William Bennett, chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, gave an impassioned defense of humanities studies yesterday, saying that some liberal-arts students were "being discouraged from studying the humanities for bad reasons."

"There's a lot of misinformation and misperception in this area," said Bennett at a news conference, one in an occasional series that he has been holding in his office.

"Some people say PhDs are unemployable," Bennett said. "That's false. There's no factual basis for that. Of the 69,700 humanities PhDs, 1.5 percent are unemployed; 86 percent of these people are engaged in educational institutions." Bennett said his information came from the 1981 Study of Earned Doctorates and from other studies collected by NEH's Office of Policy and Planning Assessment. "People say PhDs are unemployable using skills they were trained for," Bennett said. "That's false, too, based on the studies we see. People say PhDs can't teach what their dissertations were on. That is true. So what? That doesn't break me up."

Bennett said that humanities degrees are not automatically anathema to business recruiters. "In the number of conversations I've had with chief executive officers," Bennett said, "the suggestions I'm getting are that if people getting BA's in classics or history or philosophy could just supplement their study with two or three courses in finance or accounting, that could make them much more attractive to employers."

Bennett said that the humanities "are better than ever. We still have the best books. It's true that humanities can be presented in a boring or pedantic or soporific way. That's inevitable." But it's not necessary, he said. "Most schools have a humanities requirement," he said. "Why not put our best teachers at that introductory level? Make the invitation to study the humanities as inviting as possible."

In other NEH news, Bennett said that the agency may be able to return to the U.S. Treasury around $700,000 of its current $11 million administrative budget. He said the agency saved money by staff attrition.