Humanities' New Mission; NEH Chief Cole Aims to Transmit Nation's History, Founding Ideals

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Defining a nation's mission has become a tricky proposition, especially when its citizens do not agree on its values, history or heroes. What Americans still hold to, especially post-September 11, is a belief in the goodness of democracy. This dream also galvanizes the approximately 1 million immigrants who settle in the United States every year.

But democracy demands wisdom and vision, says Bruce Cole, a longtime art historian recently appointed to head the National Endowment for the Humanities.

"The humanities prepare people for democracy," he says, "telling them where they come from, where they are, and giving them a compass to the future. September 11 underscores this. It reminds us who we are, what our institutions are and why they are worth defending.

"The Founders realized democracy [doesn't just] happen. It needs to be fought for and protected. Our citizens need it to have informed opinions."

The NEH is normally an agency dedicated to the keeping, preserving and transmitting of ideas. Its work is usually behind the scenes. But the onset of terrorist attacks sharpened its mission, at least in the mind of its new director.

One of the first things Mr. Cole did when he arrived at the government agency was to order a new mission statement.

It reads: "Because democracy demands wisdom, the National Endowment for the Humanities serves and strengthens our Republic by promoting excellence in the humanities and conveying the lessons of history to all Americans."

"We see the NEH as part of homeland defense," Mr. Cole says. "If we are fighting to sustain something, we have to know who we are. [Terrorists] attacked us for our great things: our openness, our tolerance, our liberties and our democracy."

In the works is "We the People," a new project seeking scholars who can grasp the urgency of the times and assemble proposals on how to project democratic ideals. Specifically, the initiative needs "humanities scholars, teachers, filmmakers, museums, libraries and other individuals and institutions" to develop "projects on the most significant events and themes in the nation's history and culture."

No extra money has been allocated for "We the People," whose guidelines are posted on the Web site. New initiatives, Mr. Cole says, are needed during times of war.

Particularly on his mind are American students, "who don't know much about our past," he says. The NEH chairman taught art history and comparative literature 28 years at Indiana University in Bloomington.

In many of his 14 books, he has taken a lead role in instructing readers about the basics, assuming that such principles are not being expounded on through television or the public-school system. Two such books, "The Art of the Western World" and "The Informed Eye" explain the principles of Western art and by inference, Western civilization.

"I see works of art as primary documents of Western civilization," he says. …