Like Rodney Dangerfield, the humanities in Washington "don't get no respect." Not as much as they should, anyway. We're a company town and the company makes politics. But like a blind squirrel who finds an acorn once in a while, politicians and the journalists who cover them gather occasionally with others who crave more profundity than the noise in political rhetoric to listen to the annual Jefferson Lecture.
The lecture is sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities. Established in 1972, it's delivered by a distinguished intellectual honored for his public achievement, the highest honor the federal government bestows in the humanities.
This year Donald Kagan, Sterling professor of Classics and History at Yale, followed David McCullough, Walker Percy, Saul Bellow and Robert Penn Warren to deliver the 34th annual Jefferson Lecture, and he declined to patronize politicians with insecure egos.
"In Defense of History" was not for faint-hearted liberals, or politically correct journalists. It was filled with big ideas that sprang from the minds of the dead white males so enthusiastically trashed on the modern campus. Anyone who wants to be up to speed on the importance of the classical Greek historians, tragedians and philosophers can read it at www.NEH.gov.
The professor, who has been described as "a combination of John Wayne and Winston Churchill," lives up to both, shooting from the hip and hitting his targets with rare eloquence, teaching and provoking. As a cultural conservative, he dares to attack the post-modern mindlessness that can pass for academic thought in the teaching of literature, philosophy and history. This pervades the political culture in Washington as well as the campus lecture hall. He's eager for us to understand that what we call "liberal studies" should be essential reading for every citizen of democracy, mechanic as well as minister, plumber as well as professor, with the challenge to aim for the highest public and private aspirations.
"The training of the intellect was meant to produce an intrinsic pleasure and satisfaction, but it also had practical goals of importance to the individual and the entire community, to make the humanistically trained individuals eloquent and wise, to know what is good and to practice virtue, both in private and public life," he says. This is ought to rattle the bones of everyone on Capitol Hill.