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Lynne V. Cheney / On Humanities : Return to Liberal Arts Education Urged

June 03, 1987|JUDITH MICHAELSON | Times Staff Writer

One year after becoming chairwoman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, Lynne V. Cheney is on the move.

Now that flak over her removal of the endowment's name from the credits of PBS' controversial series "The Africans" is behind her--"it's gone, thank goodness"--she is focusing on what has become, to hear her talk, a beloved priority: putting the humanities back into the educational limelight.

As she told the 1987 winners of the U.S. Academic Decathlon at John Marshall High School here on Friday, the endowment "worries about things like history, literature, philosophy, foreign languages, the social sciences, too . . . ."

Constitutional Ignorance

She worries about their erosion, citing a poll of high school graduates that showed more than half thought that "all men are created equal" appears in the Constitution (instead of the Declaration of Independence). Invariably the Constitution comes up in conversation; Cheney is also on the Bicentennial Commission.

A former journalist, novelist and college teacher who holds a doctorate in 19th-Century English literature, Cheney is working with a special advisory group she appointed to help prepare NEH's report, to be issued in the fall, on "not only how the humanities are being taught and how they should be taught, but why they should be taught." So she has come West to campaign for the humanities and to gather information, including participating in a session with educators at UCLA.

Lynne Cheney, who was appointed by President Reagan and confirmed by the Senate, and husband Rep. Richard Cheney (R-Wyo.), former chief of staff to President Gerald Ford, now chairman of the House's Republican Policy Committee, are an influential Washington couple.

For the 45-year-old chairwoman, who grew up in Casper, Wyo., the trip was also a homecoming. Monday she delivered the commencement address at Colorado College, her alma mater. Their daughter, Elizabeth, 20, a political science major and classics minor, goes into her senior year there; daughter Mary, 18, who plans to major in history, will enter this fall.

Important to Love Your Work

Tuesday, Cheney spoke at graduation at Natrona County High School, another alma mater. At both places she touted the humanities, sprinkling her remarks with a poem by Robert Frost, "Two Tramps in Mudtime," about the importance of loving the work you do.

In an interview Cheney said: "The humanities are important now, as they've always been, because what they deal with are questions that have to do with human nature and the state of the human condition that never change: What are the most important goals in life? What goals should one set for oneself? Questions about identity: Who am I? What's important to me? Questions about relationships: 'King Lear,' for example, the questions it asks are about what parents and children owe one another.

"Particularly in a world like today's, where everything seems to whirl into chaos at all times, where things are moving so quickly, the humanities that deal with eternal verities have a particularly important role to play. They are a rock for us to hold onto . . . .

"It used to be that a person could know, with a fair degree of accuracy, what he or she would be doing her entire life. The last statistic I read shows that just in terms of work the average person has nine jobs in a lifetime. So with that kind of professional change, the way we all move, with changes in the traditional family structure, the humanities are that anchor.

"The humanities have fallen on hard times," Cheney noted. "Between 1975 and 1985, a decade in which the total number of bachelors degrees was increasing, the number of degrees in philosophy was down by almost 40%, in history down by about 50%, in literature down by 60%. One recent study that comes out of UCLA shows that over the past 20 years the number of people saying they were going to major in history was down by 80%.

Approach Changed Drastically

"At the same time," she continued, "what you see is that the approach to life these students are taking has changed drastically. It used to be that if you asked them what purpose their college education was, it would be to 'find out more about myself, to develop a philosophy of life.' Now if you ask them they say, 'It's to make a lot of money.'

"I think it's important that people do live examined lives, that they ask themselves questions that human beings always felt were necessary, to give meaning to this journey we're all on. There's even a practical value. Students aiming toward the bottom line, I want to make sure they understand the humanities make a contribution there, too. If you're going to have nine jobs, what you need to learn is not the skills that will be important for that first job and which will likely be outdated very quickly anyway, what you need is the kind of general knowledge that helps you make life decisions and to think in a critical way."

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