Jewish World Review June 16, 2003/ 16 Sivan, 5763
Humanities are on Orange Alert
There's a different worry in an office in the Old Post Office Building on Pennsylvania Avenue. The office has a view all the way to the Capitol. This is the National Endowment for the Humanities and it's wariness is based on intelligence, too, but of a different order.
"We see the NEH as part of homeland defense because we have to know what we're defending," Bruce Cole, chairman of NEH, says over a chicken salad lunch in his spacious office. Instead of decoding conversations of would-be terrorists, he offers an intelligent analysis of the ideals of the humanities.
"We are a nation at risk," he says. These, he explains, are risks from failing to understand how principles that have made us who we are evolved from the core documents of Western Civilization, the shared truths that contribute to civic life. Bruce Cole would call this code orange, too. "The attack on Sept. 11 targeted not only innocent civilians, but also the fabric of our culture."
The chairman is an unusual figure on the Washington scene. He has been aptly described as a gentleman and a scholar. He was a professor of art history and comparative literature for 29 years and seems more at ease talking about art than politics. It's the enthusiasm of the teacher that brings him to discuss the cultural heritage as a foundation for homeland defense.
"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. Sept. 11 underscores this. It reminds us of who we are, what our institutions are and why they are worth defending."
For several years the NEH has published a list of books for summer reading for grades from kindergarten through high school. The theme this year is "courage," which is particularly appropriate after Sept. 11.
"Acts of courage have shaped our nation throughout its history," says Lynn Cheney, a former NEH chairman and the wife of the vice president. "By reading these books, young readers can gain greater understanding of how people from all walks of life - facing challenges large and small- can find strength to do right."
The theme of courage emerges from the adventures of "Anansi the Spider," for kindergartners. It's dramatized for high school students in "Huckleberry Finn" as Huck and Jim negotiate the Great Mississippi. The summer reading list is long (www.neh.gov), but the 15 books on "courage" have been bundled together in a program called "We the People Bookshelf" and will be distributed to more than 500 libraries to stimulate discussions for young readers in their communities. George W.'s political enemies insist, against all evidence, that the president is stuck in an illiterate "cowboy culture." Yet he has chosen a scholar of Italian Renaissance Art to head the NEH, giving him a mandate that "democracy demands wisdom." He has asked Bruce Cole to erase the "historical amnesia" that afflicts American school children and presses the chairman to revive the idea of the Founders that "the study of history and citizenship should be at the core of every American's education." Liberal academics said he would ignore cultural "diversity" and "multiculturalism." What they didn't understand is that the gentleman and the scholar wants to get to the heart of diversity and multiculturalism through actual spreading of knowledge. The scholar wrote a book called "The Informed Eye" about artistic masterpieces. He begins with an analysis of stylized sculpture in Egypt in 2500 B.C E. and ends up with an explanation of the abstract expressionist paintings of Jackson Pollack. These works are presented as reflections of their times and as an influence on our "collective imagination."
Bruce Cole the public servant offers another message: "In times of crisis, the humanities and the arts are often praised as sources of consolation, comfort, expression, and insight, but rarely seen as essential, or even high priorities. But they are much more than that. Indeed, the humanities help form the bedrock of civic understanding and civic order."
Essential, you might say, to the defense of the homeland.
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