Countering William J. Bennett
In testimony before the House Interior Appropriations Subcommittee in January, former National Endowment for the Humanities Chairman William J. Bennett insulted the intelligence of teachers in the schools and especially participants in such neh programs as the Summer Seminar for School Teachers. Mr. Bennett testified that works studied in the program were being "Marxized, feminized, deconstructed, and politicized."
"High school teachers, far from being exposed to 'the best which has been thought and said in the world' (in Matthew Arnold's phrase)" were being, according to the former U.S. Secretary of Education, "indoctrinated in the prevailing dogmas of academia."
As a four-time participant in the Summer Seminars program and a 20-year veteran of teaching in the schools, let me say simply that William J. Bennett has no understanding of what he is condemning. While I, as well as many of my colleagues, share his concern about the state of values in American society, how insulting it is to assume that teachers are so unable to think for themselves that they will become duped or indoctrinated in a four- to six-week summer seminar. If Mr. Bennett is correct in this assumption, then our entire educational system needs to be dismantled, not just the neh.
I am a professional who teaches four high school classes a day and two evening university classes each week, in addition to performing administrative duties. When I get home in the evenings (on those rare occasions when there are no school functions), there are papers to correct and lessons to plan. In the busy pace of the school year, the time for intellectual contemplation is lacking. This void has been filled for many teachers, however, by the neh Summer Seminars, which Chairman Bennett himself helped create but which he now proposes to abolish.
My personal experience with the neh includes no evidence to support the charges he made to the House subcommittee. In 1985, I had the opportunity to study the works of Winston Churchill with Professor John Lukacs at Chestnut Hill College in Philadelphia. Reading Churchill certainly did not encourage leftist political tendencies on my part, nor did this activity influence me to become a supporter of British imperialism. My next neh experience was at Appalachian State University in Boone, N.C., where the seminar investigated Appalachian culture and life. Perhaps this is the type of program Mr. Bennett does not like, as he originally established the Summer Seminars with a great-books focus. There is nothing wrong with such an approach. But, on the other hand, what is wrong with extending the Western canon?
In 1991, I was selected for a seminar at Emory University on "Intellectuals and Communism." Perhaps this is a good example of the Marxist indoctrination feared by Mr. Bennett. The reading list, however, included such works as Witness, by the anticommunist Whittaker Chambers, and the seminar's director, Harvey Klehr, is the co-editor of The Secret World of American Communism, which describes the Communist Party of the United States as a "conspiracy financed by a hostile foreign power that recruited members for clandestine work, developed an elaborate underground apparatus, and used that apparatus to collaborate with espionage services of that power." I just hope that Professor Klehr was not duped by seminar members who were more sympathetic to the American left.
My most recent (and perhaps final) seminar experience was a study of Stalinism at that hotbed of radicalism Canisius College, a Catholic institution in Buffalo, N.Y., where we read such critics of the Soviet system as Robert Conquest and Alexander Solzhenitysn.
In short, my associations with the neh Summer Seminar program indicate that Mr. Bennett distorts when he paints with such a broad brush. While some programs may, indeed, have political agendas, I retain my faith in the ability of America's teachers to see through such efforts and exercise good judgment. Because Mr. Bennett lacks this respect for teachers, he would destroy a program that provides prestige, travel opportunities, networking with colleagues from around the nation, and funding for a profession that is underpaid and undervalued in our society.
If he really wanted to address the problem of values in our society, wouldn't Mr. Bennett be looking for ways to enhance the respect accorded teachers? He should be examining avenues to expand teacher involvement in such programs as the Summer Seminars (which is what I try to do at various teacher conferences). It is wishful thinking to assume that private funding and organizations such as the Heritage Foundation would be able to fill the gap left by an abolished neh. And why do we assume that privatization will encourage the objectivity of the programs?
To expect that colleges will reach out to the schools is also naive. In a recent issue of the Organization of American Historians Newsletter, Professor Mary Beth Norton made an eloquent defense of the NEH, but she neglected to mention any programs through which the endowment serves K-12 teachers. My fear is that even if a political compromise on the neh is reached in the Senate, funding will be drastically curtailed and programs for the schools and for teachers will not be spared the ax. The House funding measure currently calls for phasing out the neh over three years, while the Senate version would maintain the endowment, but at considerably reduced funding levels. Teachers lack the political leverage of their university colleagues, and I see little political support for the Summer Seminar Program in a truncated National Endowment for the Humanities.
So Mr. Bennett's attack on the Summer Seminar Program of the neh has been a disservice to the teachers of America. His proposal to abolish the program and the neh itself is a radical solution to the alleged problems he outlined. This program has served thousands of teachers and several hundred thousand students around the nation. A true conservative would seek to reform the endowment and increase opportunities and respect for teachers in order to really address problems of values in American society.