Suzanne Fields

The Department of Homeland Security has made orange our most familiar color. Based on intelligence reports, the department has heightened wariness of everything suspicious. We're all on the lookout for the evildoers who seek to destroy democratic civilization as we know it.

There's a different worry in an office in the Old Post Office Building on Pennsylvania Avenue. The office has a view all the way to the Capitol. This is the National Endowment for the Humanities and it's wariness is based on intelligence, too, but of a different order.

"We see the NEH as part of homeland defense because we have to know what we're defending," Bruce Cole, chairman of NEH, says over a chicken salad lunch in his spacious office. Instead of decoding conversations of would-be terrorists, he offers an intelligent analysis of the ideals of the humanities.

"We are a nation at risk," he says. These, he explains, are risks from failing to understand how principles that have made us who we are evolved from the core documents of Western Civilization, the shared truths that contribute to civic life. Bruce Cole would call this code orange, too. "The attack on Sept. 11 targeted not only innocent civilians, but also the fabric of our culture."

The chairman is an unusual figure on the Washington scene. He has been aptly described as a gentleman and a scholar. He was a professor of art history and comparative literature for 29 years and seems more at ease talking about art than politics. It's the enthusiasm of the teacher that brings him to discuss the cultural heritage as a foundation for homeland defense.

"The humanities prepare people for democracy," he says, "telling them where they come from, where they are, and giving them a compass to the future. Sept. 11 underscores this. It reminds us of who we are, what our institutions are and why they are worth defending."

For several years the NEH has published a list of books for summer reading for grades from kindergarten through high school. The theme this year is "courage," which is particularly appropriate after Sept. 11.

"Acts of courage have shaped our nation throughout its history," says Lynn Cheney, a former NEH chairman and the wife of the vice president. "By reading these books, young readers can gain greater understanding of how people from all walks of life - facing challenges large and small- can find strength to do right."

Suzanne Fields

Suzanne Fields is currently working on a book that will revisit John Milton's 'Paradise Lost.'

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