Civilization Requires Civility
When I noted a few weeks back that President Obama had made a good and interesting selection – former GOP Congressman Jim Leach of Iowa – to head the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), I did not expect such speedy confirmation of what a good appointment it was. Happily, it sounds like Leach will indeed be a great Chairman of the NEH.
At the National Humanities Conference last week in Omaha, Leach offered a stirring defense of the importance of humanities education and made the case for using the lessons of the humanities to quide us in a better direction with our politics and policy. His speech is well worth reading for any student of American history and politics.
A Leach talk in September about bridging cultures – he was talking about the western world and the Muslim world – was also excellent.
If you have ever wondered whether we need to teach humanities in the public schools – along with math and science – or whether there is a price to pay for a lack of civility in our public discourse, read Leach’s Omaha speech. A couple of excerpts:
On applying the humanities to public policy
“The United States is currently intertwined in two civil wars, both more than a third of the way around the world, each with a unique set of problems. One is in the wake of a terrorist attack on our shores plotted from a mountainous Afghani redoubt. The other was precipitated against a country that was not involved in the plot against America but was thought to be on the verge of developing weapons of mass destruction, a thesis since debunked.
“In making assumptions about the wisdom and manner of intervening in the affairs of other countries, would it have been helpful for policy-makers to have reviewed the history of the French colonial experience in Algeria, the British and Russian experience in Afghanistan, the French and U.S. experience in Vietnam?
“Would it have been helpful to study comparative religions and observe the historical implications of the Crusades and their relevance to peoples in the Middle East today? And what meaning might be found in our own colonial history—the asymmetric tactics, for instance, of Francis Marion, the South Carolina patriot known as the Swamp Fox, who attacked the best trained army in the world at night and then vanished into impenetrable swamps during the day?”
And this on the often nasty tone of our public discourse:
“In a political system characterized by historic antipathy to extremes, the decibel level of partisan voices is rising. Rancorous, socially divisive ideological assertions are being made with such frequency that few are thinking through the meaning or consequences of the words being used. Public officials are being labeled ‘fascist’ and ‘communist.’ One Member of Congress has even suggested that colleagues be investigated for ‘un-American activities.’
“Most bizarrely, some in public life have toyed with hints of history-blind radicalism—the notion of ‘secession.’
“Even the most cursory study of history would reveal the gravity and implications of such polarizing language. We fought a war across two oceans to defeat fascism and spent billions and sacrificed thousands to hold communism at bay. And a century and a half ago, over 600,000 Americans were killed in a bloody civil war over the question of secession. That war, we thought, settled two issues: that slavery was incompatible with humanist, democratic values and that these United States are indivisible, inseparable from each other. We are a union, after and above all.”
A Plea for Civility
Chairman Leach indicated he will focus attention on the critical importance of civility and how the humanities can give us a respect – and yes, understanding – for perspectives different from our own.
Jim Leach knows of what he speaks. In some quarters – one blogger calls him “a pro-Obama turncoat” – he has suffered vilification for breaking ranks with the GOP. In our superheated political kitchen, one man’s turncoat is another’s statesman. And, Leach offers the perfect cooling sentiment.
“Bridging cultural divides and developing a sense for a common humanity are moral and social imperatives. Together, we in the humanities are obligated to help advance an ethic of thoughtfulness rather than conformity of thought, decency of expression rather than coarseness in public manners.
“Civilization requires civility.” Amen.