Ronald Berman, president of the humanities foundation, dies at 91

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Ronald S. Berman, a Shakespearean scholar whose chairmanship of the National Endowment for the Humanities in the 1970s brought successful museum exhibitions and innovative public programming to audiences of millions and who also found himself in a political confrontation with a powerful senator, died on May 17. at his home in San Diego. He was 91 years old.

The cause was cancer, his daughter Julia Grossman said.

Dr. Berman, who spent much of his career teaching English literature at the University of California, San Diego, was a scholar of Renaissance and Restoration theater. But he was also engaged in the political culture of his time, sometimes in a combative way.

A lifelong Republican, he practiced an intellectual and political conservatism that was shaped in part by his difficult upbringing in Brooklyn in the 1930s and 1940s. As the first member of his Russian-Jewish immigrant family to attend college , he helped pay for tuition at Harvard and Yale with scholarships as well as jobs as diverse as a bibliography: deckhand in the Merchant Navy, road worker in Alaska, and Navy Reserve. officer.

His 1968 book, “America in the Sixties,” raised alarm about the rise of the New Left in academia. In a tangy social critique, he lamented the “disastrous vulgarization of intellectual life” encouraged, in his description, by left-wing campus radicals. He lambasted polymath Bertrand Russell and Marxian philosopher Herbert Marcuse – liberal darlings social activists – like “the Abbott and Costello of political philosophy”.

At UCSD, Dr. Berman was a noted teacher who once ran a college prep program for Black and Chicano students who, like him, come from underprivileged backgrounds. He molded himself in the mold of his hero, the political philosopher Sidney Hook, engaging with students with whom he disagreed on politics in the spirit of “intellectual tolerance”.

After President Richard M. Nixon appointed him chairman of the NEH – an agency responsible for administering grants for teaching and research in the humanities, in areas ranging from linguistics to literature to archeology – Dr. Berman insisted at his confirmation hearing in 1971 that he would “consider all applicants to this institution equally competent, equally deserving” to receive merit-based fellowships.

He also pledged to democratize the humanities by expanding grantmaking to secondary education and working class and minority communities historically excluded from the field.

In addition to launching K-12 programs and workshops for teachers across the country, he has supported tours of wildly popular museums, including the ancient Egyptian “Treasures of Tutankhamen” and the miniseries 13-part public television series “The Adams Chronicles” (1976), which featured George Grizzard as future President John Adams and laid the foundation for later historical television series.

During his tenure, NEH’s budget grew from over $29 million to nearly $100 million, a figure that eclipses the independent agency’s current appropriations if adjusted for inflation.

“Everyone was surprised,” said Richard Ekman, former NEH program manager and division director. “Here’s that curator, but a scholarly curator, not an ideologue, who managed to get everybody’s respect and everybody’s cooperation and help the NEH grow like that.”

Dr. Berman won bipartisan support in his early years at NEH, but he was not without criticism. He faced an early leadership crisis when he vetoed a request to fund college courses exploring the lyrics of Bob Dylan and the Beatles, as well as another examining the writings of Charles Reich, author of the best -counterculture seller “The Greening of America”.

Dr Berman said critics of his decision confused “the humanities with humanitarianism”. He also argued that the lessons were insufficient in focusing entirely on the lyrics and the book, rather than using them as starting points for the exploration of scholarly ideas. He was sometimes presented as an elitist, a charge he vehemently disputed.

“You can be accused of elitism if you confine [education] to the elite,” he said at the time, “but you can’t be accused of elitism if you bring the best to the most.

Its main antagonist and bearer of the cudgel of elitism was Senator Claiborne Pell, a flinty and influential Democrat from Rhode Island who liked to say “I always let the other do what I want”. Pell was the legislative father of the NEH, which was created by the National Foundation on the Arts and Humanities Act of 1965.

Pell, who said too many grants were given to East Coast scholars and universities, wanted the NEH to follow the model of the agency’s better-known twin, the National Endowment for the Arts, which funneled funds to state-level arts councils. State Humanities Committees were first established in 1971 and arrived in all 50 states within a few years of Dr. Berman’s appointment.

As the committees began their work administering local grants focused on state history, Pell lobbied for the committees to have greater autonomy and status as permanent councils, as well as to turn over 20% of the NEH budget to state governors.

Dr. Berman opposed the move, saying decentralizing the review process would make the quality of grantmaking uneven across states. Pell countered by calling him elitist and pointing out the past grants from the NEH which he hoped would embarrass Dr. Berman ($35,000 to Harvard for a catalog of 4,000 Byzantine seals), and obstruct his renomination by President Gerald Ford in 1977.

Pell prevailed on the issue of state committees, which became permanent councils with the ability to independently administer grants and request NEH support annually. Currently, councils receive approximately 40% of agency funding.

Timothy Gunn, Program Coordinator and Officer at NEH in the 1970s, Dr. Berman said, “expanded the scope of the endowment in so many interesting and fruitful ways. … For someone who had gone to the most prestigious Ivy League schools, it This was his emphasis and his drive to reach a wide audience by not diluting the humanities, by not diminishing in any way the quality of what was offered.

Ronald Stanley Berman was born in Brooklyn on December 15, 1930. His parents divorced when he was 5 years old. He was raised primarily by his mother, grandmother, and other female relatives who spoke mostly Yiddish. He was a teenager when his mother, a civil servant, remarried; he did not keep in touch with his father.

He developed a fascination for literature very early on. “I started reading ‘The Odyssey’ when I was 7,” he told The New York Times. “I was a bookworm. Mom had to throw me out of the house” to play. He quickly excelled outdoors as well, winning several racing championships.

He earned a bachelor’s degree in sociology from Harvard in 1952. He never took English classes as an undergraduate for fear of exposing his heavy Brooklyn accent and poor background to ridicule from his classmates. . Even so, he was accepted into Yale’s graduate English program in 1956 after submitting hundreds of pages in which he critiqued literary works he had read and admired.

“Immediately Professor Maynard Mack said, ‘You’re in, of course, come along,'” said essayist and author Roger Rosenblatt, a friend and former director of education at NEH, referring to the story. one of Yale’s most distinguished professors of literature.

After earning his Ph.D. in English Literature at Yale in 1959, Dr. Berman taught at Columbia University and Kenyon College in Ohio before joining the faculty at UCSD in 1965. After his tenure at NEH, he returned to San Diego, wrote books on political culture. and F. Scott Fitzgerald, and commented on what he considered wasteful spending on the arts.

His wife of 60 years, the former Barbara Barr, died in 2013. In addition to his daughter, of Silver Spring, Md., survivors include two other children, Katherine Berman of San Diego and Andrew Berman of St. Petersburg, Florida; and three grandchildren.

Dr. Berman taught until his retirement in 2009 and has at times expressed a sense that the atmosphere he cultivated in the classroom – a nurturing interaction between student and teacher – was his most important legacy.

The art of teaching is “almost as extinct as the art of making stained glass,” he told The Times. “You need a lot of patience with people – working hard, up close, like punches. It’s not just about standing at a desk for an hour and looking good.

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