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The National Humanities Medal: Views from Recipients

NHMedal_generic The National Humanities Medal, awarded annually by the National Endowment for the Humanities and presented by the President of the United States, honors an individual or organization whose work has deepened the nation’s understanding of the human experience, broadened citizen engagement with history and literature, or helped preserve and expand Americans’ access to cultural resources.

What does receiving a National Humanities Medal mean, personally and professionally? Does this national award raise the profile of humanities scholarship and history in particular? Does it impact public awareness of historical inquiry? We reached out with these questions this fall to National Humanities Medal recipients who are also OAH members. Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, Edward L. Ayers, Jacquelyn Dowd Hall, Harold Holzer, Stanley Nider Katz, Mark Noll, and Gordon S. Wood offered the following reminiscences and insights.

Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, 2014 recipient

I feel deeply honored that President Barack Obama recognized my life’s work in the humanities by selecting me to be a recipient of the 2014 National Humanities Medal. As a historian of African Americans and women, I appreciate his recognition of the role of women of color in the building of our nation. Thus it meant a great deal to me to follow historians Darlene Clark-Hine and Anne Firor Scott from the previous year and to stand with Vicki Ruiz among the current medalists.

Events on September 9 and 10, 2015, culminating in the White House ceremony, took on an additional meaning for me, however. Those very days marked the centennial anniversary of the founding of the Association for the Study of African American Life and History. As president-elect of ASALH, I knew that while I was at the White House, scholars from around the nation as well as local community members gathered together in a symposium in Chicago, where Carter G. Woodson founded the organization in 1915. Thus, as I stood next to the first black President of the United States and heard the citation that my “illuminating the African-American journey” had “deepened our understanding of the American story,” I could not help but think about Woodson, who received a PhD in history from Harvard in 1912 and is known as the Father of Black History. What would Woodson think if he could see this day—a black President commending the study of the black past? I also thought about my father, who worked with Woodson, and remembered his frequent encomium at the dinner table: “We work to disprove the lie that the Negro has no history or none worthy of respect.” I received the National Humanities Medal, knowing full well that I stand on the shoulders of the many historians of all races who have been and continue to be committed to bringing the African American presence into the larger story of America.

Edward L. Ayers, 2012 recipient

I must admit that I was more than a little abashed when I received the medal in 2013, not only because of the honor itself but also because of the fellow historians with whom I shared the occasion: Natalie Zemon Davis and Jill Ker Conway, pioneers in our field. Fortunately everyone seemed abashed by the honor and so my own feelings did not seem unduly evident.

It’s encouraging when history is recognized at such a high level, of course. It is important, too, when history is recognized as a humanistic enterprise. While historians draw liberally from the social sciences and elsewhere, we are fundamentally devoted to the values and purposes of the humanities, interpreting the human experience in every dimension. Our profession is fortunate to have wonderful representatives of that humane work who were recognized this year, Vicki Ruiz and Evelyn Higginbotham.

hall-nhm-sizedJacquelyn Dowd Hall, 1999 recipient

Receiving the National Humanities Medal would have been extraordinary in any case, but it also had heightened meaning for me because it so clearly honored not just my work in U.S. women’s and southern working-class history but that of all the devoted people who had helped to make the University of North Carolina’s Southern Oral History Program such a generative institution. Awarded by President Bill Clinton, whom we had interviewed in 1974 when he was just starting his political career, the medal recognized my scholarship and teaching, but it pointed especially to my role as founding director of a program that had “assembled an unprecedented collection of first-person narratives and raised public awareness of the importance of oral history to cultural understanding.” The news came in the midst of a celebration of the program’s 25th anniversary. That celebration and the thrill of taking my family (including my wheelchair-bound mother) to the White House festivities still stand as two of the most memorable moments of my career.

I certainly hope that this annual national award raises the profile of humanities scholarship and history in particular, given how few such high-profile awards there are and the degree to which the humanities are under siege. But I can only say with certainty that this medal made an incalculable difference within my small world. The Southern Oral History Program recently celebrated its 40th anniversary. When I stepped down as its director and retired from the history department, I had the immense satisfaction of knowing that both the program and the field of women’s history at UNC were blossoming in new hands. That longevity and continuity owe a great deal to the university administration’s awareness of the prestige conveyed by the National Humanities Medal. More generally, I like to think that this award helped to advance the astonishing growth of oral history as a vehicle for popular understanding of the past and a central tool of the historian’s craft. I could never have dreamed of this outcome when I ventured into oral history in the early 1970s. Likewise, I could not have predicted that the then “new labor history” and what one of my male colleagues in that period liked to call “pots-and-pans history” would still be evolving in such brilliant and satisfying ways.

Harold Holzer, 2008 recipient

Receiving the National Humanities Medal was of course one of the most exhilarating moments of my life. Not only did I get to participate in a beautiful White House ceremony with my family in attendance and to experience that almost surreal moment when the President places the medal around your neck and congratulates you; I also got to share the experience with my friend and co-recipient Gabor Boritt of Gettysburg College, a fellow Lincoln scholar.

The award has made a major, if intangible, difference in my professional life as well. The honor, “winner of the National Humanities Medal,” is always part of my biography and every introduction. But my bio has a particular twist that speaks, I think, to the bipartisan appeal of history: “President Clinton appointed Holzer to the Lincoln Bicentennial Commission, and President Bush, in turn, awarded him the National Humanities Medal.” I like the symmetry, even if it’s imprecise.

From a purely personal perspective, I think maybe the most memorable part of the day itself was meeting one of the National Medal of Arts honorees: none other than Olivia de Havilland, who probably has done as much, however unwittingly, to reinforce Lost Cause mythology than any living person. Melanie Wilkes in person, albeit 90+ years old and in a wheelchair, could not have been more charming, elegant, and surprising. When a White House staffer briefed us on the upcoming ceremony, Ms. de Havilland showed why stars are stars. “You walk up on the stage, bend your head, receive the medal around your neck, shake the President’s hand, and leave along the opposite steps,” the staffer proclaimed, then asked for questions. Only one came: “I’d like to rehearse that,” said the double Oscar winner matter-of-factly. “I really do like rehearsal.” And then she rose from her wheelchair, stood ramrod straight, ran through the exercise with a stand-in for the President, smiled, bowed, and headed off the stage, all flawlessly. She probably could have done it in a hoopskirt, if required.

katz-nhmStanley Nider Katz, 2010 recipient

I was awarded the National Humanities Medal by President Obama in 2011. It was of course a thrill to have my work recognized, and the event itself was memorable—a formal dinner across the street from the White House, the elegance of the ceremony in the East Room of the White House, the company of the medalists, all the bells and whistles. I can’t deny that I enjoyed all of the pomp and circumstance on a beautiful day in Washington, D.C.

But what made the day even more meaningful for me was the fact that I was (inadvertently, I’d guess) honored as part of a group, since Bernard Bailyn and Gordon Wood were also among the honorees that day. Gordon and I were among the very first of Bud Bailyn’s graduate students in early American history at Harvard, and so in a sense this was a triple honor for Bud. I don’t think that there had been a mentor-student pairing in any previous group of National Humanities Medal recipients, and there we were, a trio. Bud is a very modest fellow, and he never mentioned that Gordon and I were his students, but of course we were—and very proud of it. So the award seemed to me a recognition of the stature of early American history, a field that was not nearly so prominent when I began my graduate work in 1955. And the continuing recognition of historians among the honorees probably signals the extent to which historians are important to public perceptions of the humanities.

The citation for my medal makes it clear that I was selected not primarily for my research and publication, but for my public activities as an advocate for the humanities. That pleases me, since it is a signal that an historical career can and should extend beyond the borders of college and university campuses.

Mark Noll, 2006 recipient

The most memorable aspect of the 2006 National Humanities Medal ceremony for me was its timing. We assembled for the ceremony on Thursday, November 9, only two days after an off-year election in which the Democrats swept the board. With a gain of 31 seats, the Democrats’ congressional leader, Nancy Pelosi, was tipped to become the first woman to serve as a Speaker of the House. Comparable triumphs in the Senate and in state governorships underscored the national repudiation of a Republican Party badly wounded by faltering adventures in Iraq, perceived indifference to Hurricane Katrina, and lobbying scandals in Congress. As an outsider invited in for a brief private ceremony, I anticipated that gloom and doom would be the order of the day.

It was not. White House staff maneuvered us efficiently through security and settled us comfortably into waiting lounges. In a hallway we ran into several cabinet members, including Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, as they hustled to a meeting, yet they seemed chipper as they paused to chat affably for a few moments. President and Mrs. Bush greeted each of us with what seemed to be genuine interest; they offered the kind of focused attention to new acquaintances that politicians seem to bring off so well and many of us academics so poorly. The photographers jollied us into the necessary formations for their work. Young military personnel assigned as our hosts proved to be fountains of useful, or simply curious, information about the White House and its public uses. Quite apart from any ideological leanings, I came away positively impressed with the professionalism of everyone we encountered, from doormen to George and Laura Bush.

I was able to bring along two significant others: my wife and a longtime friend who had done Army service in Vietnam and was retired from the FBI. It was a special treat to introduce him to the President and listen to their brief banter about life in government service.

As an intellectual opportunity, I especially appreciated the chance to meet and speak with Kevin Starr, who was being recognized for his multi-volume history of California that I had much admired. In wider perspective, I took for granted that my award served to single out all of us who work in American religious history. With this honor, I understood that historians of American religion as a group were being recognized for having attracted more practitioners, produced more and better books, and demonstrated more clearly the importance of our subject for a deeper understanding of the American past.

Gordon S. Wood, 2010 recipient

Obviously, it was a great honor to receive the National Humanities Medal from President Obama in 2011. The experience of the ceremony was an awesome occasion, especially meeting the other recipients. We had to wait about 50 minutes or so in the Green Room for the President and we were seated alphabetically. I was seated next to Philip Roth, who is my age, so we had something in common. As we talked about some of his novels, I mentioned Letting Go (1962) and he was surprised that anyone still remembered it. I told him I had read it in grad school and enjoyed it because it was about grad students. He told me marvelous stories of his youth and military service. I asked him if he would write up this experience. He said no, but added that John Updike (who had received the medal in 2003) would have done so.

I think the award does enhance the humanities, but perhaps only those who already love the humanities are interested in the awards.