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Speech by National Endowment for the Humanities Chairman Bruce Cole

McDermott Lecture

October 24, 2002

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Good evening. It is an honor and a pleasure to be here. I have long been a fan of the University of Dallas. Its seriousness of purpose, excellence of scholarship and commitment to teaching are exemplary and, I'm sad to say, increasingly rare.

I also want to express my admiration for the vigorous and rigorous core curriculum at the University of Dallas. At a time when many colleges and universities are sweeping away their last remaining required courses, the University of Dallas stands out as a shining exception. The University of Dallas recognizes that great challenges and rapid changes increase the need to learn from history, to understand from whence we came, and to benefit from the wisdom of the ages. Your curriculum offers something unfashionable, but priceless: the essentials of the examined life. May your worthy example be widely followed.

Tonight, I'd like to speak about the centrality of the humanities to democratic and civic life; the challenges facing the humanities and the study of history, the danger of American amnesia; and the possibilities of recovering our memory and protecting the best of our culture.


Importance of the Humanities

The NEH was founded in the belief that cultivating the best of the humanities has real, tangible benefits for civic life. Our founding legislation declares that "democracy demands wisdom." America must have educated and thoughtful citizens who can fully and intelligently participate in our government of, by, and for the people. The NEH exists to foster the wisdom and knowledge essential to our national identity and survival.

The range of the humanities disciplines is wide; their impact deep. The classics and archeology show us from whence our civilization came. The study of literature and art shape our sense of beauty. The knowledge of philosophy and religion give meaning to our concepts of justice and goodness.

The humanities are often thought of as largely theoretical fields, but their benefits are practical and immediate. Indeed, the state of the humanities has real implications for the state of our union. Our nation is currently in an international conflict driven by religion, philosophy, political ideology, and views of history – all humanities subjects.

Our tolerance, our principles, our wealth, and our liberties have made us targets. To understand this conflict, we need the humanities. The values implicit in the study of the humanities are part of why we were attacked. The free and fearless exchange of ideas, respect for individual conscience, belief in the power of education... all these things are anathema to our country's enemies. Understanding and affirming these principles is part of the battle.

The attack on September 11 targeted not only innocent civilians, but also the fabric of our culture. The terrorists struck the Twin Towers and the Pentagon, and aimed at either the White House or Capitol dome – all structures rich in meaning, and bearing witness to the United States' free commerce, military strength, and democratic government. As such, they also housed many of the artifacts – the manuscripts, art, and archives – that form our history and heritage.

Of course, the loss of artifacts and art, no matter how priceless and precious, is dwarfed by the loss of life. Each life that was snuffed out that day was itself a work of art and a historical record. Each person who died on September 11 meant the world to others. I often fear that the scholarly tendency to over-theorize under-estimates the importance of the individual. One of the clearest lessons of that awful day is that individuals matter – their decisions, their courage, their sacrifices, their hopes, their lives.

They -- not theories -- are the stuff of history.

Today, it is all the more urgent that we study American institutions, culture, and history. Unlike a monarchy or dictatorship, democracy is not self-perpetuating. Its continued flourishing requires a transmission of knowledge of, and a love for, the rule of law, the rigors of justice, and the rights of man. That knowledge and love must be transmitted from and renewed in each generation. Defending our democracy therefore demands more than successful military campaigns. It also requires an understanding of the ideals, ideas and institutions that have shaped our country.

This is not a new concept. America's founders recognized the importance of an informed and educated citizenry as necessary for the survival of our participatory democracy. James Madison famously said, "the diffusion of knowledge is the only true guardian of liberty." The humanities tell us who we are as a people and why our country is worth fighting for.

They are part of our homeland defense.


Challenges to the Humanities: Corrosion of Conscience, Insular Interlocution, and American Amnesia

The importance of the humanities to civic life means that their health has implications for the body politic. I'd like to share with you my diagnosis of three serious threats to the health of the humanities, and offer some prescriptions for relief.

The first is a weakening of academic conscience.

As we all know, the last few years have brought numerous examples of welldocumented plagiarism and academic dishonesty from some of the best-known scholars and public intellectuals.

In the last several weeks, a college President was caught plagiarizing in a speech he gave to incoming freshmen. To inspire the new crop of young scholars, he related wisdom gleaned from books he read – or claimed to have read – over the summer break. In tracking down some of these enlightening books, some professors found that the president had lifted language and "insights" from that renowned scholarly source: the Amazon.com web site. To his credit, that college president has resigned.

In other cases, judgement on matters of plagiarism takes far longer – if it comes at all. Even as we speak, the winner of last year's Bancroft prize for history is credibly accused of academic fraud. Despite the fact that charges were made nearly two years ago, his home university has failed to render judgement one way or another.

In many universities, students are expelled for mere sloppiness in attribution. In such cases, professors, administrators and other university officials have no problem judging the student's action, and enforcing discipline.

Those who teach and publish should be held to a higher, not a lower, standard. Universities, scholarly societies, independent research institutions, and indeed the NEH, must vigorously, fairly, and scrupulously investigate and adjudicate scholarly misconduct wherever it occurs. To fail to do so is a mistake, and a disaster. Yet it is not enough merely to identify misconduct, it must be punished. There need to be consequences to ethical violations. If the academic community is unwilling to adjudicate cases of scholarly dishonesty, it divests itself of the authority and moral credibility to pass judgment on broader social issues.

Humanities scholarship is influential only to the extent that it is credible. The power of scholarly findings rests on the foundation of trust and truth.

If we prove ourselves unwilling to judge truth from falsehood, or scholarship from ideology, we should not be surprised if students cannot make such distinctions.

The work of every scholar stands on the shoulders of those who have gone before, and steadily builds our knowledge and broadens our understanding. When a link in that chain of scholarship is broken by deceit or fraud, more is lost than the deceiver's reputation. The academic community cannot tolerate plagiarism, fraud, or other forms of misconduct without destroying the trust on which it relies.

The academy must be a place of open and free discourse, a haven where divergent and even disagreeable positions are freely spoken, and where debate should be free of intolerance and dogmatism. But in our aversion to rigid judgementalism, we cannot abandon making judgments.

The second challenge to the humanities is one of self-marginalization. I know that many of my colleagues have found their work channeled into narrow specialties defined by technical, jargon-filled writing. The pressure for scholars to develop their own highly specialized research niches can yield exciting new work, but taken to an
extreme, denies public access to scholarly discourse.

We should encourage the use of simple, clear language. I am not advocating the "dumbing down" of professional articles and books. It takes far more effort and intelligence to make complex ideas understandable to the lay reader than it does to couch them in such esoteric language that none but fellow specialists dare venture through the thicket of intimidating and tangled prose that has become commonplace in many scholarly journals.

There is a downside to this, of course – when our words have plain meaning, it is harder to duck responsibility or straddle the sides of a controversy. Using simple, clear language has not only the virtue of intellectual honesty, but also the advantage of increasing public interest in and comprehension of the best the humanities has to offer. And by making academic thought more accessible to the public, the wisdom of the humanities spreads wider and sinks deeper into the fabric of American thought.

But it is the third challenge that I believe the most pernicious – and the most widespread. The affliction is not limited to the academy, but has spread throughout the body politic: the civic ailment of American Amnesia.

One of the common threads of great civilizations is the cultivation of memory. Many of the great works of antiquity are transcribed from oral traditions. From Homer to the Beowulf epic, such tales trained people to remember their heritage and history through story and song, and passed those stories and songs throughout generations. Old Testament stories repeatedly depict prophets and priests encouraging people to remember, to "write on their hearts" the events, circumstances, and stories that make up their history.

We are in danger of forgetting this lesson. For years, even decades, polls, tests and studies have shown that Americans do not know their history, and cannot remember even the most significant events of the 20th
century.

Of course, we are a forward-looking people. We are more concerned with what happens tomorrow than what happened yesterday.

But we are in danger of having our view of the future obscured by our ignorance of the past. We cannot see clearly ahead if we are blind to history. Unfortunately, most indicators point to a worsening of our case of American amnesia.

I'll give just a few examples. One study of students at 55 elite universities found that over a third were unable to identify the Constitution as establishing the division of powers in our government, only 29 percent could identify the term "Reconstruction," and 40 percent could not place the Civil War in the correct half-century.

The recent National Assessment of Education Progress test found that over half of high school seniors couldn't say whom we fought in World War II. Perhaps even more horrifying, 18 percent thought that Germany was a U.S. ally in the Second World War.

Such collective amnesia is dangerous. Citizens kept ignorant of their history are robbed of the riches of their heritage, and handicapped in their ability to understand and appreciate other cultures.

If Americans cannot recall whom we fought, and whom we fought alongside, during World War II, it should not be assumed that they will long remember what happened here on September 11.

And a nation that does not know why it exists, or what it stands for, cannot long be expected to flourish.


Recovering our Memory

Our nation's future depends on how we meet that challenge.

We have already discussed some ways we can recover trust built on a love of and adherence to truth, and the need to reward and encourage the use of simple, clear and accessible language. Similarly, I believe there are several things we can do to alleviate our serious case of American amnesia.

At the NEH, we are preparing to launch a new initiative, with the support and leadership of the White House, to bolster the study and understanding of American history.

On September 17, Constitution Day, President Bush announced his history and civics initiative in a Rose Garden Ceremony. At the center of the White House effort is the National Endowment for the Humanities new initiative, called "We the People." It is the first time in the NEH's almost 40 year history that we have been the focus of a presidential Rose Garden announcement. I believe this demonstrates our President's exceptional concern for the problem of American historical amnesia, and commitment to its cure.

The We the People initiative includes the following elements:

Over the next couple years, We the People will expand to include new grant competitions and categories, such as a model curricula competition, and expanded offerings in our Summer Seminars and Institutes series aimed at teaching American history content to history teachers.

These are, of course, only first steps – but they are important ones to take. In the coming months and years, I want the NEH to help lead a renaissance in knowledge about our history and culture. Understanding ourselves is the first step to understanding our place in the world.

We all have a role to play. I want to enlist your help in that struggle. In your university, your communities, and in your families, is the best place to start the process of recovering our memories -- recognizing, retelling, and retaining the story of who we are and what we stand for.

We cannot expect that a nation which has lost its memory will keep its vision. We cannot hope that forgetting the past will enhance our focus on the future. And we cannot neglect the great democratic imperative: to give each succeeding generation a brighter light, a broader perspective, and an enriched legacy with which to face the future.


Created in 1965 as an independent federal agency, the National Endowment for the Humanities supports learning in history, literature, philosophy and other areas of the humanities. NEH grants enrich classroom learning, create and preserve knowledge, and bring ideas to life through public television, radio, new technologies, museum exhibitions, and programs in libraries and other community places. For further information check www.neh.gov.

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