National Endowment for the Humanities chairman William Bennett said yesterday that the agency wants to encourage colleges and universities not to abandon their humanities courses in favor of "more career-oriented things.

"We want to be in a position to say, 'Stick to your guns,' " Bennett said at a press conference yesterday afternoon in his office, " 'Go with what you know is good.' "

Bennett said enrollment in humanities courses on college campuses is down and while "we can't get into the business of general support," the NEH could sponsor conferences or recommend teaching methods to make the courses more popular. "I don't think you can have a liberal arts college without a classics department," Bennett said.

Under new guidelines, he said, academic institutions would have to "show they are making a contribution to education in the humanities" before being considered for a challenge grant. "But don't take that woodenly . . . A community college can compete here just as well. They can show they've done good survey courses in the humanities."

Bennett said that he didn't "buy that students spend all their time working on their careers and don't have time to study humanities. What books are on the top-10 list of the Chronicle of Higher Education's monthly campus bookstore survey ? Not books about careers. They're reading '101 Uses for a Dead Cat.' I'll tell you what humanities book did make the list. It was very interesting. 'Brideshead Revisited.'

"Because of television," Bennett said, referring to the effect of the successful PBS "Brideshead" series, "some students may have read a decent book for the first time."

Bennett is still getting questions about his sharp criticism of "From the Ashes: Nicaragua Today," a Wisconsin Humanities Committee-funded project that he called "propagandist."

"It's a propagandist film because of the way the filmmakers said it," he said about the film, which is sympathetic to the present Nicaraguan government. "It's inappropriate for the humanities, whether it's far left or far right."