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The 2011 National Humanities Medals

Each year, the National Endowment for the Humanities bestows the National Humanities Medal to a handful of individuals or organizations. First granted in 1997 as the Frankel Prize in the Humanities, the award was reincarnated as The National Humanities Medal in 1997. The medal “honors individuals or groups whose work has deepened the nation's understanding of the humanities, broadened our citizens' engagement with the humanities, or helped preserve and expand Americans' access to important resources in the humanities.” Humanities include performing and visual arts, language, literature, philosophy, and religion. It also includes social sciences such as sociology, history, cultural studies, and law. Award winners include musicians, artists, librarians, philosophers, economists.022012-1  

On February 13, 2012, President Obama awarded the 2011 National Humanities Medals to eight individuals and one program. Watch the introduction to the awards ceremony (through 7:50). Do you agree with Obama’s view of the role and importance of the arts? Then skip ahead to 14:30 and watch as President Obama hands out the awards.

The 2011 recipients were poet John Ashbery; economist and philosopher Amartya Sen; historians Robert Darnton, and Teofilo Ruiz; philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah; music scholar Charles Rosen; literary scholars Andrew Delbanco, and Ramón Saldívar; and the educational program National History Day. Read the press release with brief introductions to each man. Their work encompasses a rich variety of art and research. This week, you will learn more about each recipient and explore each man’s work.

A Tour of Humanities’ Riches, or Eight Noteworthy Men and their Work

022012-4 American poet John Ashbery is familiar with awards ceremonies. He has won the Pulitzer Prize, been elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and been awarded France’s highest honor for non-citizens, the Chevalier of the Légion d’Honneur. Read Ashbery’s profile to learn more about his career and poetry. Visit Poetryfoundation.org to watch a video about Ashbery and his poetry. Scroll down to hear podcasts of his poetry. Select three poems to listen to. Which did you enjoy the most? What was it about? What made it enjoyable? What poetic techniques did you recognize? How might you use that poem as model for one of your own?

Amartya Sen is both an economist and a philosopher. This unexpected combination of disciplines makes Sen’s work unlike others; yet, he sees this unexpected approach key to his work. Read Sen’s profile to learn more about his unique approach. Watch an interview with Sen. Summarize his work. What questions would you pose to Sen?

022012-3 Why are books important? Robert Darnton’s scholarship examines the importance of books throughout history. Learn more about Darnton by reading his profile. As e-books gain readership, do you believe print books are still relevant? Read an article written by Darnton, 5 Myths about the ‘Information Age.’Explain Darnton’s argument that e-books and print books are allies. Summarize one point Darnton makes about books, reading, or writing and respond to it.

Like Darnton, Teofilo Ruiz is an historian; however, his focus is not the book, but Spanish history. In his profile, Ruiz shares how he came to study Spanish history. Ruiz compares his lecture style to the Energizer bunny. See him in action; watch Ruiz deliver a lecture, The Terror of History: the Witch Hunt in Early Modern Europe. The entire lecture is nearly an hour; if time is limited, view an excerpt. Write down several quotes that capture your attention. Share your questions, connections, and responses to each.

Kwame Anthony Appiah specializes in African American studies programs. Read more about his career in his profile. What commonalities exist between his attitude toward thinking and ideas, and those of other 2011 National Humanities Award Recipients? Listen to an interview with Kwame Anthony Appiah. The full interview lasts 30 minutes. Another option is to watch several short, related sections. How would you respond to Appiah? What questions would you ask him?

022012-2 Musician Charles Rosen is considered one of the greatest pianists of our times. Listen to him play Chopin. He is also known for his writing about music. Read more about Rosen’s life and career. What influenced him? What other interests did Rosen have? How is his career similar to other National Humanities Award winners?

Andrew Delbanco and Ramón Saldívar are both literary scholars, though their work examines different aspects of literature. Saldivar is an expert on Chicano literature. Delbanco’s work explores literary and religious history, as well as contemporary education issues. Read profiles of Andrew Delbanco and Ramon Saldivar. For a taste of Saldivar’s writing, read the introduction to his article, Narrative, Ideology, and the Reconstruction of American Literary History. Highlight the main idea in each paragraph in the introduction. Summarize Saldivar’s main points. What questions do you have about Saldivar’s article? Read the transcript to an interview in which Delbanco discusses evil and explains the connection between literature’s Captain Ahab (the villain of Melville’s Moby Dick) and Osama bin Laden. How does Delbanco explain evil? Share two excerpts: one you agree with and one you question. Do you find any connections between his consideration of evil and Ruiz’s lecture about witch hunts?

In President Obama’s introductory remarks, he said what connects these men is “they dwell in possibilities.” Indeed, many of them have not be constrained by one discipline. Their careers are interdisciplinary. They see connections and create alternatives. Because they question what is possible, they push our understanding of the world.