Jim Leach is the Obama administration’s chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities and the subject of this long-running series. The NEH has now posted Leach’s keynote speech at the 2011 meeting of the National Academy of Education 2011 on October 28 at George Washington University. The speech is long, running more than five pages. Reading it through is not easy. Listening to it must have felt like a sophisticated form of punishment.
The speech brings us the compleat Leach: pompous, incoherent, obscure, virtually illiterate, all while purporting to defend the essential role of the humanities in a free society. The cause is good, but the man is its walking refutation. What next? Leach on the importance of self-knowledge?
The speech brings us the ironic misuse of the word “irony.” It brings us two uses of the word “rubric,” a word that suggests he learned something as an undergraduate at Princeton. It brings us a reference to “stock and trade” when what is meant is “stock in trade.” (Perhaps Leach was thinking of “cash and carry.”) It brings us thoughts on Einstein: “[H]is life is proof of imaginative, mind-trumping, skill-set knowledge….”
The speech presents Leach in many guises. Leach as Jobs Czar explaining how to cure unemployment — “job creation itself requires an understanding of community and the world” — and reflecting deeply on the relation between education and employment: “It is true that many jobs, such as in the building trades, are skill-centric, but job creation itself requires an understanding of community and the world. Change and its acceleration characterize the times. With each passing year jobs evolve…”
Leach as Education Czar: “What is needed in a world in flux is a new understanding of the meaning of basics in education….What are also needed are the studies that provide perspective on our times and foster citizens’ understanding of…other cultures, and the creative process.”
A related thought: “The insights provided by humanities disciplines and the judgmental capacity to analyze, correlate and express developed in humanities studies are not ‘dismissible’ options for society; they are essential to revitalizing the American productive engine; they help define and inspire citizenship.”
Leach as Spiritual Guide: “How can we contain prejudice and counter forces of hatred if we don’t come to know more about each other?”
Leach as Military Strategist: “…a doctrine of active interventionism may be a less attractive option than might be assumed by those who hold that security is exclusively a function of military doctrine.”
Leach as National Security Advisor: “…national security approaches related to many foreign conundrums begin at home…with regard to the respect or lack thereof accorded diverse American cultural groups.”
And Leach as Philosopher: “The most meaningful discovery in a liberal arts education is that everything is related to everything else, although we may not know it at the time.” It is only one of many things we do not know at the time.