The 9/11 summons to seriousness ended the nation's 1990s holiday from history, and even the National Endowment for the Humanities has enlisted in the war. Emphasizing that historical illiteracy threatens homeland security -- people cannot defend what they cannot define -- the NEH's chairman, Bruce Cole, is repairing the ravages of the 1990s, when his two immediate predecessors made the NEH frivolous.
The first was Sheldon Hackney, a former college president whose big idea was a "national conversation" about diversity, his peculiar theory being that there is insufficient talk about that subject. His NEH distributed instructional kits telling Americans how to converse.
The second NEH chairman of the Clinton administration was William Ferris, a Mississippi folklorist guided by today's hedonistic calculus -- the greatest self-esteem for the greatest number. His NEH worked to "celebrate" -- preferred verb of the warriors against intellectual elitism -- the quotidian. He said: "Today the lives of ordinary American people have assumed a place beside volumes of European classics in the humanities." So "Middlemarch" and the "life" of your mailman are equally humanities classics.
Back then, the chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts was another folklorist, Bill Ivey, whose definition of art was latitudinarian. It included "the expressive behavior of ordinary people," such as "piecrust designs" and "dinner-table arrangements." He talked like this: "Do we want to possess a confidence that the rich cultural matrix of our nation is appropriately auditioned for the world?"
That was then. This is now:
Cole, author of 14 books, many on the Renaissance, was for 29 years professor of fine arts, art history and comparative literature at Indiana University. One of his missions is to reverse America's deepening amnesia, and especially the historical illiteracy of college students.
Fresh evidence of the latter came last week from the National Association of Scholars, whose members defend academic standards against the depredations of those levelers who, rigorous only in applying the hedonistic calculus (see above), are draining rigor from curricula. A survey sponsored by the association, using questions on general cultural knowledge originally asked by the Gallup Organization in 1955, establishes that today's college seniors score little -- if any -- higher than 1955 high school graduates.
In his office in the Old Post Office on Pennsylvania Avenue, Cole says of the war on terrorism, "What we fight for is part of what we do around here." What the NEH aims to help do is "make good citizens." And "scholarship should be the basis of all we do." Not all scholars are professors. David McCullough, the historian and biographer, is not an academic. But, then, neither were Thucydides and Gibbon.
"A wise historian," says McCullough, "has said that to try to plan for the future without a sense of the past is like trying to plant cut flowers." Hence the three components of the NEH's "We the People" initiative.
One is the funding of scholarship on significant events and themes that enhance understanding of America's animating principles. Another is an essay contest for high school juniors, concerning America's defining tenets. The contest winner -- Cole dryly notes that there will be a winner, whatever the cost to anyone's self-esteem -- will be recognized at the third component of the "We the People" initiative, the annual "Heroes of History" lecture.
The very subject of this new lecture series goes against the grain of today's academic culture, which rejects the idea of heroes -- those rare event-making individuals who are better and more important than most people. To banish elites from the human story, many academic historians tell that story as one of vast impersonal forces, in which individuals are in the iron grip of economic, racial or gender roles. Small wonder students turn away from history taught without the drama of autonomous individuals moved by reason, conviction and rhetoric that appeals to the better angels of their natures.
Cole soon will have a worthy colleague at the National Endowment for the Arts. The fact that its new chairman will be Dana Gioia, the distinguished poet, critic and translator, is additional evidence that cultural revival is a priority of today's president, who has so many despisers among the lettered.
George W. Bush is married to a librarian and his vice president is married to a former NEH chairman. Bush may have passed through Yale largely unscathed by what his professors were professing (which is just as well, considering campus conditions in the 1960s). However, he is restoring both endowments to their proper functions, defending culture as the poet Alan Tate defined it -- "the study of perfection, and the constant effort to achieve it."