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Ordinary Virtues

Cultivating Our Civic Life

By Bruce Cole | HUMANITIES, November/December 2003 | Volume 24, Number 6

Bruce Cole is the chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities. This article is adapted from a speech given before the National Citizen Corps Conference in Washington, D.C.

All of us are the inheritors of a great American tradition of voluntary citizen self-defense and common provision. In colonial times, frontier militias defended their homes and fought for liberty. Volunteers patrolled our shores for German U-boats during two world wars. More recently, the site of one of our nation’s greatest tragedies became the focus for one of our finest hours--the spontaneous organization of rescue and recovery workers at Ground Zero.

The virtues of citizenship have been passed through generations of Americans, who founded a nation, then settled its limits, fought back freedom’s enemies, and secured a future full of opportunity.

We stand at the culmination of centuries of vigilance and service. Citizenship is a quiet patriotism; it is the habit of ordinary virtues--the small but significant, the unheralded but heroic acts of service done without fanfare or headlines or pats on the back. It is the gritty resolve of ordinary citizens that defines America, furthers its promise, and sustains its greatness.

The humanities are the study of what makes us human: the legacy of our past; the ideas and principles that motivate us; and the eternal questions that we still ponder. The classics and archaeology show us from whence our civilization came. The study of literature and art shape our sense of beauty. The knowledge of philosophy and religion give meaning to our concepts of justice and goodness.

The NEH was founded in the belief that cultivating the best of the humanities has real, tangible benefits for civic life. Our founding legislation declares that “democracy demands wisdom.” America must have educated and thoughtful citizens who can fully and intelligently participate in our government.

The National Endowment for the Humanities exists to foster the wisdom and knowledge essential to our national identity and survival. Indeed, the state of the humanities has real implications for the state of our union. Our nation is in a conflict driven by religion, philosophy, political ideology, and views of history--all humanities subjects. Our tolerance, our principles, our wealth, and our liberties have made us targets. To understand this conflict, we need the humanities.

The values implicit in the study of the humanities are part of the reason we were attacked. The free and fearless exchange of ideas, respect for individual conscience, belief in the power of education--all these things are anathema to our country’s enemies. Understanding and affirming these principles is part of the battle.

The attack on September 11 targeted not only innocent civilians, but also the very fabric of our culture. The terrorists struck the Twin Towers and the Pentagon, and aimed at either the White House or Capitol dome--all structures rich in meaning and bearing witness to the United States’ free commerce, military strength, and democratic government. As such, they also housed many of the artifacts--the manuscripts, art, and archives--that form our history and heritage.

In the weeks following, the NEH awarded a grant to conduct a survey of the damage to our cultural holdings. The survey found that the attack obliterated numerous art collections of great worth. Cantor Fitzgerald’s renowned “museum in the sky” is lost, as well as priceless works by Rodin, Picasso, Hockney, Lichtenstein, Corbusier, Miró, and others. Archaeological artifacts from the African Burial Ground and other Manhattan sites are gone forever, as are irreplaceable records from the Helen Keller archives. Artists perished alongside their artwork. Sculptor Michael Richards died as he worked in his studio on the ninety-second floor of Tower One. His last work, now lost, was a statue commemorating the Tuskegee Airmen of World War II. Of course, the loss of artifacts and art, no matter how priceless and precious, is dwarfed by the loss of life.

Preserving and protecting our cultural holdings is of immense importance to civic life. Our cultural artifacts carry important messages about who we are and what we are defending. These irreplaceable objects are among our enemies’ targets. The Statue of Liberty, the Brooklyn and Bay Bridges, our skyscrapers, the Liberty Bell, our libraries, and our schools are all potential targets precisely because they stand as symbols of America’s defining principles.

In light of that fact, it is all the more urgent that we study American institutions, culture, and history. Defending our democracy demands more than successful military campaigns. It requires an understanding of the ideals, ideas, and institutions that have shaped our country.

This is not a new concept. America’s founders recognized the importance of an informed and educated citizenry as necessary for the survival of our participatory democracy. James Madison famously said, “The diffusion of knowledge is the only true guardian of liberty.” Such knowledge tells us who we are as a people and why our country is worth fighting for. Our values, ideas, and collective memories are not self-sustaining. Just as free peoples must take responsibility for their own defense, they also must pass on to future generations the knowledge that sustains democracy.

It has been said that the erosion of freedom comes from three sources: from without, from within, and from the passing of time. Though not as visible as marching armies, the injuries of time lead to the same outcome: a surrender of American ideals.

Abraham Lincoln warned of this “silent artillery”--the fading memory of what we believe as Americans and why. This loss of American memory has profound implications for our national security.

All great principles and institutions face challenges. The wisdom of the humanities and the pillars of democratic self-government are not immune. We face a serious challenge to our country that lies within our borders--and even within our schools--the threat of American amnesia.

One of the common threads of great civilizations is the cultivation of memory. Many of the great works of antiquity are transliterated from oral traditions. From Homer to Beowulf, such tales trained people to remember their heritage and history through story and song, and pass those stories throughout generations. Old Testament stories repeatedly depict prophets and priests encouraging people to remember, to “write on their hearts” the events that make up their history.

We are in danger of forgetting this lesson. Tests and polls show that Americans do not know their history and cannot remember even the most significant events of the twentieth century.

Of course, Americans are a forward-looking people. We are more concerned with what happens tomorrow than what happened yesterday. But we are in peril of having our view of the future obscured by our ignorance of the past. We cannot see clearly ahead if we are blind to history. Unfortunately, most indicators point to a worsening of our case of American amnesia.

Here are a few examples. One study of university students found that 40 percent could not place the Civil War in the correct half-century. Only 37 percent knew that the Battle of the Bulge took place during World War II. A national test of high school seniors found that 57 percent performed “below basic” level in American history. What does that mean? Over half of those tested couldn’t say whom we fought in World War II. Eighteen percent believed that the Germans were our allies in World War II!

Such collective amnesia is dangerous. Citizens kept ignorant of their history are robbed of the riches of their heritage and handicapped in their ability to understand and appreciate other cultures. If Americans cannot recall whom we fought, and whom we fought alongside during World War II, it should not be assumed that they will long remember what happened on September 11 or why we must be prepared and vigilant today.

A nation that does not know why it exists, or what it stands for, cannot be expected to long endure. As columnist George Will wrote, “We cannot defend what we cannot define.”

Our nation’s future depends on how we meet these challenges. We all have a stake, and a role to play, in recovering America’s memory. There are several things we can do to alleviate our serious case of American amnesia.

Announced by President Bush last September, the We the People initiative marks a systematic effort at the NEH to promote the study and understanding of American history and culture.

Ken Burns’s film, The Civil War, is just one example of the kind of public program we are supporting. We are working on equally powerful projects for museums, scholars, teachers, and students. Young people are competing each year for ten thousand dollars in prizes in the annual “Idea of America” essay contest. Other nationwide programs will reach students from kindergarten through college.

NEH intends to lead a renaissance in knowledge about our history and culture. We are the inheritors and guardians of a noble tradition: citizens of a democracy taking personal responsibility for our common defense. It is a heritage that extends back to the first democracies of ancient Greece and runs through the whole history of our country.

Our values and traditions must be preserved and passed on. Without an active and informed citizenry, neither the toughest laws nor the strongest military can preserve our freedom. Knowing our nation’s past, our founding ideas, and our legacy of liberty is crucial to our homeland defense.

Our nation has faced many difficult challenges in the past, but, just as history teaches us to remain vigilant, it also shows us that with such vigilance, liberty and justice will prevail.