The pointy heads strongly hinted the barbarians are even now at the gates, and the cheese-eaters (like the rude fellows who showed up to eat the great cheese following Andrew Jackson's inaugural and almost wrecked the elegance of the White House) hinted with considerable relish that the fancy brains are full of baloney.
Before either team had a stroke, however, during this grand debate on "the elitism flap" at the Yale Political Union, the opponents all digressed sufficiently to say that of course they meant no offense to their opponents.
Thus Michael Straight and Robert Brustein both indicated they did not believe their opponents, Mary Beth Norton and Joseph D. Duffey, should be boiled in oil, necessarily, at this time.
And Duffey-Norton made it clear that true scholarship, true advancement of the humanities, is close to their hearts indeed, with the lingering hint that not everybody who cries culture, can in fact tell a moral from a modillon block.
Straight is former deputy director of the National Endowment for the Arts; Brustein the director of the Yale Repertory Theatre, and Duffey the new chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities. Norton is associate professor of history at Cornell University and, as she pointed out, "a woman though you can see that."
The lines being drawn, everybody in the audience of 200 or so at the Yale Law School Auditorium sat back to enjoy the arguments that have been hinted at (but here for the first time grandly debated) ever since President Carter sounded off on March 30, 1977:
"I want to be sure," the president said, "that any elitist attitude in the National Endowment for the Humanities is ended."
The cheesers all said "high time" to the president's remark, while the egg-heads (few of them pointy, in actual measurement) were quick to say that what the president meant was to hell with serious learning.
Straight, for example, told the audience that "elitist" is today's four-letter-word." You can call somebody an elitist when you mean merely that he is a -
Nobody is shocked any more at four-letter words, he said, except radio announcers (and family newspapers) so if you mean to be truly obnoxious you use the fresher curse elitist.
Brustein wanted to get right on to Athens and Montana, but had to hold off a bit while his partner Straight observed that President Carter's remark was "a cheap shot," and went on to sneer, in a perfectly correct and gentlemanly way, at this business of guidance committees that have everybody represented - the right proportion of women, children, barbarians (though he did not use that word) and son on:
"It can happen that you have got everything represented in that panel except wisdom."
This was, of course, too much for Norton, who said there have always been people afraid of the public at large.
"In the 18th century," she said, "It was inconceivable to many people that a nation could manage without an elite, or a natural aristocracy, so they set about to find it or to establish it. This was an impossibility, however, and they wound up with the Senate."
Brustein complained of Montana. Not a single artist out there he said but they get as much money from the government as New York which is crawling with them.
Duffey could not be contained:
These dumb charges that the nation is seething with anti-intellectual passion, he said, "is a sloppy charge." And the vitor of theaters, schools, libraries, etc., show there is no basis for it.
Somewhat unfortunately for Brustein's example of Montana (which by the way does not get as much as New York, but only receives the same percapita rate from the two endowments, and even that in only a fifth of the endowments' funds) it turned out that Yale has been scouting about for a splendid new poet. They found him in Montana.
Think of Athens, Brustein said, and Sparta Think of a Pan Hellenic Humanities endowment for all Greece in the 5th century. Here comes Thucydides, Aeschylus, Herodotus, Socrates, and all the other great names looking for grants.
Should the grants go instead to say, Sparta? (Brustein indicated Sparta was nothing but a bunch of dumb soldiers and yo-yos, very like Montana, one gathered).
"Wouldn't Sparta have been represented on that humanities board?" he asked, with the implication that therefore Sparta would have got a lot of the humanities money instead of Athens, even though Athens had all the great humanists.
"I assume," said Duffey, "that Sparta would be on that board."
Duffey did not say anything nasty about Athens.Others over the centuries have pointed out Athens virtually wrecked the Greek economy with her marble trappings, and Thucydides, if not a dumb soldier, was at least a flag-rank military man, which shows that generals and admirals can often read and write, and it was Athens, not Sparta, that executed Socrates.
Duffey earlier said, however that sometimes he suspects ordinary Americans are "better prepared for what the endowment is about than the so-called specialist or scholar."
Don't think the "so-called specialists" missed that one.
Beneath the perhaps legitimate delight in cracks about Montana and sloppy charges and cheap shots and Spartan lunkheads, everyone seemed perfectly aware of identical follies:
Nobody on either team (or the audience, probably) believed the endowment money should be divided up so every American gets a quarter to think about humanities with.
Neither does anybody say, let alone argue, that the $100 million should be divided evenly between the Byzantine studies program of Harvard and the Yale library.
The "straw men" that Norton alluded to, once or twice, consist of such extremes as that, and nobody advocates them.
But Brustein and Straight both expressed alarm that both endowments may be turned to politically usefuel gimmicks rather than forwarding, supporting, or rescuing high excellence in arts and humanistic studies.
It is all very well, Straight-Brustein argued, for there to be adult education programs on behalf of arts and humanities, but surely the purpose of the "pitifully small" money is to assist those who are producing the arts and the studies What is needed, their argument ran, is not a batch of TV shows about how dandy the Adamses were, but the encouragement (in some cases the very survival) of an excellent but harried dance theater, or serious researches in language and history by those who could not so readily do that work without money from the endowments.
As in all entertaining debates, the ironies at Yale were marvelous.
It was Duffey's predecessor, the "elitist" (as some charge) Dr. Berman who gave money for "The Adams Chronicles" on television and for the tour of King Tut "treasures" through American museums.
Whatever the merits of those ventures, you could hardly call either of them anything but popular entertainments.
Under the "populist" chairman, Duffey, on the other hand, a grant was made this month to study, record and otherwise preserve the virtually dead language of the Makah Indians of the Pacific Northwest. (No more than two dozen humans now understand the Makah tongue, and surely an elitist, not a populist, should sponsor that study.)
Brustein, arguing for the elitists (inaccurate term, but shorthand for inellectual seriousness) is a theater man and gave us (Duffey could not be resist saying) the Fonz. (The actor who plays that fictional character is a master ofarts from the Yale Drama School).
Duffey was once a Baptist preacher, Straight was once a ghost writer for Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and Norton over on the cheesier side pronounces the word biases with a long e, in total defiance of common usage.
Duffey kept insisting that the gist of "humanities" is the questioning of values, the reflection upon what the state should be and what is essentially worthwhile in life.
It is hard to argue against that position which comes so directly from Socrates, who was not anti-intellectual at all.
Duffey also gave voice to the widespread distrust of "experts,' who, as he loves to remind everybody, got the nation into Vietnam and who have no great triumphs to show us in such expert fields as urban renewal, health care, etc.
Sometimes, he said, there needs to be more thinking, with a moral sense brought to bear, and less blind faith in technological expertise. Scholarship itself is not immune from a sort of hierarchical thinking, that is, the reliance on in-group cliches.
At great institutions people sometimes assume that anything outside their circle of interest is worthless.
Norton, along these same lines observed that her own field of studies, women's history in America, is not taken seriously by some scholars for no better reason than it does not interest them (as perhaps the history of the Boer War does not interest her) or because it was not taught first in Plato's Lyceum.
Even so - and granting much of that argument - the Straight-Brustein side saw in those well-sounding arguments a shift toward whishy-washy uplift programs and they did not think the endowment money should start running a modern Chatauqua for the sparsely educated. Let that be done by popular magazines or something.
The debate did not answer the true question: Will the humanities endowment in fact turn into a program of popularization instead of a prograph of support?Even more than the Tut and Adams shows? Duffey said a wider spread need only contradict excellence, but only an examination of the specific grants in the next few years will tell.
Meanwhile, everybody seemed to enjoy the oratory at Yale.