Albert Einstein once noted that a thing should be made as simple as possible—but no simpler. I am afraid that E. Christian Kopff (Cultural Revolutions, May 1989) has reduced my ideas below an acceptable minimum and distorted them in the process.
I have said that teaching is undervalued in today’s university, that we do not put sufficient stress on the importance of communicating to the next generation the great ideas and books that are our heritage and theirs. To observe this—and to advocate recognition of excellent teaching—is very far from what Dr. Kopff charges me with; “asking that our children be taught what people who have never wrestled aggressively with great literature remember from their graduate school days.” Excellent teachers don’t do this. They read and contemplate books anew when they teach them. They grapple time and again with the enduring questions great literature raises. Their students benefit. Our society benefits. And we should recognize such efforts as part of the scholarly office—even when they do not result in publication. Excellent teachers—those whom John Silber calls “sound scholars who never publish books or articles and instead publish orally in the classroom”—should have an honored place in the academy.
And so should those sound scholars who do publish. Their work preserves memory of the past, engages scholars with other scholars and sometimes with larger audiences as well. It also enriches teaching, as Dr. Kopff observes. For all these reasons, I recently recommended an increase for 1990 in NEH funding for our Research Division—and this at a time when our overall budget request remains about level with this year’s.
But it would be a mistake to regard publication, in and of itself, as what Dr. Kopff calls an “objective standard of academic expertise.” Even in refereed journals, one can see the “self-isolating vocabularies” and “symptoms of the fragmentation of the humanities” that William Bennett lamented when he was chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities. It is because examples of jargon-laden and hyperspecialized research are so easy to find that publications like The New Republic—cited by Dr. Kopff—can call the entire research enterprise into question.
For the sake of serious scholarship, we need high standards for research—just as for the sake of our students, we need high standards for teaching. We at the National Endowment for the Humanities are committed to both.
—Lynne V. Cheney, Chairman
National Endowment for the Humanities
Among the many stirring and insightful things between the covers of the May issue I find a couple of alarming hints of cannibalism that call to mind Pogo’s “I have met the enemy and it is us.”
Thus we have the distinguished journalist Sam Francis blasting away at President Bush’s conduct of the presidency (already) because he appointed William J. Bennett the “drug czar.” And E. Christian Kopff mounts a sharp if rather vague and unsupported attack on Lynne V. Cheney at NEH, of all people, for being against research and thereby playing Trojan Horse for “minimal standards” in higher education.
Neither of these attacks is warranted by the facts; indeed, far from it. Bill Bennett, philosopher and lawyer by education, was never a public schoolteacher yet turned out to be the best secretary of education in the history of the Republic—according even to The Washington Post. Simply because he has never been a dope addict (unless cigarette smoking counts) or a narcotics officer doesn’t mean he won’t be as effective in the vexed sphere of dope trafficking as he was in prodding the country’s education establishment into semiconsciousness. (Let’s not expect miracles!) George Bush knows talent when he sees it, apparently, and knows to go with talent and track record over “qualifications” on a resume.
As to Lynne Cheney, she has been and remains a superb chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities— precisely because she has courageously and effectively raised the banner of standards and scholarship against the trendy deconstructionists and know-nothings of the academy. As chairman she has been receptive to the key role of the Division of Research Programs within the Endowment, and funds and percentage of the budget of NEH itself devoted to research have increased—not diminished—under her leadership.
She has carried the fight for standards and substance at all levels of humanities education to opponents throughout the country. It is, in fact, Lynne Cheney far more than any of the other (certainly very estimable) persons mentioned in favorable ways by Kopff who has made precisely standards the issue for American higher education day in and day out over the past several years.
While petulance has its Menckenesque allure as good clean fun, it may be useful to remind Chronicles that blasting fellow underworkmen in the vineyards of political and educational sanity is more than merely wasted powder and shot. It is a form of psychological Russian roulette. With such friends who needs enemies?
More generally, it may be worth suggesting that a siege mentality, an inability to labor in tolerance in concert or coalition with any who differ by one centimeter from your own convictions, blasting for the sake of blasting with facile pen and speech, tend to diminish the coherence and capacity of some self-described “conservatives” to pull together toward common objectives and to act and speak moderately and responsibly.
—Ellis Sandoz, Director
Eric Voegelin Institute
Baton Rouge, LA
Dr. Kopff Responds:
I did not attack Dr. Cheney’s fine work as chairman of the NEH nor her thought-provoking report, “Humanities in America.” I pointed out the difficulties of improving the humanities when even so good a person can write (“Humanities in America,” p. 11):
“It is also important to recognize that research and learning need not always involve publication. Observed Dean Baldwin of Pennsylvania State University’s Behrend College, ‘There are other ways to do scholarship besides publication in a refereed journal.’ Reading, thinking, exploring imaginatively over a number of areas in a way that will benefit students is also scholarship and should be so acknowledged.”
I, too, would like to acknowledge reading and thinking as scholarship, but what objective criteria shall we use to evaluate that reading and thinking? Suppose a teacher is preparing as Dr. Cheney describes, by rereading a work of literature or history—in the original language, of course, perusing the standard commentaries and monographs, and keeping up with the periodical bibliography, so as to do more than merely repeat what was remembered from graduate school. Can that teacher really find no new insight on the text or no mistaken trend in contemporary scholarship? All we are asking is for the teacher to take a few of the insights currently “published orally in the classroom” and share them with the profession as a basis for evaluation.
Using refereed publication as the basis for objective evaluation is not a perfect system. It is better than nothing. Chronicles has praised Dr. Cheney’s work at NEH, has praised “Humanities in America” in an editorial, and has even published a favorable review of her novel. If we are to be mutually sustaining, it is time to come up with new objective and relevant grounds for evaluating good teaching, or else admit that, in our imperfect world, publication, confirmed by the winning of extramural grants, comes closest to providing the criteria that are most likely to reward the kind of creativity that is the basis of learning and teaching.