Lynne V. Cheney : Skating Over Controversy at the Humanities Endowment

<i> Sarah Fritz is a special-projects reporter at The Times' Washington Bureau. She interviewed Cheney at the endowment's offices</i>

As chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, Lynne V. Cheney preaches a doctrine that many of today’s educators view as too conservative and outmoded. But like her husband, Defense Secretary Dick Cheney, she does not shrink from controversy. She is a thoughtful, self-assured and strong-minded woman.

As Cheney sees it, America’s colleges and universities, in their quest to provide an education that will appeal to the current crop of career-oriented students, are failing to impart the knowledge of the literature and history that is their Western intellectual heritage.

She has particularly criticized Stanford University’s decision to abolish its reading list of the great books of Western culture. She thinks Stanford is sacrificing the teaching of Western civilization out of a misguided sense that it precludes the study of other cultures.

Cheney justifies her criticism of the nation’s institutions of higher learning with the results of a Gallup poll of college seniors commissioned by the endowment last year. It found, among other things, that 40% had no idea when the Civil War occurred.


To remedy the problem, Cheney, in a report, “50 Hours,” proposed that universities adopt a core curriculum of 50 semester hours of study in cultures and civilizations, foreign languages, mathematics, natural sciences and social sciences--a curriculum similar to that abandoned by many schools a quarter-century ago.

Not surprisingly, many school administrators view Cheney’s proposal as an attempt to turn back the clock to a time when the demands on education were entirely different. Knowing when the Civil War was fought, they contend, is not as important as knowing why.

Cheney’s strength amid controversy is also apparent in her handling of the dispute over federal funding of obscene materials that has engulfed a similar agency, the National Endowment for the Arts. While both NEH and NEA are barred by Congress from funding such works, she insists it is of no importance to her because during her tenure she has never funded anything obscene.

A 5-foot-2 native of Wyoming, Cheney, 48, earned a bachelor’s degree from Colorado College, a master’s degree from the University of Colorado and a doctoral degree in 19th-Century British literature from the University of Wisconsin. While raising two daughters and supporting her husband’s political career, she wrote three novels and shared authorship with her husband of a book about Congress, “Kings of the Hill.” Before becoming NEH chairman in 1986, she wrote regularly about history for Washingtonian magazine.

Like the Doles, the Cheneys are one of Washington’s most glamorous two-income couples. But what sets them apart is these two have been together since they were high-school sweethearts. As she tells it, his first political victory was getting her elected homecoming queen.

Question: Since you proposed a 50-hour core curriculum for colleges and universities, have you seen any movement away from the career-oriented emphasis in colleges?

Answer: Not discernibly so. I think there are some statistics that make it clear how much vocationalism there is. Twenty years ago, one out of every six students was majoring in the humanities. Now it is one out of 16. Meanwhile, one out of four is majoring in business.

I am troubled, though, when I read people condemning a whole generation of young people for being too vocationally oriented. I think it is a natural result of the high cost of higher education. When you look at how much it costs to go to college, and how those costs have escalated, it is very understandable that young people will become very pragmatic in their approach to college education.

I see it as an argument to keeping college costs down so that people can begin to have a larger view of learning. And I also see it as calling upon the endowment--me, in particular--to try to explain to students, to their parents, that learning that is of pragmatic benefit isn’t necessarily vocational learning, that the liberal arts has a practical benefit--from liberal learning comes a kind of judgment perspective that is very usable, not only in personal life, but in professional life.

Q: Are there colleges and universities that you think are doing a good job?

A: One that had a core curriculum in place for a very long time and a program that is admirable is Columbia University. Wonderful core requirements in Western civilization, very rigorous requirements in studying other cultures, requirements in music, requirements in art. Another example was Brooklyn College. . . .

Those two are a nice pair because Columbia tends to have a more selective air about it, and Brooklyn is a college that admits large numbers of people who apply to go there. It works very well at Brooklyn College. It has been the salvation of the school in many ways. They have become famous for their core curriculum. . . .

Q: Why is a core curriculum necessary?

A: What you have in far too many cases now are students arriving on campuses with very little grasp of history, of literature, often with no experience at all in studying philosophy. And they arrive on college campus without this firm background in the humanities and all too often are given very little guidance about how you go about building that foundation of knowledge that really will serve you through a lifetime.

That is what a core curriculum does. It gives you a chance to explore major areas of human knowledge in a rigorous and coherent way. But we have been talking about humanities. The problem is wider than that. It’s very often the case that students will graduate from college without having adequate knowledge of science or mathematics. It’s possible to graduate from almost 40% of our colleges and universities without taking a course in science, from more than 40% without taking a course in mathematics. And to my way of thinking, that is an equally severe problem. The English major ought to know about superconductors and quantum mechanics, just as the engineer ought to know about Shakespeare.

Q: Many schools allow students to satisfy their humanities requirement by selecting from a menu of courses. Why is that not as good as what you are recommending?

A: If the menu is limited enough, it can be a very good program. But all too often what you have is a menu so extensive that you can satisfy your history requirement by taking a course--and this is the Harvard example--in “19th-Century tuberculosis.” Now that does not give you a firm overview, a broad overview, of history. If the menu is sufficiently structured, you know, and if the choices are limited, that kind of distribution requirement can work. But typically what you find is people satisfying history requirements by taking a course in the French labor movement, or people satisfying literature requirements by taking a course in Beast Literature, one of my favorites.

Q: At the same time humanities instruction in schools is declining, Americans seem to be increasingly interested in literature, history, political science--judging from the growing number of books that sell on these subjects. How do you explain this?

A: You know, it may be that there is something in all of us that finds satisfaction and happiness in humanistic knowledge. There is a quote from Augustine that I used in “50 Hours” in which he says “the only reason to philosophize is in order to be happy.” There is an enduring appeal to these disciplines, and if you don’t get it in school, and if you lead a thoughtful life, it simply may be the case that you will wake up at 30 just wanting to take a course in Western civilization.

(An aide) has been taking a course in Western civilization over at the Smithsonian and she reports to me how people are sort of hanging around the doorjambs in this course you have to pay for. I have had museum people tell me that the typical person coming to the door is a physician, a doctor, who has had a very focused education and who now, reaching 35, edging up toward 40, is beginning to think that there are whole areas of human experience that he or she would like to know more about. So it may be testimony to the enduring appeal of the humanities.

Q: Do you think this trend will someday affect college and secondary education?

A: It seems to me that it is the source of that cadre of people who can bring about change, knowing how important it is to have a broad grasp of human experience. I think people will become more and more dissatisfied with our schools, our colleges and universities, for not providing it. And they will make better choices. It has often seemed to me that the solution to college curricular difficulties is better-educated consumers. You know, tell people how to read a college catalog. . . .

Q: How should parents read a college catalog if they want their children to get the kind of education you are talking about?

A: Sometimes I think one way to do it is to make the worst-case scenario. Read the catalog and say, “What is the worst way I could fill all of these requirements?” And if it is very bad, then probably you do not have a curriculum that is thoughtfully structured. If you can spend all of your time in the music department or in the math department, and never take a course that will broaden you out beyond that--there is a problem with the curriculum. If you can fulfill your requirements in those diverse departments in narrow ways--then you probably do not have a thoughtfully structured curriculum. The curriculum reveals so much about how that institution values teaching. If the institution values teaching, it is more often than not the case that the curriculum will be thoughtfully constructed.

Q: You complained that your daughter’s college had reduced the requirements at the same time it upped tuition. What was that all about?

A: I have struggled with trying to understand what the root cause is of what I think can be rightly characterized as a flight from teaching in higher education. It seems to have to do with the fact that research is accountable, quantifiable. If you write two books and 17 articles, you can put that on a nice neat list and everyone can look at it and say, “this person has accomplished something.” Being a good teacher is not so easily accountable, so easily quantifiable. If that is the proper explanation or not, the phenomenon is certainly clear. Everyone is pushed in the direction of doing research. There is very little credit given for teaching; there is lots of credit, when time comes for tenure and promotion, given for research.

Q: What does NEH do to promote the kind of teaching you are talking about?

A: We have all manner of programs that give teachers opportunities to study their subjects. It seems like such a simple idea, but it is not one that has had a premier place in our educational system. We have asked teachers to study how to teach to such a degree that they often don’t have enough chance to study the subject that they are teaching. . . .

In colleges and universities . . . a large part of our funding goes to faculty development, which is again bringing teachers in contact with the subjects they are teaching. Often you have Ph.D.s on a college faculty whose specialties are so narrow that they feel very uncomfortable and unprofessional about reaching beyond them. Perhaps they have written a dissertation on John Dunne, and the kind of core programs we have described in “50 Hours” might require them to teach Dante, and they will feel troubled by having to reach out so far. Perhaps they have not even had a chance to read Dante in graduate school.

Q: Is there any connection between the failure of schools to teach about government and discouraging trends we see in the political system, such as voter apathy?

A: As I look across all of the things that youngsters don’t know that our tests have turned up, those are the ones that trouble me most. You know, when they don’t know what “the Federalist Papers” were, when they have got Stalin’s words mixed up with Churchill’s, or Karl Marx’s words with the United States Constitution. It is so clear that they have no understanding of that great democratic gift that they have been given, and little understanding of what is necessary to protect it. That is very worrisome to me.

The Washington Post had an article not long ago on the front page about teachers going in the classroom across the country and talking about the wonderful events happening in Eastern Europe, and the kids just sort of sitting there flat, not responding, because they had no historical context to put these events in. One young woman said, “What’s all this talk about satellites; are we talking about satellite dishes?”. . .

Q: It used to be said that our educational system was failing to teach students how to write, but then writing became viewed as a job-related skill and schools now emphasize it. Are they producing better writers?

A: I sometimes worry that this perception that writing is a vocational tool undermines the best approach to teaching writing--which is having young people, students, read good writers. Hemingway was once asked how do you become a good writer, and he said: “It is easy; there are three answers: Read ‘Anna Karenina,’ read ‘Anna Karenina,’ read ‘Anna Karenina.’ ”. . . There is a great deal of wisdom in that. That is how you learn to be a good writer, by reading people who write well.

Q: I understand you hate to be asked questions about being the wife of Dick Cheney?

A: Well, I only mind it when I think that I am sitting here answering those questions, and nobody is over at the Pentagon asking Dick what it is like to be married to me.

Q: In 1985, you wrote a story for Washingtonian magazine, “The Decline of the Dutiful Wife.” Could you have put yourself in that article?

A: I suppose, in the sense that it was about women who had lifetimes of achievements--but many of those achievements were not the kind that draw themselves to public attention. They had spent time raising children, they had spent time making a home--which I don’t think of as the act of a dutiful person, but as a generous act that makes all of those who are lucky enough to participate in that home happy and grateful. So they have been doing these things that perhaps had not called themselves to public attention, and then they found themselves doing things that the world at large seemed to notice more.

And I suppose that does describe the course of my own life.