TUESDAY THE PRESIDENT nominated Joseph D. Duffey to be chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities. We were interested to see, in the stories about this event, evidence of a continuing anxiety in some circles that somehow the humanities themselves might be corrupted by politics as a result of their connection with this government agency - unless everyone was very careful. But we have put this 89th on our list of 90 things to worry about. That is because, as the record of 12 years amply demonstrates, the politics of many of the teachers, scribes and entrepreneurs who make up the world of the humanities tend to be infinitely more treacherous than the simple and (comparatively) innocent variety practiced by those who fancy themselves professional politicians. If you doubt that this is so, only ponder the background stories you have read about the pressures, purges and political rabbit punches that have accompanied the effort to find a new chairman.

So political taint isn't really an issue here, unless you fear for the virtue of impressionable Washington politicians. Nor in our judgement is the qualification of Mr. Duffey an issue: He is an accomplished administrator who is at home, by training and experience, in the world of scholarship as well as of government: and if his choices to fill the second-level jobs are sound, he is likely to do a good job of presiding over the national endowment. The question is what the endowment itself should be doing.

Some people think the gaze of the endowment has been too narrowly trained on scholarship that has no obvious larger public purpose. Others argue that any effort to make the endowment more "popular," more oriented to social, as distinct from scholarly, needs and values will wreck it. The truth, you will be pleased to hear, does not lie in between. Of course a government agency that dispenses public funds must dispense them in a way it thinks will further certain public values. And of course an agency charged with promoting the welfare of the humanities themselves must deal in a sensitive and sophisticated way with the academic values involved. But these are not by nature conflicting objectives. At least they're not in conflict if you assume that the health of humanistic studies is an important public value and that seeking to make the benefits of such studies as widely available as possible is not an act of debasement or "vulgarization."

We think it is perfectly appropriate for an institution with a scholarly function, for instance, to support - as the endowment has done - certain television programs. But no one should be under the illusion that TV and town meetings are the only fit methods of discharging the endowment's obligation to give the public something for its money. The work the endowment has supported to improve the sustain libraries and publications, to support scholarship and scholars and a variety of projects designed to improve the quality of teaching - all this and more that the endowment has underwritten helps to discharge the same obligation to the general public. Sometimes it is said that it is "elitist" of the endowment to support certain fields of pure scholarship. We think the "elitism" exists on the part of those making the charge - people who assume that the general public is some leaden mass unable to appreciate or make use of the fruits of a flourishing community of serious scholars.

With the diminution of some important private foundation support for the humanities and with the tight budget situations now prevailing at every level of government and within schools, libraries and other institutions associated with humanistic studies, the work of the endowment has taken on increased importance. Once a $2-million infant in the world of high-living foundations and government grants, it has become, with its budget of over $100 million a year, an important element in the humanities picture. What will be critical to the success of the endowment in the years to come is the quality of the people Mr. Duffey brings in to help him and their capacity to resist pressures for either a foolish popularization of the endowment's work or an arrogant refusal to make its decisions understandable to those who pay the bill. The National Science Foundation has met and mastered many of the problems and conflicts facing the humanities endowment now. We don't see why Mr. Duffey and his new crew shouldn't be able to guide the endowment in the same direction.