(Portions published in the Plain Dealer, Letters to the Editor, April 12, 1995)
On January 24, 1995, former National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) Director and Secretary of Education William J. Bennett testified before the House Interior Appropriations Sub committee. In his statement, Dr. Bennett claimed that the NEH and the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) have had "a deleterious effect on our culture" specifically targeting the NEH Summer Seminars for School Teachers program for having indoctrinated [high school teachers] in the prevailing dogmas of academia with modish projects from deviant movements instead of expos[ing them] to 'the best which has been thought and said in the world' (in Matthew Arnold's phrase). As a former participant in both an NEH sponsored Summer Seminar and Summer Institute, I am highly distraught by Dr. Bennett`s remarks and I must emphatically disagree with his assessment.
The NEH Summer Seminars and Institutes allow teachers to reinvigorate themselves with this knowledge whose energy most probably led them to their vocation in the first place. Teachers come back excited to teach again! This energy is infectious and consequently passed on to students. In times when we so often hear of school districts are filled with administrative and financial woes and teachers turning apathetic under increased burdens of class size, workload, and administrative paperwork, the benefits from the new life these programs breathe into their participants are in my estimation far from "deleterious", but rather, invaluable.
My introduction to the NEH Summer Seminars was entitled Modern Literary Classics from Africa, the West Indies and the Pacific. On the surface, I suppose, this seminar would fall under Dr. Bennett`s heading of the "modish", "politicized", and "deviant movement" of multicultural ism. However, the artistry, scope, and themes of the writings of these authors (three of whom are Nobel laureates) easily place them within Arnold's criteria or Bennett's own classification of the "great work[s] of philosophy, literature, or history" he had hoped teachers would study at the programs inception. These works are replete with the images and references of the Classical education Dr. Bennett champions. Products of apparently disparate traditions, these authors, instead of rejecting either, embraced the best aspects of both creating something vibrant and new. Their struggles and solutions serve us as both analogies and accessible acceptable guides to both camps in the much debated crisis over divisiveness in American education (multicuturalism vs. traditionalism) and in American culture ("Baby Boomers" vs. "Generation X").
In an increasingly global community, the importance of breaking down barriers and building understanding between peoples cannot be overstated. The three year NEH National Arabic Language and Culture Institute addressed this need by providing intensive study in Arabic language, culture, and literature leading to certification at the program's end. A similar program for Japanese is starting this summer. Aside from the considerable academic gains, my greatest benefit from this seminar was a heightened sympathy for my language students. I learned anew what it feels like to learn an entirely unfamiliar language.
In introducing his Book of Virtues, Dr. Bennett notes, "We must not permit our disputes over thorny political questions to obscure the obligation we have to offer instruction to all our young people in the area in which we have, as a society, reached a consensus: namely, on the importance of character." The NEH Summer Institutes indeed embody his stated virtues of self-discipline, compassion, responsibility, friendship, work, courage, perseverance, honesty, loyalty, and faith. The selected educators sacrifice their summer "vacations" to provide better texts, curricula, instruction and learning environments for their students.
I am quite convinced that my NEH activities enabled me to successfully participate in a Fulbright-Hays summer fellowship in Morocco and Tunisia. This experience was highlighted by a meeting with Yassir Arafat less than two months before the unveiling and signing of the historic accord between Israelis and Palestinians.
Dr. Bennett himself stresses the power of consistent example with children. They "know when they are being taken seriously by others and imitate what they see." Not only as an educator, but as an African-American, I recognize the need for role models is greater now than ever. Our country's investment in NEH programs provide not only renewed enthusiasm for teaching and learning, but also hope. They allow students to see that through the virtues of discipline, hard work, and continued education, even a young black man such as I can aspire to be a participant, rather than a spectator to world events.
For these reasons, I strongly advocate continued support for the Endowments.
Milton Alan Turner
Instructor, Department of Modern Languages, Saint Ignatius High School