Americans ``know less today about their culture and history than at any other time in our nation's history.'' With that observation, John Agresto, acting chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), announced a major new initiative Tuesday that will provide grants to students, teachers, and organizations that give priority to education in American history and literature, and foreign languages.
Mr. Agresto cited a recent study conducted by the Educational Testing Service of Princeton, N.J., showing a ``devastating'' lack of knowledge about America among high school seniors.
In a countrywide sampling, two-thirds of the seniors could not place the Civil War in the correct half-century. Three-fourths did not know who Walt Whitman or Carl Sandburg was. Half could not identify Winston Churchill or Joseph Stalin.
The problem was also evident in the study of geography, according to Agresto. Three-fourths of the students could not find Britain on a map; 6 of 7 could not point to the Soviet Union.
Under the new program, grants will be made in two areas: ``Understanding America'' and ``Understanding Other Nations'' (which will focus mainly on foreign-language instruction).
In a demonstration of bipartisan support, Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R) of Utah, chairman of the subcommittee on education, arts, and humanities, spoke on behalf of the American culture segment. And Sen. Paul D. Simon (D) of Illinois supported language training, saying that ``it is telling that there are more teachers of English in the Soviet Union than there are students of Russian [in the United States].''
Tom Florio of the American Federation of Teachers says the NEH initiative will ``have an effect [because of a] feeling on Capitol Hill that these issues are important.''
Chairman Agresto says NEH is challenging ``the academic community to come up with significant new media, textbooks, curricula, and film.''
Analysts say NEH's initiative is part of a larger move by Reagan administration conservatives away from unstructured, liberal approaches to learning.
For example, Agresto says NEH will fund proposals offering ``sequential and coherent courses of study in history and literature instead of diffuse courses in social studies.''
He adds that NEH will not fund programs in ``narrow or specialized studies [but those offering a] transmittable vision [of our] unprecedented diversity and common destiny.''
More liberal-minded historians such as James MacGregor Burns are concerned about ideology creeping into the grant making process. Mr. Burns says he would ``deplore any effort to influence the content or method of historical studies.''
So far, Agresto says NEH ``will devote a significant portion'' of its $120 million budget to the initiative, though he will wait to see the caliber of proposals to determine exactly how much. Funds for education currently make up about 20 percent of NEH's budget.