In today’s Wall Street Journal “Sightings” column I talk about a new government program designed to support works of serious scholarship that are aimed at a popular audience—and show how such scholarship, when done well, can change a culture. Here’s an example.
* * *
The National Endowment for the Humanities recently announced a $1.7 million block of grants in its new “Public Scholar” program, whose purpose is to support the publication of “nonfiction books that will bring important humanities scholarship into book clubs and onto best-seller lists.”
Stop laughing! The NEH might—just might—be onto something.
According to the news release, the Public Scholar Program will support “books that use deep research to open up important or appealing subjects for wider audiences by presenting significant humanities topics in a way that is accessible to general readers.” In theory, that’s a great idea. As everyone knows who’s dipped so much as a toe into the murky stream of academic prose, much of what gets written by the professoriate these days is clotted with quasi-scientific jargon that renders it unintelligible….
Whether the initial recipients of the NEH’s bounty (most of whom received grants of about $50,000 apiece) will write anything that ordinary people would care to read is, of course, another matter altogether. I confess to wondering whether such project titles as “Bartolomeo Vanzetti and the Culture of Early 20th-Century Anarchism” and “Everybody Comes to Rick’s: How ‘Casablanca’ Taught Us to Love Movies” are likely to result in books that will be the better for being written in English instead of High Educanto. Still, we don’t need the NEH to tell us that genuinely humane scholars who choose to write in a manner comprehensible to the general public—and who have something worthwhile to say—can leave a permanent mark on society.
Consider Hervey M. Cleckley’s “The Mask of Sanity: An Attempt to Clarify Some Issues About the So-Called Psychopathic Personality.” You’ve probably never heard of Dr. Cleckley, a professor at the Medical College of Georgia who died in 1984, or “The Mask of Sanity,” which was published in 1941 and is now largely forgotten save by historians of psychiatry. But if you’ve turned on your TV at any time in the last decade, you’ve felt his invisible pull, for he is the man who introduced the concept of what we now call “psychopathy” into general discourse—and who did so by writing a scholarly treatise that was as readable as a popular novel….
* * *
Read the whole thing here.