynne Cheney

Washington -- IN DEFENSE of the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities, a parade of notables have offered up stirring words and lofty sentiments.

Before one congressional committee, the author David McCullough talked about transcendent values and quoted John F. Kennedy.

Before another, Charlton Heston called art "the bread of the soul" and gave a dramatic reading from Shakespeare.

This testimony had a familiar ring, because I thought the same way when I became chairwoman of the NEH.

In my confirmation hearings, I talked about excellence and quoted Matthew Arnold, the 19th-century British poet and essayist, about whom I had written my doctoral dissertation.

As Arnold saw it, humanistic study was "a disinterested endeavor to learn and propagate the best that is known and thought in the world."

What nobler undertaking could there be?

But I gradually became aware of a vast discrepancy between what I was saying and where the humanities were going. When I came to the endowment, I had been away from the academic world for a number of years, working as a writer and editor.

A new generation of academics, their sensibilities formed in the 1960s, had begun to come to power. They saw Arnold -- and Dante and Shakespeare and Yeats -- as icons of the decadent civilization of the West. They saw traditional scholarly values -- reason, objectivity, excellence -- as tools that white males have used to manipulate and marginalize the rest of us.

And that wasn't even the most radical part of their message. As they saw it, the traditional scholarly mission -- the pursuit of truth -- was a task that only the naive or duplicitous would undertake, because truth does not exist.

What we think is true is merely a construct, a creation that the powerful impose on everyone else. The intellectual's obligation is thus to construct new versions of truth to achieve social and political goals that have gone unmet.

As two professors from the University of Pennsylvania put it in The Journal of Social History in 1988, "Rather than believe in the absolute truth of what we are writing, we must believe in the

moral or political position we are taking with it."

Thinking a little frank talk to be in order, I began to speak out about what was happening -- and brought the wrath of the academic establishment down on my head.

It wasn't that I was wrongly describing what I saw; the establishment just thought I had some nerve objecting. At an academic conference in North Carolina, Stanley Fish, an academic superstar at Duke University, waved around and denounced a document in which I described the current fixation on race, gender and class as reductive.

"The humanities are about more than politics, about more than social power," I wrote. "What gives them their abiding worth are truths that pass beyond time and circumstance; truths that, transcending accidents of class, race and gender, speak to us all."

These words sent Mr. Fish into a frenzy.

"Once you take away gender, race and class, what else is left?" he demanded. And the gathered academics shouted and cheered.

The way that the newly powerful '60s generation thought of the humanities posed enormous problems for the endowment, difficulties that grew worse every year.

There was a flood of applications from academics who wanted to use taxpayers' money to advance their agendas.

And many of the panelists who came to the NEH to evaluate applications were of a similar mind-set and thought projects that aimed at social and political transformation were the only things the endowment should be paying for.

Fortunately, the endowment's presidentially appointed advisory board, the National Council for the Humanities, had a number of scholars -- people such as the historian Gertrude Himmelfarb, Harvey Mansfield of Harvard and Donald Kagan of Yale -- who had no intention of letting scholarly standards fall by the wayside.

And I was willing to turn down projects that had politics as their goal -- though, of course, my doing so only further enraged the academic elite.

But one can hold back the ocean only so long. In 1992, the members of the council and I authorized a grant to a group at the University of California at Los Angeles to develop a set of standards for what U.S. students should know about history.

The project directors promised to adhere to traditional scholarly precepts like balance and evenhandedness. What was actually produced, however, was the gloomy, politically driven, blame-the-West-first revisionism that is all too common today.

Reading the world history standards, one would think that sexism and ethnocentrism arose in the West, when Western civilization has in fact led the way in condemning the unjust treatment of women and encouraging curiosity about other cultures.

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