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Are democratic ideals worth their own 'national endowment'?

With characteristic insight, philosopher Sidney Hook has asked one of the three or four really important questions of the decade. "Suppose that, in the spirit of [Thomas] Jefferson, we wanted to devise an educational system that would . . . strengthen allegiance to our self-governing democratic society," he muses. "How would we do this today?"

The question formed the centerpiece of his Jefferson Lecture, delivered last week in Washington and New York. As the nation's highest honor for achievement in the humanities, the $10,000 Jefferson lectureship is bestowed annually by the National Endowment for the Humanities.

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The educational issue Dr. Hook raises was equally important to Jefferson, who saw democracy as a bulwark against the tyranny of monarchy. Today's challenge, many would say, comes from the tyranny of totalitarianism -- and particularly from communist expansionism. But Dr. Hook, emeritus professor of philosophy at New York University, describes our "urgent contemporary crisis" less as external threat than as internal decay -- as "an eroding allegiance to the ideals of a free, self-governing society."

So how can the educational system strengthen what Hook calls "belief in the principles of liberal democracy"?

Not, says Hook in his clearly reasoned analysis, simply through a curriculum bsed on Jefferson's twin pillars of education -- the sciences and the humanities. Valuable though it is, a study of science is no guarantee of political freedom. "The domination man exercises over nature," he writes, "has often been used to fasten bonds of domination over other men."

But neither is the humanities a sure route to democratic values -- although he soars in praise of the study of language and literature, history, art, and philosophy. They can, however, engender an elitism that militates against broad-based faith in democracy. "'We known now,'" Hook quotes George Steiner as saying about German Natzis, "'that a man can read Goethe and Rilke in the evening . . . and go to his day's work at Auschwitz in the morning.'"

What's needed, says this octogenarian philosopher, is a "National Endowment for Democracy" -- not to export democratic ideals to other countries, but to "make the study of the basic elements of a free society a required part of instruction on every educational level" in the United States.

It's an idea worth exploring. It will no doubt be attacked as a propaganda ploy -- especially in the context of a presidency already criticized for moving such institutions as the Voice of America away from analysis and toward advocacy. But such criticisms misrepresent Hook's thrust. He wants an organizaiton which, through "honest inquiry," promotes the study of both "the functioning of a democratic community" and "the theory and practice of contemporary totaliarian societies."

"Such an approach to civic education," Dr. Hook explained in a telephone interview, "would not have to deny or apologize for the tragic and even the shameful aspects of our past." It would work simply by "comparing our shortcomings with the repressions and oppressions" of totalitarian societies -- and letting the results speak for themselves.

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As an educator who has taught at every level except kindergarten, Dr. Hook is hardly a propagandist. He has simply spotted a hole in the curriculum -- and, in his lecture, provided the theoretical underpinnings for a means of filling it. If Hook's endowment will help acquaint us with ourselves -- and keep us from taking democracy for granted -- it's worth vigorous pursuit.

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