In defense of the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities, a parade of notables has offered up stirring words and lofty sentiments. Before one congressional committee, author David McCullough talked about transcendent values and quoted John F. Kennedy. Before another, Charlton Heston called art "the bread of the soul" and gave a dramatic reading from Shakespeare.
I thought the same way when I became chairwoman of the NEH. In my confirmation hearings, I talked about excellence and quoted Matthew Arnold, the 19th-century British poet and essayist, about whom I had written my doctoral dissertation. Arnold saw humanistic study as "a disinterested endeavor to learn and propagate the best that is known and thought in the world."
What nobler undertaking could there be?
But I gradually became aware of a vast discrepancy between what I was saying and where the humanities were going. When I came to the endowment, I had been away from the academic world for a number of years, working as a writer and editor.
A new generation of academics, their sensibilities formed in the 1960s, had begun to come to power. They saw Arnold - and Dante and Shakespeare and Yeats - as icons of the decadent civilization of the West. They saw traditional scholarly values - reason, objectivity, excellence - as tools that white males have used to manipulate and marginalize the rest of us.
And that wasn't even the most radical part of their message. As they saw it, the traditional scholarly mission - the pursuit of truth - was a task that only the naive or duplicitous would undertake, because truth does not exist. What we think is true is merely a construct, a creation that the powerful impose on everyone else. The intellectual's obligation is thus to construct new versions of truth to achieve social and political goals that have gone unmet.
The way that the newly powerful '60s generation thought of the humanities posed enormous problems for the endowment, difficulties that grew worse every year.
A flood of applications came from academics who wanted to use taxpayer money to advance their agendas. And many NEH panelists who evaluated applications were of a similar mind-set and thought projects that aimed at social and political transformation were the only things the endowment should pay for.
Fortunately, the endowment's presidentially appointed advisory board, the National Council for the Humanities, had a number of scholars - people such as the historian Gertrude Himmelfarb, Harvey Mansfield of Harvard and Donald Kagan of Yale - who had no intention of letting scholarly standards fall by the wayside. And I was willing to turn down projects that had politics as their goal.
But one can hold back the ocean only so long. …