The Chairman Leach Civility Tour

Here is the opening of a speech given by Jim Leach, Chairman of the NEH, at the University of California-Davis on April 8:

In the wake of a series of incidents at high schools, colleges and universities across the land that range from harassment of immigrants to the painting of swastikas on doors of students to vandalism at LGBT offices to Ku Klux Klan hoods being placed on statues, I have been asked to try to put some perspective on the fracturing of civility on American campuses as well as in society at large.

One might wonder why the head of an agency charged with fostering scholarly study of the humanities should take on campus hate and harassment as an issue. It’s part of the so-called “Civility Tour,” a 50-state project of the agency in which the chairman travels to different venues to lament the rising incivility of public discourse and remind audiences of their duty to maintain norms of respect and consideration. As Leach puts it, “Civilization requires civility. Words matter. Polarizing attitudes can jeopardize social cohesion.”


The question is, how does this charge square with the mission of the NEH?
The NEH web site announces its mission as follows:

Because democracy demands wisdom, the National Endowment for the Humanities serves and strengthens our Republic by promoting excellence in the humanities and conveying the lessons of history to all Americans. The Endowment accomplishes this mission by providing grants for high-quality humanities projects in four funding areas: preserving and providing access to cultural resources, education, research, and public programs.

It does not say that the chairman of the agency is to become the voice of wisdom or convey “the lessons of history” himself. His job is to facilitate the work of scholars, curators, librarians, and educators.
And yet, Chairman Leach has devoted substantial time, labor, resources, and funds to the planning and travels of himself and his entourage. And he has no scruples about using them to express dark warnings and potent fears about the trajectory of our current partisanship. More from the Davis speech:

According to police authorities, a little over a year ago an Ecuadoran immigrant named Marcelo Lucero was stabbed to death by a group of teenagers in a small New York town. In this town, Hispanics had reportedly been frequent targets of harassments and for years had been scoffed at as ‘beaners.’ Lucero’s stabbing is being described as an emanation of an activity known as ‘beaner-hopping.’

“Maybe it is a long step from a derogatory ‘beaner’ reference to ‘beaner-hopping’ to a murderous hate crime, just as maybe it is a long step from swastika painting to the torching of buildings to mass murder.
“Then again, history tells us it may be a short step. Indeed, in one of the world’s most advanced cultures it took less than a decade for the stoking of anti-semitic rhetoric to migrate to Kristallnacht and then Auschwitz.”
Matthew Franck raised the political implications of Chairman Leach’s tour a few months back. And we may add a professional concern. How many more worthy humanities projects might have been funded had money not been spent on flights and hotel rooms for NEH officers

Mark Bauerlein

Mark Bauerlein is a professor emeritus of English at Emory University and an editor at First Things, where he hosts a podcast twice a week. He is the author of five books, including The Dumbest Generation Grows Up: From Stupefied Youth to Dangerous Adults.

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