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-Sept. 11, is a belief in the goodness of democracy. This dream also galvanizes the approximately i 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 (NEH). "The humanities prepare people for democracy," he says, "telling them where they come from [and] where they are, and giving them a compass to the future. Sept. 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."
One of the first things Cole did when he arrived at the NEH 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," he 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 NEH's Website (www.neh.gov).
Cole is particularly concerned about students, "who don't know much about our past" he says. The NEH chairman taught art history and comparative literature for 28 years at Indiana University in Bloomington. In many of his 14 books he has instructed readers about basic principles, assuming that they're not being discussed on television or in public schools. Two such books, The Art of the Western World and The Informed Eye, explain the tenets of Western art and, by inference, Western civilization. …