Past Speakers of the: LANDON LECTURES

Landon Lecture by Lynne Cheney,

Director of National Endowment for the Humanities
Oct. 30, 1992

by Lynne Cheney

We got started on time, despite the fact that we had a podium crisis behind the scenes. It frequently happens that when I address an audience I will arrive to find that the podium is perfect for somebody who is six inches taller than I am. And that was the case this time. So we scurried around and found a suitcase. I have stood on a lot of interesting things in my time.

I try to avoid having podium crises at the last minute by having my staff call ahead and say to people, "You know, Mrs. Cheney is not very tall." But sometimes this does not get enough attention; you know, "is not very tall" just does not sound urgent enough. So I have been trying to persuade them lately to say, "You know, Mrs. Cheney is seriously short." That usually works a little better.

But I have been telling them lately, "You know, we are living in a new age, a new age of political correctness." And so I think what they should do is call up and say, "You know, Mrs. Cheney is vertically challenged." Well, in the name of being vertically challenged, let me scoot my suitcase back just a little. It would be terrible if I oh, it just collapsed! We will try the other side and I will hold still. It is really wonderful to be here with you all today at this distinguished lecture series.

It is hard to believe, I know, as we enter late October of an election year, that anything is going on in the country besides an election. But, indeed, as those of you associated with and friends of this fine university know, just last month millions of students went off to college, enrolled in college for the first-time, continued their college education perhaps, and continued to participate in an experience which can be one of the great intellectual adventures of life.

Students today have the possibility of learning about scientific wonders that were scarcely thought of when people of my age were in school. Students today have, in the humanities, for example, the opportunity to explore history that had not been written when many of us were in college. The history of amazing events that have changed the world in our lifetime, the history of years, indeed of centuries before our lifetime, that we understand more fully now, thanks to recent scholarship.

We know more now than we ever have before, for example, about the lives of women. We know more now than we ever have before about the experiences of people who make up different racial and ethnic groups. One NEH project of which I am particularly proud, for example, which is not far from here at Fort Leavenworth, is the Buffalo Soldier's Memorial, which was dedicated not long ago. The NEH played an important role in establishing this memorial. As I am sure all of you here know, it is a monument erected to the memory of those African-American soldiers who served so long and in such a crucial role in developing the West. It was history that we had forgotten for a long time, a history that we have recovered memory of now.

The fact that we have recovered these memories means that the opportunities for learning now are unparalleled. This can be a very good time to be a college student. In many ways it is, but in other ways it is not, particularly in the humanities.

Our colleges and universities are suffering from a kind of identity crisis that keeps education from being as open, as free, and as expansive as it should be. Speech codes and political correctness are symptoms of the problem, but it does go much deeper. It goes to the heart of what teaching and learning should be. It goes to the core of what education is about and this is what I would like to spend some time talking about today. I think it is useful in order to understand what has happened to go back and look at the idea upon which our colleges and universities were founded. Their aim, their goal, their end, their activity was seeking the truth. That is what faculty members were to do in research, that is what they were to teach students how to do in the classrooms.

The university function is the true function. John Dewey wrote back at the turn of the century, "Mottos of colleges and universities across the nation enshrine this goal." Truth is the motto at Harvard; Light and Truth at Yale and Indiana Universities. "Whatsoever Things are True" at Northwestern. At Colorado College, where I did my undergraduate work, above the main classroom building, Palmer Hall, inscribed in large, large letters it says, "You shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free." This is how it used to be, but the idea of seeking the truth has fallen on hard times lately.

I recently received an alumni bulletin from Colorado College informing me that nowadays the words inscribed above Palmer Hall, "You shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free," are, and I quote, "likely to provoke a smile." Likely to provoke a smile, the bulletin explained, not because these words call up warm memories, but because they are so hopelessly naive.

A student from Amherst who worked for me last summer told me that when he introduced the idea of truth into a discussion in one of his classes, his professor called him a Philistine. Now, the insult was delivered cheerfully enough. The student did not have to conclude that he was a complete barbarian, just that he was untutored, a young person who had not yet had experience, a chance to learn that there is no such thing as truth.

Now, in fact, the true question has not been answered once and for all, though sometimes I get the impression on our campuses that people think it has. But it has not been answered once and for all.

This is a question that philosophers have wrestled with for ages. For ages people have explored the question of what we know, how we know. And while some of them have ended up thorough-going skeptics, others have concluded the truth is alive and well. It is not easy to discern. It is never possessed in full.

Human beings are not our mission. But people like my summer intern, who have the idea that the pursuit of truth is what education should be about, do have powerful arguments on their side. But this does not get them much respect when they run into the thinking that is very fashionable today, particularly in the humanities.

There is no truth, so the thinking goes. Everything we think is true is shaped by political interests. What we think is true is really only a tool for advancing the power of this group or that. And, so, when it comes to knowledge, since we cannot avoid politics, we might as well embrace it and incorporate agendas that will advance our viewpoint in the scholarship and teaching.

Now, I know this is a somewhat convoluted idea for people who do not spend their time on campuses. I was explaining it to someone the other day who is not a member of a university faculty or close to campus life, and he said, "That idea will never sell." And I understood what he was saying. It is kind of hard to explain, it is kind of complicated, but it has sold. It is very influential again, particularly in the humanities. Let me give you some examples.

Here are two historians writing, two historians from the University of Pennsylvania. I quote, "We are all engaged, in writing a kind of propaganda. Rather than believe in the absolute truth of what we are writing, we must believe in the moral or political position we are taking with it. Historians should assess an argument on the basis of its persuasiveness, its political utility, and its political sincerity."

It is not faithfulness to the past that matters, in other words, but political usefulness in the present. It is not whether a historian is read widely and thought deeply, it is not whether he or she has honestly evaluated as much evidence as possible. No, what is important is whether the story told effectively advances the proper agenda. When I read things like this and in my job I read them rather often I am reminded of George Orwell's 1984, that book in which two and two can make five if it is politically useful.

But I am not talking about a futuristic novel. I am talking about a line of thought that is right now extremely influential in the humanities. Since there is no truth, the argument goes, since all knowledge reflects political interest, faculty members are perfectly justified in using the classroom to advance political agendas. It is this rationale that accounts for speakers at learned conventions discussing such topics as, and I quote, "this was at a recent Modern Language Association Convention, the task of the politically committed cultural worker in today's university." Not the task of the scholar in today's university. Not the task of the teacher. But the task of the politically committed cultural worker.

It is this rationale that accounts for a speaker at a recent College Art Association meeting telling her fellow faculty members that they should not teach women painters such as Mary Cassatt and Berthe Morisot because both women painted scenes of family life. They painted women and children. And, said the speaker, this kind of painting, these kinds of pictures, reinforce patriarchal thought.

Now, professors have always had biases. I had wonderful professors when I was an undergraduate who were very clear about their political thinking. What is new, as I read the professional journals where professors talk to one another, is an idea that the proper goal of teaching is to impose the bias of the professor on the student. Many people have been very concerned about this. I speak out about it, and it is controversial that I do speak out about it.

I am not the only one who speaks out about it. Some of our college and university presidents, including Benno Schmidt, until recently at Yale, have been very, very thoughtful on this matter. Other people have spoken out with great concern about it, many of them faculty members in the humanities. The vast majority of the faculty members in the humanities, I would say, want no more truck with this than I do, and they have spoken out about it. But it is something that occurs in the humanities more than in other disciplines.

Let me give you another example, one that surprised me, though I am becoming less surprised about it. As you read the professional literature and you listen to professors talk to one another, what you find more and more are very frank assertions about politics being the purpose of teaching. This was written by a professor at the University of Wisconsin in the Harvard Educational Review. It was an essay in which she urged her fellow professors to be open about their intention, and I quote, "to appropriate public resources classrooms, school supplies, professors' salaries to further various progressive political agendas."

That is a quote. And she described the course that she taught at the University of Wisconsin. It has an innocuous title: it is called Curriculum and Instruction 607. But in this course students learn how to conduct political demonstrations and then they go out on campus and conduct three political demonstrations. And for this they get three hours credit. Now, I am an alum of the University of Wisconsin. I was there in the late 1960s and I understand that demonstrations are a way of life at the University of Wisconsin. But this is a whole new innovation, and you get credit for it. Three hours credit.

In a recent issue of College English, a publication of the National Council of Teachers of English, a professor from California advised university teachers to vary the political strategy they use in the classroom to suit the institution. Its point was you do not want to use the same strategy for an elite institution that you do for a less selective college or university.

And he described the strategy he uses at his own middle-class institution. He wrote how he challenged students' belief that the United States offers them freedom of choice and the chance to get ahead. In his English class he wrote that he shows them, and I quote, "the odds against their attaining room at the top, the way their education has channeled them toward a mid-level professional and social slot and conditioned them into authoritarian conformity."

Now, students are not potted plants, and they will sometimes complain when they run into this in their courses. Often the complaints I hear come after a student has experienced a feminist teacher in the classroom. And indeed, not long ago I came across an article it was again in College English which was a compilation of student complaints about feminism in the classroom, not in a class in women's studies, but again in freshman English. It was a whole compilation of what students had written to object to the fact that they were taking a freshman English class and constantly running up against feminist ideology.

One student wrote, "I feel this course was dominated and overpowered by feminist doctrines and ideals." Another wrote, "I found it very offensive that all of our readings focused on feminism." Now, in listening to these student objections, remember they are not taking a course in women's studies; they are enrolled in freshman composition or beginning literature courses. A third student wrote, "The teacher consistently channels class discussion around feminism. She does not spend time discussing the comments that oppose her belief; she usually twists them around to support her beliefs.

Well, when I encountered this article I was, frankly, heartened at first. I thought, "Well, here is a professor who is listening to students, someone who understands how they might well complain when they sign up for a course that is supposed to teach them how to write and instead they find themselves in a course about how to overcome patriarchy."

But I did not have to read far before I understood that the professor was not taking the students' complaints seriously. To her they were simply Exhibit A. They were evidence of what feminist professors have to put up with. To her, the student complaints were simply a starting point for discussing, in this particular article, the resistance that feminist professors have to overcome, and I quote, "in order to get students to identify with the political agenda of feminism."

The idea that professors should be impervious to student complaints about politicized teaching is increasingly dominant in feminist writings. In fact, the more students object, some feminists argue, the more evidence it is that the feminist professor is doing her job.

A New Jersey professor writes, "The quantity and quality of the resistance I provoke from my students is the way to measure my success as a teacher." So it can be hard to win if you are a student. Complain about the professor having a political agenda and that will be taken as evidence of how much you need that agenda. Argue, and the consequences can be worse.

The professor not only has the power of the grade, but he or she also has the power to determine whether debate in the classroom is allowed to descend into diatribe, the power to decide whether student activists, for example, will be allowed to berate and humiliate a fellow student who dares to run against a political current. A student in Ohio writes, and I quote, "In a course that I took last year, a maverick student said he agreed with the Supreme Court justice's view that a particular affirmative action program would unconstitutionally discriminate on the basis of race. During the next few minutes a couple of students vehemently objected. One raised her voice significantly, the other began to yell at him. In the following 15 minutes the professor did not speak. Instead he took other volunteers. Almost all of these students jumped on the bandwagon, berating the one maverick student. The professor gave him one more chance to speak. By this time, the student was quite flustered and incoherent."

The student describing this incident notes, "The class learned that bringing out such controversial views would carry a high social cost. They would be less likely to repeat the error of their fellow student."

Now, again, let me emphasize and I think I cannot emphasize this too often that there are many, many thousands of fine teachers in our colleges and universities who would not dream of using the classroom in this way. There are many who are deeply troubled, as I said before, by what they see happening, and some of the most eminent among them have been speaking out. I talked about Benno Schmidt. Another eminent scholar, William Leuchten-burg, who was president of the American Historical Association in 1991, said in his address to that group in that year, and I quote, "I find totally repugnant any effort to impose favorite orthodoxies on a classroom." And Professor James Barber of Duke, who has been very outspoken on this issue, recently declared, "What is going on in universities now threatens everything that a university is supposed to be about. Student minds are supposed to be trained, not converted politically."

But there are also many, particularly in the humanities, who see the political transformation of their students as a perfectly proper goal. How effective they are in achieving this goal is a matter of debate. Students, as I said before, are very resilient. I recently came across an account of one male student advising another on how to succeed in a feminist classroom. "Pretend to be a male chauvinist," the advice went, "then have a conversion. You are going to get an A."

But even when minds are not changed, students pay a price. They do not experience how exciting a genuine clash of ideas can be, how stimulating a real engagement with ideas can be. These are some of the most important experiences that college years can bring, and they are experiences that do not happen in politicized classrooms.

So whether our colleges and universities define themselves as institutions that aim to discover the truth makes a great deal of difference. It makes a great deal of difference to students, and I would argue it also makes a great deal of difference to society as a whole. Ideas do have consequences. These ideas have consequences.

You can see some of the consequences in what is happening now in museums and increasingly in the professional journals, where you read how professional museum people talk to one another. Increasingly now in these journals one reads that museums must have a politically engaged role. In a recent publication, a Smithsonian official wrote, "The political dimension of our mission and relationship to our audience must be aggressively addressed."

Anyone who had the chance to visit an exhibit that was in Washington recently, called The West is American, can see the result of this line of thinking. This was an exhibition that made no pretense at all of objectivity, as time and again it took paintings by Remington, by Farney, great paintings of the American West, and held them up as examples of propaganda, covering over racism, sexism, the depredations of capitalism.

A 1992 exhibit at the Smithsonian was called "Etiquette of the Undercast." I visited this exhibit. You entered it by crawling into a morgue drawer, and then you were pushed into the exhibit.

One of the myths that the exhibit aimed to explode was the idea of upward mobility. Upward mobility, it announced, is one of our most cherished and, it showed, one of our falsest myths. At a discussion held in conjunction with this exhibit, one panelist called on artists, and I quote, "to belong to activist organizations and develop forms that are appropriate vehicles for revolutionary ideas." So we see it in museums.

I think Oliver Stone's JFK is an example in film of history being disconnected from the idea of truth. Stone ignored information that did not fit with his thesis. He invented information that would forward it, all in the name of what he called his, and I quote, "interpretation of history." He spoke in Washington not long after the film came out, and someone asked him how his art was any different from propaganda. His reply was that he did not know the answer to that question. I thought that was less remarkable than the fact that he seemed relatively unperturbed at not being able to make a distinction.

So off campus as well as on, the view is gaining currency that reality is nothing more than different perspectives advanced by different people in order to promote their interests. And one view of this development is that we ought to just accept it, that we ought to sit back and enjoy it.

A recent article in Rolling Stone magazine by Jon Katz anointed this approach to reality as the "new news" and contrasted it with "old news," the kind that values objectivity. Katz wrote, "Consumers can have a balanced discussion with every side of an issue neutralizing the other, or they can turn to singers, producers, and filmmakers offering colorful, distinctive, often flawed, but frequently more powerful visions of their truth."

"More and more," he wrote, "Americans are making it clear which they prefer."

So some people are quite sanguine about this development, but others are less so. Some even see it as a threat to democracy. How can a self-governing people survive, they ask, if we reject even the possibility of objective standards against which competing claims and interpretations can be measured?

"What we need urgently in this country," anthropologist Marvin Harris writes, "is a reaffirmation that there are truths on which we can agree. The alternative," he writes, and I quote, "is to stand by helplessly as special interest groups tear the United States apart in the name of their separate realities, or to wait until one of them grows strong enough to force its own irrational and subjective brand of reality on all the rest."

I happen to think that Harris has the stronger argument here. And when I look at curricula in some of our elementary and secondary schools, and I cite the state of New York as an example, and see the idea being advanced in school curricula that there is no common truth, merely different perspectives that are determined by race and ethnicity, then I find Harris' point particularly persuasive.

If we teach our children that there is no truth to which they can all subscribe, no common ground on which they can all stand to adjudicate their differences, then are we not setting them against one another? Are we not, to use Arthur Schlesinger's words, "encouraging the disuniting of America"? And when I look at our campuses I find Harris' view particularly strong, because there the scenario he discusses has in some ways already worked itself out. In the humanities at least, there often is a dominant orthodoxy and an impoverishment of intellectual life as a result.

I have had the opportunity over the past few years to meet with scholars in other countries, and they are amazed that scholars in this country would willingly reconceive the purpose of education and make politics, rather than truth, its goal. The idea is particularly astonishing to scholars who are just emerging from societies which imposed an orthodoxy on intellectual work.

One scholar I have had an opportunity to visit with is Radim Palous, who is now the rector of Charles University in Prague. Until a few years ago he was working as a coal stoker. He has two Ph.D.s, one in chemistry and one in philosophy. But he had been unwilling to follow along with Marxist orthodoxy, and so he had been dismissed from the university and assigned to manual labor. But recently he became the rector of Charles University and I asked him to describe for me how he perceived the role of education in democracy, how he perceived the work of the university in a democracy. And he said, "The role of the university is to educate in the sense that Plato talked about, to draw students out from the dark into the light, to move from closure to openness, to an understanding of the truth, which is something that cannot be changed."

I observed that there are many university campuses in the United States that hold a different view, that argue that truth does not exist, only perspectives do, to which Palous responded, "To be educated we must understand the truth, and that means literally to stand under it. It is above us, not we above it."

Now, his words take on particular eloquence because of the price he has paid for living by them. But the price for not living by them can also be high. Having to mold ideas to fit prescribed ideologies is demeaning to individuals and damaging to societies. Being able to pursue the truth, wherever it may lead, is one of the blessings of liberty and one of democracy's greatest strengths.

Well, let me, please, before I abandon this podium, thank all of you who have helped make the Landon Lecture Series possible. I want to thank you for encouraging debate on all sorts of issues, from pressing matters of foreign and domestic policy to questions that have persisted throughout the ages such as whether truth exists and whether we have a duty to pursue it.

Thank you.

The transcription of this Landon Lecture was accomplished through the cooperation of the Kansas State University Libraries and the Office of Mediated Education.

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