The Forum | General Education

In Memoriam: Dr. Bruce Cole

January 11, 2018 by Michael B. Poliakoff

The nation lost a great citizen and leader with the passing of The Honorable Bruce Cole, and ACTA mourns the loss of a friend and inspiring national leader. Dr. Cole was an internationally acclaimed art historian, the dynamic chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, a beloved professor, civic-minded trustee, passionate humanist, prolific writer, and decorated public servant. His sudden and untimely death takes away from us a public intellectual of great stature and leaves a wound in the hearts of the many people who knew him as a friend and mentor.

Dr. Cole taught for nearly 30 years at Indiana University–Bloomington, earning the rank of Distinguished Professor of Fine Arts at IU Bloomington’s College of Arts and Sciences. A great professor lives on through the work of his students, and Dr. Cole had many such disciples, among them Michelle Erhardt, Associate Professor and Director of Museum Studies at Christopher Newport University, and the late Eleonora Luciano, a curator at the National Gallery of Art.

His academic work was supported by the most distinguished scholarly agencies: He was a fellow at the Kunsthistorisches Institut in Florence and held grants from the Guggenheim Foundation, the American Council of Learned Societies, the American Philosophical Society, and the UCLA Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies. He was a member of the storied Accademia Senese degli Intronati, and in 2008, Dr. Cole was decorated as a Knight of the Grand Cross, the highest honor in the Republic of Italy. Yet he wore these enormous scholarly honors lightly: His heartfelt commitment was to outreach and service.

When one explores the fifteen books that Dr. Cole wrote, one is struck not only by his scholarly acumen, but by his extraordinary ability to communicate with readers. He conveyed his joy in the world of art not only to fellow scholars, but to a much wider public. 

This brings us to one of the most important aspects of his legacy: his intense commitment to making the world of the humanities and the arts accessible, in lucid, engaging prose. He had little patience with obfuscation, scholarly or otherwise, and those who had the privilege of working with him could not help but be influenced by his dedication to sharing the treasures of Western Civilization broadly and richly.

Dr. Cole may be best remembered by the nation for his vigorous leadership as chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) from 2001 to 2009, the longest serving chairman in the history of the Endowment. He was appointed by President George W. Bush, and in the wake of the September 11 attack on the United States, he quickly focused NEH on ensuring that Americans have the understanding we need to defend our heritage of freedom. His signature initiatives included We the People, whose influence has transcended three changes of administration and brought deepened understanding of the core principles of American democracy and the foundations of our civic institutions to many thousands of Americans. Picturing America joined his patriotism to his passion for art and brought reproductions of the masterpieces of our nation’s art to over 55,000 schools and public libraries. Additionally, through inter-agency partnership with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Picturing America served 20,000 Head Start centers nationwide with this celebration of our national heritage. Dr. Cole was also an early adopter of the digital humanities, and dedicated funds to create digital archives of artwork and newspapers chronicling important moments in American history. It was no surprise that then-governor Mitch Daniels later turned to Dr. Cole to bring his academic vision to university governance as a member of Indiana University’s Board of Trustees.

Most recently, he served as a Senior Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. He frequently published in influential journals, conveying his uncompromising adherence to excellence, aesthetics, and civic virtue. Known for his gentle and amiable nature, Dr. Cole nevertheless did not hesitate to expose false prophets and intellectual sloppiness. His fierce criticism of the pretension and aesthetic vacuity in the design of the Eisenhower Memorial—even though he himself was appointed by President Obama to the Eisenhower Memorial Commission in 2013—is but one example of his principled character.

Dr. Cole worked with ACTA on a number of occasions as a trustee of Indiana University and also as an unwavering proponent of the humanities in liberal arts education. This past summer he sat down for an excellent conversation about the role of the digital humanities, civic education, and the liberal arts on ACTA’s podcast, Higher Ed Now. He and his wife were often lively guests at ACTA events.

Dr. Cole is survived by his wife, Doreen, his son, Ryan, his daughter, Stephanie Whittaker, and his grandchildren. In Virgil’s Aeneid, a work that Dr. Cole knew deeply, the poet describes a place in the Elysian Fields, the Roman abode of the blessed dead, where, alongside the great Roman generals and statesmen, those who enhanced human life with the crafts and arts they developed have their eternal place of honor. Bruce Cole earned his spot in the Elysian Fields as both a visionary national leader and as a scholar-teacher who brought light to the world of the humanities and the arts. Thank you for your life of meaningful service. Rest in peace, dear friend: I know you are forever in that place of honor. 


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