Lynne V. Cheney / On Humanities : Return to Liberal Arts Education Urged

Times Staff Writer

One year after becoming chairwoman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, Lynne V. Cheney is on the move.

Now that flak over her removal of the endowment's name from the credits of PBS' controversial series "The Africans" is behind her--"it's gone, thank goodness"--she is focusing on what has become, to hear her talk, a beloved priority: putting the humanities back into the educational limelight.

As she told the 1987 winners of the U.S. Academic Decathlon at John Marshall High School here on Friday, the endowment "worries about things like history, literature, philosophy, foreign languages, the social sciences, too . . . ."

Constitutional Ignorance

She worries about their erosion, citing a poll of high school graduates that showed more than half thought that "all men are created equal" appears in the Constitution (instead of the Declaration of Independence). Invariably the Constitution comes up in conversation; Cheney is also on the Bicentennial Commission.

A former journalist, novelist and college teacher who holds a doctorate in 19th-Century English literature, Cheney is working with a special advisory group she appointed to help prepare NEH's report, to be issued in the fall, on "not only how the humanities are being taught and how they should be taught, but why they should be taught." So she has come West to campaign for the humanities and to gather information, including participating in a session with educators at UCLA.

Lynne Cheney, who was appointed by President Reagan and confirmed by the Senate, and husband Rep. Richard Cheney (R-Wyo.), former chief of staff to President Gerald Ford, now chairman of the House's Republican Policy Committee, are an influential Washington couple.

For the 45-year-old chairwoman, who grew up in Casper, Wyo., the trip was also a homecoming. Monday she delivered the commencement address at Colorado College, her alma mater. Their daughter, Elizabeth, 20, a political science major and classics minor, goes into her senior year there; daughter Mary, 18, who plans to major in history, will enter this fall.

Important to Love Your Work

Tuesday, Cheney spoke at graduation at Natrona County High School, another alma mater. At both places she touted the humanities, sprinkling her remarks with a poem by Robert Frost, "Two Tramps in Mudtime," about the importance of loving the work you do.

In an interview Cheney said: "The humanities are important now, as they've always been, because what they deal with are questions that have to do with human nature and the state of the human condition that never change: What are the most important goals in life? What goals should one set for oneself? Questions about identity: Who am I? What's important to me? Questions about relationships: 'King Lear,' for example, the questions it asks are about what parents and children owe one another.

"Particularly in a world like today's, where everything seems to whirl into chaos at all times, where things are moving so quickly, the humanities that deal with eternal verities have a particularly important role to play. They are a rock for us to hold onto . . . .

"It used to be that a person could know, with a fair degree of accuracy, what he or she would be doing her entire life. The last statistic I read shows that just in terms of work the average person has nine jobs in a lifetime. So with that kind of professional change, the way we all move, with changes in the traditional family structure, the humanities are that anchor.

"The humanities have fallen on hard times," Cheney noted. "Between 1975 and 1985, a decade in which the total number of bachelors degrees was increasing, the number of degrees in philosophy was down by almost 40%, in history down by about 50%, in literature down by 60%. One recent study that comes out of UCLA shows that over the past 20 years the number of people saying they were going to major in history was down by 80%.

Approach Changed Drastically

"At the same time," she continued, "what you see is that the approach to life these students are taking has changed drastically. It used to be that if you asked them what purpose their college education was, it would be to 'find out more about myself, to develop a philosophy of life.' Now if you ask them they say, 'It's to make a lot of money.'

"I think it's important that people do live examined lives, that they ask themselves questions that human beings always felt were necessary, to give meaning to this journey we're all on. There's even a practical value. Students aiming toward the bottom line, I want to make sure they understand the humanities make a contribution there, too. If you're going to have nine jobs, what you need to learn is not the skills that will be important for that first job and which will likely be outdated very quickly anyway, what you need is the kind of general knowledge that helps you make life decisions and to think in a critical way."

Cheney brings to conversation ammunition about how well liberal-arts majors fare. At AT&T; they become general managers faster; at IBM they are nine out of 13 top executives. "You're beginning to hear people in the business world talk about the necessity for finding people who can think. Meg Greenfield, the editorial page editor of the Washington Post, was talking about a classics major she just hired. That's exactly what she said about her: 'She can think. She knows that when things happen, they aren't happening for the first time in human history.' "

Cheney also brings anecdotes about Winston Churchill in World War II: How in the midst of battle against Hitler he could be thinking about the foreign-policy mistakes of Oliver Cromwell, and "thinking of the next step, he was thinking of the Soviet Union"; how during the crucial battle of El Alamein in 1942 he could calmly outline the future Common Market.

"Elementary and secondary schools, they have developed a notion that you don't need to know what happened, you don't need to know the story of history, you don't need to know the great texts of literature in order to develop critical thinking or judgment. I had a curriculum supervisor in a Western state tell me--no, not your Western state, nor mine--while I was bemoaning the fact that students don't know when the Civil War happened, they don't know who Keats is, who Wadsworth is, and she said to me, 'I'm not so concerned about that. What would concern me is they don't know how to look them up.'

"The point of the Churchill story is: Life isn't a research paper. You can't look it up. You have to carry a lot of it around inside you to profit your life and give you perspective."

Since the onset of progressive education in the 1920s, Cheney maintains, "the content of the humanities has sort of been leeched out of the curriculum. In our time it also happened because we try to get the schools to do a lot of other things: to teach about drugs, about marriage, and the place that has always looked the most vulnerable, the place where they want to stick one of these things has been social studies, particularly history." Or, she added, as recently happened, "my daughter, in a fine school system in Virginia, had to watch the AIDS film. They don't show it in math or science. They show it in English. It takes time away.

"History is in trouble in our schools; literature is almost gone entirely. (Compare) elementary readers where kids used to find Hawthorne and Shakespeare and Longfellow, the McGuffey reader to readers now. There's very seldom in them anything by anyone you or I ever heard of. They are people who write for textbooks. They string sentences together about how to find a job, how to read the telephone books, how to eat your peas."

Besides railing against dull textbooks and college education courses that teach prospective teachers "how to arrange the chairs in a classroom" instead of "learning how to fill children's minds," Cheney worries about the system's "preoccupation with global education" at the expense of learning about Western civilization: "The Greeks, the Romans, Europe, the whole Judeo-Christian tradition--the heritage out of which all our lives and traditions have come." An Eastern educator she read about "said we need to teach about the Pacific Rim, we need to teach about Africa, because then they will understand the Pilgrims were no big deal. Well, the Pilgrims are a very big deal."

Perhaps that person was putting history in context, that Americans weren't the only fish in the sea, that something in Asian or African history was just as wonderful or more so? "I find it hard to imagine," Cheney answered, "that there's a story more wonderful than being driven by the desire to worship freely, to set off across that ocean, to make a home out of this wild and inhospitable land . . . ."

She worries that "moral relativism is alive and well in our schools: 'We in this country value (our) family. People in the Soviet Union value their family. There's no difference between the United States and the Soviet Union.' " She scoffed. "There is a great difference; what characterizes our society is freedom. . . . Democratic institutions are good things. They are not just another way of organizing a government. They are the best way."

Shouldn't students be coming to that conclusion themselves as a part of critical thinking? "In a widely used American history textbook," she replied, declining to name it, "kids are learning that the (Constitution's) framers went to Philadelphia and set up a form of government which would benefit them materially. Now perhaps that's one interpretation they might be exposed to, but there's not another in the book. What you don't have in the textbook are wonderful quotes from somebody like Daniel Webster who said, 'Miracles do not cluster. Only once in 6,000 years have human beings managed to write a document like our Constitution. Guard it carefully.' "

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