The National Humanities Medal, inaugurated in 1997, honors individuals or groups whose work has deepened the nation’s understanding of the humanities and broadened our citizens’ engagement with history, literature, languages, philosophy, and other humanities subjects. Up to 12 medals can be awarded each year.
The National Endowment for the Humanities joined NYU Washington, DC in welcoming the six honorees of the 2015 National Humanities Medal at the Constance Milstein and Family Global Academic Center for a panel discussion.
William D. Adams is the tenth chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities. Adams, president of Colby College in Waterville, Maine from 2000 until his retirement on June 30, 2014, is a committed advocate for liberal arts education and brings to the Endowment a long record of leadership in higher education and the humanities.
A native of Birmingham, Michigan, and son of an auto industry executive, Adams earned his undergraduate degree in philosophy at Colorado College and a Ph.D. from the University of California at Santa Cruz History of Consciousness Program. He studied in France as a Fulbright Scholar before beginning his career in higher education with appointments to teach political philosophy at Santa Clara University in California and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He went on to coordinate the Great Works in Western Culture program at Stanford University and to serve as vice president and Secretary of Wesleyan University. He became president of Bucknell University in 1995 and president of Colby College in 2000.
Adams’s formal education was interrupted by three years of service in the Army, including one year in Vietnam. It was partly that experience, he says, that motivated him to study and teach in the humanities. “It made me serious in a certain way,” he says. “And as a 20-year-old combat infantry advisor, I came face to face, acutely, with questions that writers, artists, philosophers, and musicians examine in their work -- starting with, ‘What does it mean to be human?’”
In each of his professional roles, Adams has demonstrated a deep understanding of and commitment to the humanities as essential to education and to civic life. At Colby, for example, he led a $376-million capital campaign – the largest in Maine history – that included expansion of the Colby College Museum of Art and the gift of the $100-million Lunder Collection of American Art, the creation of a center for arts and humanities and a film studies program, and expansion of the College’s curriculum in creative writing and writing across the curriculum. He also spearheaded formal collaboration of the college with the Maine Film Center and chaired the Waterville Regional Arts and Community Center.
As senior president of the prestigious New England Small College Athletic Conference (NESCAC), Adams has been at the center of the national conversation on the cost and value of liberal arts education. “I see the power of what is happening on our campuses and among the alumni I meet across the country and around the world,” he says. “People who engage in a profound way with a broad range of disciplines – including, and in some cases especially, with the humanities -- are preparing to engage the challenges of life. They are creative and flexible thinkers; they acquire the habits of mind needed to find solutions to important problems; they can even appreciate the value of making mistakes and changing their minds. I am convinced that this kind of study is not merely defensible but critical to our national welfare.”
Adams, nicknamed Bro by his father in honor of a friend who died in World War Two, is married to Lauren Sterling, philanthropy specialist at Educare Central Maine and has a daughter and a stepson.
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For bringing our Nation’s story to life. Through his examination of America’s successful giants and titans, he also invites his readers to discover their failures and foibles, uncovering enduring lessons that inform our modern era.
Ron Chernow had spent more than a decade working in New York as a journalist and public policy wonk when he came up with the idea of writing about the rise of American finance. But he didn’t want to take the subject on as a “history of Wall Street,” which to him sounded tedious. He thought it would be better to explain history through biography. Published in 1990, The House of Morgan – about four generations of the J.P. Morgan financial empire – earned a National Book Award. He was surprised by the accomplishment as it was his first book and he had no formal training in either history or finance. Still, his English literature degrees from Yale and Cambridge University proved useful to his craft. “Even though I wasn’t learning history, I was learning narrative—and narrative is at least as hard to learn as history.” Ever since, his books have combined skillful storytelling with a taste for great themes and detailed psychological portraits.
Actor-composer Lin-Manuel Miranda turned Chernow’s biography of Alexander Hamilton into one of the most successful musicals in American history. Miranda said in 2015 that his collaborator “out-Dickens Dickens” in his portrayal of the future treasury secretary’s scrappy Caribbean upbringing. Chernow says that there’s something about “famously secretive and reserved people” in history like Hamilton, John D. Rockefeller, George Washington, and his current subject, Ulysses S. Grant, that seems to attract him.
“What my job entails, as a biographer, is to penetrate the silences,” he says, referring to those issues his subjects preferred not to confront during their own lives.
In his writing, Chernow also looks to sort out the disorganized matter of the early lives of his subjects, when they were still becoming the historical figures that they did not yet know they would be. Such an emphasis on the formation of character can provide readers with insight into their own souls and their nation’s politics. “We as a country, whenever we face a period—as we are at the moment—where we are facing very fundamental choices, those choices have to be informed by an understanding of history and the humanities,” Chernow says.
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For her artful probing of the human experience. Her patient, persistent questioning in thousands of interviews over four decades has pushed public figures to reveal personal motivations behind extraordinary lives—revealing simple truths that affirm our common humanity.
Terry Gross has brought stories and insights from the world’s top authors, artists, and thinkers to the listening public through her daily radio show, Fresh Air, for more than four decades. The show has won a Peabody, and Gross is the recipient of many awards, including an Edward R. Murrow Award and an award from the Authors Guild. Gross is host and co-producer of Fresh Air, which is broadcast on 624 NPR stations across the country and on World Radio Network. It reaches five million listeners each week. In 2015 it was the number one downloaded podcast on iTunes. Her interviews constitute a priceless archive of cultural achievement for the last half century.
What draws such an audience is Gross’s skill for eliciting thoughtful, surprisingly intimate conversations. Questions can be difficult, but they are not designed for attack or to result in cute soundbites. “People who have something to say and say it well—that’s what makes a good interview. It’s as simple as that,” says Gross.“But I am not a person who believes that everybody should be on the radio telling their story . . . not everybody has a gift for describing what happened to them, or synthesizing their area of expertise.” One secret to her interviews, she says, is that she does them remotely. She is based in Philadelphia and the guest is at an NPR studio elsewhere. In the introduction to her 2004 book, All I Did Was Ask, Gross writes, “If you are a bit of a coward, as I am, it’s easier to ask a challenging question when you’re not looking someone in the eye.”
Born in 1951 in Brooklyn, Gross got her professional start in 1973, working on a feminist radio show at WBFO-FM on the campus of SUNY–Buffalo. After a short, disastrous stint as an 8th grade English teacher, one of her roommates encouraged her to approach the producer of the show and offer herself as a volunteer. Gross got hooked. “I fell in love with radio; it was just magic to me. You actually get to read books and talk to the authors, there is just a touch of theater, a little bit of writing.” Gross went on to host a show there called This Is Radio before being asked to host Fresh Air in 1975.
Since then, Gross has done upward of 13,000 interviews, many with newsmakers, but a large portion of her guests are writers and artists.
“I think that novelists and comics and screen writers and actors are especially good at seeing into human behavior and the human heart. Charles Laughton once said, ‘People don’t know what they’re like, but I think I can show them.’ That’s what artists do.”
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For her exploration of faith and its traditions. Through her study of ancient manuscripts and other scholarly work, she has generated new interest and dialogue about our contemporary search for knowledge and meaning.
For Elaine Pagels, early Christian history is a puzzle where “most of the parts are missing.” Many manuscripts that could have provided insight have disintegrated or were destroyed for being heretical, she said. To fill the gaps, Pagels, a Princeton University professor, has studied the Nag Hammadi Library, a cache of texts discovered in 1945 by an Egyptian farmer. Written in Coptic, they are translations of early Greek Christian writings.
“The efforts of the majority to destroy every trace of heretical ‘blasphemy’ proved so successful that, until the discoveries at Nag Hammadi, nearly all our information concerning alternative forms of early Christianity came from the massive orthodox attacks upon them,” Pagels wrote in The Gnostic Gospels, published in 1979.
The Gnostic Gospels won the National Book Award and National Book Critics Circle Award. It also introduced the public to unorthodox contemplations that questioned, for instance, whether Christ’s resurrection was only symbolic, and whether God was both divine Father and Mother.
Pagels studied dance and moved to New York to make a career out of it. But the few dance opportunities were extremely competitive. She applied to graduate school and was intrigued by the possibility of studying religion at Harvard. Her life’s work began in the 1960s, after her acceptance to Harvard, when Pagels learned that her professors there had copies of “all these secret gospels,” texts that she and her fellow graduate students later translated and edited. Hoping for insight into a simpler, purer Christianity, Pagels instead found that what has been called the Christian tradition was only a slice of a more complex movement.
In her 2003 book Beyond Belief, Pagels wrote about the Thomas gospel, a series of sayings believed to be Jesus’s secret teachings. She found it delivered heady ideas: “If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.” Pagels considers the Thomas gospel an amazing statement: “It’s not about what you believe; it’s about how you experience reality.” She said this mystical, psychologically modern idea is heretical in that it suggests “you don’t need Jesus or the church even.”
Her Princeton students know that when they take her class, they are not entering a typical religion course, rather a course on how one experiences their state of existence. What is most important, Pagels says, is the “spiritual dimension in human experience.”
“This recognition, after all, is what all participants in Christian tradition—however they disagree—share in common,” Pagels says.
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For reminding us that the patient is the center of the medical enterprise. His range of proficiency embodies the diversity of the humanities; from his efforts to emphasize empathy in medicine, to his imaginative renderings of the human drama.
Abraham Verghese, the well-known writer and physician, wonders why we make such a singular distinction for physician writers.
Many writers, of course, are also lawyers, teachers, office workers, and so on. Yet a strong connection runs through Verghese’s work as a doctor, in which he promotes the basic old-fashioned practice of paying close attention to the patient’s body and words, and his role as a storyteller.
Medicine, he says, is his “first great love,” and his writing has come directly out of that.
Verghese was born in Addis Ababa to expatriate Indian parents. He began medical school in Ethiopia, but his studies were interrupted by the civil war in 1974. His parents had relocated to New Jersey, and he joined them there and worked as a hospital orderly, an experience that inspired him to go on to finish medical school, which he did in India. He later returned to the U.S. He completed a fellowship in infectious diseases at Boston City Hospital and for his medical residency, went to a hospital in Johnson City, Tennessee.
It was the mid-1980s and the AIDS epidemic had taken hold of America’s cities. Gay men and women who needed treatment were returning home and the disease began reaching rural outposts. When HIV and AIDS surfaced in the Tennessee town, Verghese became the local expert. There was little he could do to combat the disease, but with his focus on the body, and the patient experience, he brought supreme empathy and respect to his patients—nearly all of whom faced certain and premature death. The difficult experience inspired him to write.
He took a break from medicine to attend the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. He graduated in 1991 and returned to doctoring, taking a position as professor and chief of the Division of Infectious Diseases at Texas Tech Health Sciences Center in El Paso, Texas.Verghese wrote of his experience fighting the AIDS epidemic in his first book, My Own Country, published in 1994 to critical acclaim.
Verghese is now a professor of medicine at Stanford, where he works to persuade doctors of the importance of placing themselves in their patients’ shoes: “Imagine your patient’s experience” is his motto. In addition to My Own Country, he has written another memoir, The Tennis Partner, and a best-selling novel, Cutting for Stone. As a TED speaker, he has argued for the importance of the physical exam in this age of advanced tests and scans. At Stanford, he teaches students at patients’ bedsides instead of around a table.
And he continues to write, believing that physicians serve as a vital witness to the patient experience. “The burden on the physician writer is to go beyond just describing—and to find meaning” in the “extraordinary, intimate moments in the lives of others.”
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For championing the stories of an unsung history. Her masterful combination of intimate human narratives with broader societal trends allows us to measure the epic migration of a people by its vast impact on our Nation and on each individual life.
Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration, took the former New York Times journalist 15 years to write.
“That’s several lifetimes in journalism,” Wilkerson says with a laugh. But her research involved interviewing more than 1,200 people to find the three protagonists whom she would feature in her epic narrative about the 60 years between World War I and 1970, when more than 6 million African Americans left the South for the North. Wilkerson then spent hundreds of hours interviewing her three protagonists. She would go with them to church, to the casino, and to the hospital just to be with them.
“Some of these things seem as if it’s a lot of hard work, and it is. But it’s to an end,” Wilkerson says. “The term narrative comes from Greek for the word knowing. And I think that that’s a powerful message because it means you cannot tell a story until you know the story.”
Wilkerson has long been interested in knowing a story deeply. Soon after graduating from Howard University, she went to work for the New York Times and became the Chicago Bureau Chief before she was 30. But her journalistic style was always “as much ethnographic as it was journalistic,” Wilkerson says. She would get to know her subjects just by spending time with them in addition to interviews.
“[Narrative nonfiction] is the closest readers will get to being another person. It allows them to be inside the . . . emotions, the fear, the anxiety, the triumph, the tragedy of another person’s experiences.”
In 1994, at just 33, Wilkerson won a Pulitzer Prize for individual reporting for her work on Midwestern floods and a 10-year-old boy taking care of his siblings.
Book offers followed, and Wilkerson left the Times in the mid-90s to start work on The Warmth of Other Suns. She had always been interested in the Great Migration, a watershed of American history.
“It reshaped the demographics of African Americans in this country,” Wilkerson says. “Fleeing opened up the way to pursue dreams that were not possible to even imagine in the caste system of the South.”
When the book was published in September 2010, it won a slew of awards, including the National Book Critics Circle Award for Nonfiction. It has also been included in innumerable best-of lists and was even selected by President Barack Obama for his summer reading list in 2011. Wilkerson is still invited to speak about the book on a full-time basis.
“The Great Migration was an act of agency on the part of people who had been denied it for most of their time on this soil,” Wilkerson says. “It is absolutely a universal human story.”