Time to replace NEH head

April 06, 2001|By George F. Will

WASHINGTON -- Hollywood's 1929 production of "The Taming of the Shrew" carried this credit line: "By William Shakespeare, with additional dialogue by Sam Taylor." Caricature cannot cope with some cultural episodes, such as Arthur Miller's Jefferson Lecture last week, which has to be seen to be disbelieved.

It should be, but is not, available at www.neh.gov/news/miller/index.html. He is denying public access to this lecture because, incredibly, he plans to publish it in a magazine. The sooner a magazine makes that mistake, the better, because the lecture is a timely demonstration of the trivialization of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

It is timely because Bill Ferris, chairman of the NEH that ludicrously miscast Mr. Miller as the Jefferson lecturer, wants to stay in his job. He should have extended to President Bush the courtesy of resigning, as NEH chair Lynne Cheney did when President Clinton took office. Instead, he is seeking a second term. His current one expires in November.

The NEH says the annual Jefferson Lecture "recognizes an individual who has made significant scholarly contributions to the humanities." Mr. Miller is not a scholar. But, then, neither was Mr. Ferris' choice for the 1999 lecturer -- his patron, Bill Clinton (who declined the invitation when scholars protested).

Since Lionel Trilling's inaugural lecture in 1972, other lecturers have included Robert Penn Warren, Saul Bellow, Barbara Tuchman, Erik Erikson, Leszek Kolakowski, Edward Shils, Bernard Bailyn, Gertrude Himmelfarb, C. Vann Woodward, Walker Percy, Robert Nisbet, Forrest McDonald, Sidney Hook, Cleanth Brooks, Jaroslav Pelikan, Stephen Toulmin, James M. McPherson, Robert Conquest and Bernard M.W. Knox.

There have been remarkably few lapses from the generally exalted standards of the lectureship, and never have those standards been as traduced as they were by Mr. Miller's political rant about the presidential election, the inadequacies of Ronald Reagan, the hairdos of television news anchors, President Bush's public speaking and the bulletin that FDR was the only president Mr. Miller felt "confident" about calling president.

The most embarrassing aspect was that Mr. Miller's self-absorption renders him immune to embarrassment. But, then, Mr. Ferris' NEH is similarly immune, making grants for a documentary film about the Miss America Pageant, for a feminist film on the historical significance of Cinderella, and the like.

It is no accident that both Mr. Ferris and Bill Ivey, chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, are folklorists. Aren't we all?

President Bush wisely economizes presidential leadership by focusing on a few big issues, so he probably has scant, if any, interest in who heads the NEH. Besides, Mr. Ferris is from Mississippi and enjoys the support of Mississippi's two Republican senators, Trent Lott and Thad Cochran. However, early evidence of Mr. Bush's sound instincts on cultural questions was the fact that he strongly disliked Yale's ambiance in the 1960s. And a Yale man, Donald Kagan, would be ideal as Mr. Ferris' replacement.

Mr. Kagan, an eminent professor of history and classics, is a former dean of Yale College with a luminous record of scholarship and an appropriately unenthralled understanding of what happened on college campuses in the 1960s, when he witnessed Cornell's degradation, and the continuing injury done to campuses since then.

Mr. Kagan loves teaching, and is absorbed in finishing a one-volume history of the Peloponnesian wars, a distillation for general readers of his four-volume scholarly history. So he would be reluctant, perhaps to the point of declining, to come to the NEH.

This dedication to scholarship marks him as exactly the sort of person required for the restoration of the NEH's seriousness. And if he cannot be enticed, Mr. Bush can find someone like him among the saving remnant of scholars who continue to resist the closing -- and emptying -- of the American mind.

By changing the focus of the NEH, Mr. Bush could help change the tone of academic life, to the discomfiture of his cultured despisers. Pleasant work.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

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