Our Official History Scold
by Judith H. Dobrzynski
WASHINGTON — Was it artful or accidental? It's hard to say with a man like Bruce Cole, the clever but low-key chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities. There, on the coffee table of the sitting area in his office one recent day, were a few posters that just happen to unite Mr. Cole's longstanding personal interests and his more recent professional ones.
The posters display Grant Wood's fanciful painting "The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere," this time galloping to announce the NEH's "Picturing America" campaign. As part of that pilot program, the NEH will distribute laminated posters depicting 40 artworks that teachers can use to teach American history. Besides the Grant Wood, there's Norman Rockwell's "Freedom of Speech," Joseph Stella's "Brooklyn Bridge" and Dorothea Lange's iconic photograph "Migrant Mother," among others. It would be hard to find a program more indicative of Mr. Cole, an art historian who came to the NEH 5 1/2 years ago and has since spread the alarm about Americans' ignorance of American history--and why that's so distressing.
If Mr. Cole is known at all--NEH chairmen rarely make headlines--it's for statements like "History is a safeguard for our democracy" and "It's part of our national security." In speeches, he frequently cites appalling statistics--half the students in elite universities cannot date the Civil War to the correct half-century, for example, and more people can name the Three Stooges than can list the three government branches. Noting that Americans are united not by race or religion, but by ideas and ideals, he says that the "waves of people arriving on our shores" make knowledge of our history all the more important. "Democracy is not inborn," he explains. "It has to be learned."
Mr. Cole also says things others might find old-fashioned and perhaps even politically incorrect. "We have to look at the valleys and the peaks, but I do believe in American exceptionalism," he said by way of explaining his zeal. "This is the greatest country that has ever existed."
For these sentiments, Mr. Cole has elicited some praise, but also smirks and snickers. Last year, Washington Post critic Philip Kennicott wrote that his "dogmatic public statements on art and literature are increasingly embarrassing." Mr. Cole himself acknowledges some raised eyebrows in his audiences when he speaks of the homeland security connection, but adds, "I don't remember anyone laughing."
In any case, his remedy for the national affliction is a program called "We the People," which since its inception in 2002 has spent more than $50 million on teacher institutes and workshops, museum exhibits, research fellowships, digitization of historic newspapers, public programming at historic sites, and similar projects. The grants are, to quote one description on the NEH Web site, geared toward projects that "explore significant events and themes in our nation's history and culture and that advance knowledge of the principles that define America."
That approach departs dramatically from the "My History Is America's History" program it supplanted, a PC thing started in 1999 by Mr. Cole's predecessor, William R. Ferris. Still, when asked to explain the difference, Mr. Cole demurs. Pressed, he says that "we're not interested just in personal history and the history of your family; history is fashioned by people who really make a difference." Finally, on the third question, he is critical: "We did go off track with the emphasis on individual history."
At first glance, Mr. Cole seems an odd choice for the job of America's official history scold. He's a button-downed guy, though not so staid that he wouldn't wear a bright purple tie, which matched his purple pin-striped shirt, with his dark suit. He's spent his life as a scholar of Renaissance art, mainly at Indiana University, traveling to Italy about 50 times. As you may have guessed, he deplores some trends in museology--which is not insignificant, considering that the NEH makes grants to museums that amounted to almost $15.8 million in the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, 2006.
He does not, for example, favor some things museums do to push for broader audiences. "I'm against museum exhibitions that are simply mounted to bring people in," he says. "How many more exhibitions do we need of Monet and Gauguin? Now, I have no objections if they create new knowledge, and that can be done."
In a similar vein, and without raising his voice, he berates other recent examples of questionable art museum shows. "Exhibitions on hip-hop, guitars and Star Wars are appropriate for a rock 'n' roll museum," he says. "But I don't think guitars and Star Wars are necessarily art." (He gives a pass to the infamous "Art of the Motorcycle" show at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in 1998--because he owns and rides a motorcycle.)
While he concedes that a decade of museum expansions has probably caused a structural problem that necessitates attempts to draw huge crowds, philosophically he has a different view. "I don't think we have to bring more people in, though we want them to come in," he explains. "I'm not so interested in, whether you're a doctor or whatever, that you know when Masaccio was born, but I want you to know that art is important. I would like to give as many people as possible the opportunity to understand that art can improve the quality of life. It should be available."
If Mr. Cole, the art historian, finds art to be optional, however, he is also quick to get back to his main message, about history. "I don't necessarily know that it's a bad thing if people don't know about art or classical music, but I think we should offer it as an opportunity--that doesn't mean you don't like country & western music or watch TV," he says. "I don't feel that way about American history." It's essential. Here he tells the story of Ronald Reagan's parting words as president. "He said this country comes from well-informed patriotism; it's that love of country, that love of place, that's necessary for any country's survival. You can call them myths if you want, but unless we have them, we don't have anything."
So for history, he does want crowds. In fact, realizing how expensive museum shows are nowadays, the NEH has announced it will give two "special chairman's awards" of $1 million to large-scale, important, traveling humanities exhibitions that "have exceptional potential for attracting large numbers of visitors."
The NEH has the wherewithal to make such large grants because its budget has grown under Mr. Cole, from $124.5 million in fiscal 2002 to $141.4 million in the administration's fiscal 2008 request (which, at just a bit more than last year's allocation, is likely to pass Congress as is--or even supplemented; the National Humanities Alliance has received support from dozens of lawmakers for its petition to add another $36 million). "The administration's support of the Endowment has not gotten the publicity it deserves," he says, adding: "We've done a lot of significant things, but like the administration's support for cultural agencies, we haven't been able to get our story out."
Citing new NEH-funded programs in state humanities councils, the nearly 1,000 high-school and college teachers who attended NEH seminars and institutes last summer, the 5,600 who have attended "We the People" seminars at American historical landmarks, and other "achievements," Mr. Cole believes he's making progress on his main goal. But he can't prove it. "This is a problem that is 50 years in the making, and we've only done this for five years," he says. Besides, the NEH can't do the whole job. "It'll require vast improvements in the way history is taught K-12."
"Picturing America" may just help there. Proudly, Mr. Cole states that the NEH received an "unprecedented number of applications"--some 1,600--for this year's 500 awards; winners will receive the set of sturdy posters, plus a course book and other teaching materials. And who can say about next year?
"I'm in this job because I'm interested in democratizing the humanities," Mr. Cole says at one point. "My job is to use taxpayers' money to reach as many people as possible."