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
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. …