Bruce Cole's Obsession with History


Ms. DiCarlo is an editorial assistant at the Weekly Standard.

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Bruce Cole, the new chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, wants to put the "H" back in NEH. His two Clinton-administration predecessors had other priorities for the agency--a "national conversation" on diversity, and greater attention to regional and popular culture. Cole is making it his mission to tackle what he calls Americans' "collective amnesia" about their history.

Himself a historian of art specializing in the Renaissance, Cole emphasizes the urgency of addressing Americans' ignorance of their country's past. "Unlike a monarchy, a democracy is not automatically self-perpetuating," he says. "History and values have to be renewed from generation to generation."

And evidence abounds that the necessary process of renewal has somehow stalled. According to a 2000 survey by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, 99 percent of seniors at America's top 55 colleges recognized Beavis and Butthead, but only 23 percent could identify James Madison as the Father of the Constitution. The 2001 National Assessment for Education Progress survey found that a majority of high school seniors thought Germany, Japan, or Italy was an ally of the United States in World War II.

And in "What Americans Know About Politics," published in 1996, political scientists Michael X. Delli Carpini and Scott Keeter cite some similarly dreary findings: Forty-five percent of Americans attributed the phrase "From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs" to the U.S. Constitution rather than to Karl Marx's "Communist Manifesto." Nearly a third of Americans thought the Constitution guaranteed every American a job, 42 percent thought it guaranteed health care, and 75 percent thought it guaranteed a high school education.

This is the rich vein that "Tonight Show" host Jay Leno taps with his candid-camera man-on-the-street interview routine, "Jay-walking." Leno has discovered that, while most people are hard-pressed to identify a picture of George Washington, FDR, or Ronald Reagan, almost everyone knows Joe Camel and Mr. Peanut.

Cole says his agency's "We the People" initiative will help remedy this. One component consists of grants to curators, librarians, and scholars whose projects examine "significant events and themes in our nation's history and culture." Grants can go to both public and private institutions, as well as to individuals.

The second component is an annual history essay contest for high school juniors on the "Idea of America"--not the student's private idea of America, or his feelings about America, but the idea itself as it has been expressed in American institutions and experience. The first winner, Morghan Transue of Kendall Park, New Jersey, was awarded the prize of $5,000 on May 1, on the occasion of the annual "Heroes of History" lecture that is the program's third component. The inaugural lecture was delivered by Robert V. Remini, biographer of Andrew Jackson, Daniel Webster, and Henry Clay and professor emeritus at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He spoke about the Founding Fathers.

Describing the initiative to Congress in March, Cole stressed that it has acquired a new urgency since September 11. "The terrorist attacks were an assault on our principles, our heritage of freedom, our history, and our culture," he said. "To defend our country we must first understand it."

Cole is at one with the White House in underscoring this need. As President Bush said at the ceremony unveiling the history initiative last year, "American children are not born knowing what they should cherish--are not born knowing why they should cherish American values. A love of democratic principles must be taught."

It especially needs to be taught to the MTV generation, at a time when not a single Ivy League college requires a course in American history for graduation. Yet there is a popular appetite for history--witness the success of the History Channel and the recent best-selling biographies of John Adams and Theodore Roosevelt. Recognizing this, Bruce Cole insists his agency can help provide the young more nourishing fare than reality TV.

This article was first published by the Weekly Standard and is reprinted with permission.

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