- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 17, 2001

For the last several weeks leading humanists have been fretting about the future of the National Endowment for the Humanities. Their worry: Bill Ferris, the agencys Clinton-appointed chairman, will pull off the miracle of remaining in office.
Academic folklorist and Elvis afficionado, Mr. Ferris has promoted regional culture as his signature cause, while more traditional projects, like compiling the papers of major American leaders, have been trimmed back. He has also allowed the endowments prestigious Jefferson lecture series to be stained by partisanship, inviting (unsuccessfully) Bill Clinton to deliver the address last year, and giving playwright Arthur Miller a podium from which to lambaste President Bush this year.
On the other hand, Mr. Ferris has been masterful in exploiting the endowments patronage possibilities, and in his drive to create regional centers accompanied by vigorous efforts to support local historical societies, cultural groups, and the state humanities councils beloved by many congressmen. Hes also blessed with an ingratiating Mississippi manner that builds rapport with politicians in a way that the intellectualism of most academics doesnt. Its pork and schmoozing thats made his continuance in office a possibility.
Even if there will be some small modicum of political cost in removing Mr. Ferris, the justification for Mr. Bushs retiring him is overwhelming. The reason is that compassionate conservatism" demands a cultural policy distinctly different from that which guides Mr. Ferris.
As explained by Mr. Bush, compassionate conservatism seeks to create a symbiotic relationship between governments philanthropy and community self-help. Its core insight is that Americas unique strength lies in the vibrancy and robustness of its civic culture. Americans dont just wait for government to solve their problems, they spontaneously, generously, and imaginatively seek solutions themselves. The rich panoply of American voluntary associations, both religious and secular, provides the medium for this engagement and government should find ways of working with, not against, them. Although compassionate conservatism has many sources of inspiration, its view of our national genius is clearly Tocquevillian, and hence consistent with Americas foundational wisdom.
What does this have to do with the leadership of NEH policy? Potentially much. As the Hudson Institutes John Fonte has recently written, a sharp division now exists within American humanism, pitting scholars of a Tocquevillian stripe against followers of an elitist philosophy imported from Europe. Mr. Fonte finds the principal source of the latter in the writings of the Italian neo-Marxist Antonio Gramsci, though its ancestry can also be traced to thinkers like Nietzsche, and the French sexuality theorist, Michel Foucault. But whatever its precise origins, its relevance to compassionate conservatism lies in its assignment to citizens of a passive, infantile, almost penitential role that is incompatible with Tocquevillian self-help.
The free agency that Tocqueville saw as the hallmark of American citizenship is, from the Gramscian perspective, both impossible to realize and undesirable to attempt. It is impossible because ordinary Americans are afflicted with a false consciousness enthralling them to Americas white, male, moneyed, "heterosexist" rulers. It is undesirable because left to themselves, Americans are only likely to perpetuate the bigotry and ignorance of their traditional culture. The remedy is thought reform, under the tutelage of the politically correct intellectual elite now so strongly ensconced in our universities and schools. Through its beneficence Americans may someday be rendered fit for life in a just and liberated society. Meanwhile, however, the elite and not the people have to call the tune. If compassionate conservatism, or any other approach to governing at one with liberty, has a future, it must be supported by an intellectual culture that continues to value Tocquevillian free agency.
This means that while working with voluntary associations today, compassionate conservatism must find means to ensure that they remain vigorous tomorrow. Scholarship and teaching in fields like history, political theory, and literature have a powerful impact on our view of ourselves as citizens and on our sense of civic competence. By giving renewed priority to that which explores the roots of our civic traditions, or preserves its documentary record, and by encouraging good teaching that does the same, the NEH can help ensure that Americans are not gradually drained of their self-confidence by a presumptive elite. This is only likely to happen under leaders who know what is at stake, and have the determination to fight the good fight. Whatever his down-home charm, Bill Ferris isnt such a leader. To be true to its governing ideal, the Bush administration should find someone who is.

Stephen H. Balch is president of the National Association of Scholars.

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