The recent announcement that Lynne V. Cheney, chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, intended to step down on January 20, sixteen months before the end of her term, was an occasion for sadness and trepidation. It was an occasion for sadness because in the six and a half years that she led the Endowment, Mrs. Cheney distinguished herself as a courageous and effective spokesman for the great principles of humanistic education. At a time when the humanities have been besieged by ideologues seeking to transform culture into a referendum on political correctness, Mrs. Cheney emerged as a staunch defender of the ideals of disinterested scholarship, objectivity, and the pursuit of truth for its own sake. In the face of unremitting abuse from the academic establishment, she consistently dared to criticize the demand that education be turned into a forum for political indoctrination.
Our sadness at the near prospect of Mrs. Cheney’s departure is compounded by the recognition that, even in the best of times, she would be most difficult to replace. Our trepidation is sparked by the realization that these are far from the best of times. The culture wars of the 1980s are intensifying as we settle into the 1990s. The institutionalization of cultural radicalism that marked the 1980s has succeeded to an unprecedented degree, not only in colleges and universities, but also in scholarly organizations, museums, the media, and even in grammar schools. Subjects that even a few years ago would have been widely considered beyond the pale are now routine items on the educational and cultural agenda. There can no longer be any doubt that the diversity police regard every capitulation as a basis for ever more outrageous demands.
Given the temper of the times, it is hardly surprising that news of Mrs. Cheney’s departure should have been cause for celebration among the cultural radicals who now control many of our leading educational institutions. The Chronicle of Higher Education, for example—which like many left-wing publications has lately made a cottage industry out of excoriating Mrs. Cheney and other critics of academic radicalism—could barely contain its glee at the announcement of her planned departure. “Backers of traditional curriculum disappointed,” screamed a subhead to its report on the news; “liberals relieved.”
Liberals? Well, “liberals” such as Stanley Katz, president of the American Council of Learned Societies. Mr. Katz, a voluble proponent of academic trendiness wherever it may be found, declared in the Chronicle that Mrs. Cheney was “just a great propagandist” and complained that she “packed her advisory council with critics of multiculturalism and women’s studies.” About the latter, anyway, he was entirely correct, even if “packed” is not exactly the mot juste. In her letter of resignation, Mrs. Cheney insisted that “political agendas should never take the place of the pursuit of truth as the object of education.” This was a conviction that she strove to embody in the Endowment’s grant-making policies, much to the chagrin of radical academics and functionaries such as Mr. Katz. It tells us a great deal about the current cultural scene that, because she fought against obscurantism and the importation of radical politics into the curricu-lum, Mrs. Cheney was branded a right-wing ideologue by bien pensants academics and journalists.
In fact, the Chronicle got it wrong. “Backers of traditional curriculum” were indeed disappointed by the announcement of Mrs. Cheney’s departure; but it is they, not the radicals clamoring for multiculturalism, “gender studies,” and the rewriting of history, who are the true liberals today. It is they who are defending such traditional liberal ideals as academic freedom, scholarly integrity, and the disinterested search for truth. Pace Mr. Katz, Mrs. Cheney imbued the activities of the Endowment with an intellectual dignity and openness to debate that have all but vanished on many college campuses in this country. Jonathan Yardley, writing recently in The Washington Post, aptly summed up the importance of her stewardship:
What Cheney understood from the hour she took office is that at this moment in history the greatest threat to free speech at university campuses and other intellectual institutions comes not from the right, as in the past, but from the left. The presence within humanities departments of limousine Marxists, radical feminists and other narrow-minded, bellicose ideologues of the left has been the late-20th-century equivalent of mid-century’s McCarthyism; Cheney has resisted these people eloquently and courageously, standing up for the ‘liberal tradition’ against those who, having been reared in it, now seek to demolish it from within.
The National Endowment for the Humanities was one of the few major cultural institutions in the United States that had not capitulated to the ideology of multiculturalism. With the departure of Mrs. Cheney, that last bulwark against cultural radicalism is likely to crumble, especially since those lobbying on behalf of the academic establishment are the only voices being heard by those now preparing to dispense patronage in Washington.
Exactly what are those voices demanding? A “transition report” prepared for President-elect Bill Clinton on the future of the the other Endowment, the National Endowment for the Arts, gives us a preview of coming attractions. Written by the radical art historian Maurice Berger “in cooperation with” the art dealer Ronald Feldman, this manifesto has been making the rounds in New York, looking for supporting signatures. The three-page document is a veritable compendium of radical clichés. Its concluding proposal summarizes the approach to culture we can expect to find officially sanctioned and supported in the future. Invoking the talisman of “diversity,” Mr. Berger suggests that “both in the staffing and in the programming of the NEA … arts institutions should be persuaded to better represent the cultural diversity of America, including the work of women, African-Americans, Native-Americans, Latinos, Asian-Americans, ethnic and religious groups, gay men and lesbians, and the economically disadvantaged.” In other words, politics, not artistic merit, is to be the deciding qualification for support by the National Endowment for the Arts. We can, alas, expect analogous deformations at the Humanities Endowment. Lynne Cheney’s departure will indubitably be a great loss for the NEH. It also promises to be emblematic of the cultural debacle now upon us.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 11 Number 5, on page 1
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