From the December 1985 issue of Chronicles.

“The choice of a point of view is the initial act of culture.”
—Ortega y Gasset

Because I have spoken sharply to the general question of Federal support for arts and letters, and because my name is connected with certain facets of the public business, I receive through the mails a mass of publications designed to justify past or projected government funding for cultural activities. Some of these enterprises come under the heading of international relations or educational exchanges and are administered by the United States Information Agency. Others are within the Department of Education, such as language programs and area studies. And there are many more—within the Library of Congress, the Archives, the Smithsonian Institution, the great museums, and elsewhere. They all have industrious and eloquent defenders. But with respect to politics and the intellectual atmosphere in these United States, the most important of these writings concern the National Endowment for the Humanities—that now-20-year-old agency of the government brought into being to foster humane letters and the distribution of such learning or wisdom as proceeds from reflection or research in those fields that make up what we conventionally call “the humanities”: in such studies as are occupied with men and manners, language, persuasion, conceptual truth, aesthetics, the formation of character, and historical explanation.

Generally speaking, the promotional literature I see minimizes the history of whatever has been tendentious or merely partisan in the administration of this agency’s now more than $140 million budget and emphasizes instead the utility and potential of the Endowment as a civilizing instrument operating within an area of the nation’s intellectual life that is still more than 90 percent dependent on private resources. In the pages of this literature there is much “uplift,” puff, and burble, all of it officially oblivious to the fact that no public body can be expected to agree on what constitutes appropriate support for the humanities. But sometimes (and more wisely) these apologies and appeals speak not of fond hope but of the political problems surrounding NEH in its relation to the Congress and the groups which make up its constituency, the conflicts between such powers and the difficulty of satisfying them all. It is these documents which interest me, for they raise questions about the character of a regime which has such difficulty in calculating the costs of a commitment to culture and in determining the essential nature of the humanities as it relates to unavoidably political considerations.

Two works in this last category, which I have examined recently, are the 1985 A Report to the Congress of the United States on the State of the Humanities, issued by The American Council of Learned Societies, and Stephen Miller’s Excellence & Equity: The National Endowment for the Humanities, a monograph of institutional history and functional analysis prepared with the support of the Twentieth Century Fund.

The ACLS Report offers a way into the narrative, which Miller provides, and a justification for the caution of his suggestions for reforming NEH. The purpose of the ACLS statement is to encourage reauthorization of the Endowment and to control what sustained funding will mean for the member organizations which make up the Council; to get their view of NEH written into law by a Congress thus far reluctant to be specific with its instructions. Appearing in its several chapters, each of which represents a particular learned society, is also much talk about depoliticizing the Endowment—sententiae contra the Reagan regime provided by such “nonpartisan” authorities as are prepared to impose their own version of political activism upon it through the use of academic “experts”; sententiae presupposing (in the face of the last two Presidential elections) some version of Rousseau’s obnoxious doctrine of the “General Will”—what we would want NEH to be if we understood matters so well as the savants for whom ACLS has spoken.

A sample of this collective presumption appears in the chapter speaking for the Modern Language Association of America: “The NEH should maintain and if possible expand all of its programs.” Elsewhere in the Report, the American Studies Association complains of NEH’s retreat from “a sense of social purpose and idealism” toward support for the “more conventional, least controversial kinds of scholarly research.” We can very well imagine what kind of work, as opposed to the “conventional,” that “social purpose and idealism” might engender. Yet we should not be surprised by such blatant mendacity and open arrogance. Instead, having converted the interests of learning into just another lobby, we should react in astonishment only when some scholarly organizations refuse to “play ball” and argue to the contrary (as did this year the Renaissance Society of America) that “the NEH should continue to avoid investing its resources in projects and activities that claim to belong to the humanities because of popular confusion or interested distortion but which in fact belong to the arts, to the social sciences, or to social and political activities.”

Such, of course, are the implications of Miller’s history and analysis but—because he is a Washington “insider,” a career public servant and unaware of the meaning of elections—not the points that he makes. Even so, his book is indispensable as an introduction to its subject and as an account of the 1965 rhetorical origins of NEH.

As I have argued elsewhere, it is very important that the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Endowment for the Arts not become a “ministry of culture” in the European sense. For if they had such power, they would soon face a considerable pressure to create and enforce a national cultural policy. Literary scholars hear already about an “official” revision of the literary canon in a more “pluralist” direction and historians of a history curriculum free of “bias” toward Western values. However, for the moment, the danger of modernist cultural totalitarianism has abated. Miller suggests moving all NEH activities connected with “cultural dissemination” into a new and expanded version of NEA and insulating from White House influence the process by which the NEH chairman is selected. This, he argues, might end the suspicion of partisanship which hangs like a “cloud” over the agency and the old debate of elitism v. populism among the friends and critics of the Endowment. To which we respond, “Not unless the absolutely political character of the American academy is radically and mysteriously transformed.”

To be sure, NEH programs of obvious topicality and partisan inspiration—the sort of activities sanctioned by Jimmy Carter’s cultural czar. Dr. Joe Duffy, at his worst—should be (and have been) discontinued: grants to unions, to protest and special interest groups—to women because they were women and to minorities because of their race or preference in language. But to take away appointive control of NEH from the President of the United States would be merely to turn that organization over to management by the left on a more regular and restrictive basis. Even the administrators chosen by some ostensibly nonpartisan body would emphasize credentials in selecting chairmen to govern the agency; and conservatives would, by definition (having been out of power for 50 years), lack the credentials; which is what anyone who has worked since 1981 in the branches of government concerned with cultural affairs could predict without hesitation.

In Excellence & Equity we read that the authors of the March 11, 1965, “Act to create a National Foundation for the Arts and Humanities” argued, for their legislation that it was needed to correct an imbalance in the nation’s intellectual life brought on by the Federal power’s “limiting preoccupation with science.” The bill, in other words, avoided a direct appeal to a theory of cultural Federalism, a doctrine of the essential obligations of government to foster arts and letters, and spoke instead of circumstantial reasons for at least “some” Federal funding of high culture and humane learning, a modest foil to the National Science Foundation.

Even the most intemperate advocates of cultural spending are reluctant to suggest that a major attempt to revise the standing prologue to this original authorizing bill, a new “Declaration of Purpose,” be attempted in conjunction with the necessary legislative recommitment to NEH. They are well advised to be careful in tampering with language which both satisfies the Congress and leaves the Endowment free to function primarily as a nucleus around which a pattern of private support has gathered—to be, despite confused efforts at levering upward levels of public taste and sensibility, most of what it should be, or all that it can be, given the nature of the regime. For larger ambitions would lead not to the fulfillment of NEH’s highest potential for service to arts and letters, but rather, following protracted political debate, to its destruction.

Our political guardians, despite their myopic inability to recognize that the cultural Endowments should serve the general population by serving culture per se—that they should expect representatives of the party in power to follow that order of priorities in administering an agency and to win political credit through stewardship of a common good—are not (contra Miller) mistaken in their refusal to imitate the French or British pattern of government support for cultural activities. On questions of taste and value, as on questions concerning the telos or purpose of our political order, Americans have never been a people well agreed—homogenous underneath the wide variety of our cultural disputing, as are the intellectual aristoi of those older societies. Hence, we will not tolerate artificial instruments for encouraging or pretending to such unity where it has not occurred; nor, in my opinion, should we. Though it serves a purpose, especially in promoting study of the American things, we have in place all of the National Endowment for the Humanities that we can abide.