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The Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities is an honorary lecture series established in 1972 by the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH). According to the NEH, the Lecture is "the highest honor the federal government confers for distinguished intellectual achievement in the humanities."[1]

Jefferson Lecture
Awarded forDistinguished intellectual achievement in humanities
LocationWashington, D.C.
CountryUnited States
Presented byNational Endowment for the Humanities
First awarded1972


History of the Jefferson LectureEdit

The Jefferson Lecturer is selected each year by the National Council on the Humanities, the 26-member citizen advisory board of the NEH. The honoree delivers a lecture in Washington, D.C., generally in conjunction with the spring meeting of the Council, and receives an honorarium of $10,000. The stated purpose of the honor is to recognize "an individual who has made significant scholarly contributions in the humanities and who has the ability to communicate the knowledge and wisdom of the humanities in a broadly appealing way."[1]

The first Jefferson Lecturer, in 1972, was Lionel Trilling. He spoke on "Mind in the Modern World." Among other things, Trilling suggested that humanism had become the basis for social improvement, rather than science and the scientific method as has been predicted by Thomas Jefferson, the Lectures' namesake.[2] Ten years later, Gerald Holton, the first scientist invited to deliver the lecture, drew attention for responding to Trilling, proposing that Jefferson's vision of science as a force for social improvement was still viable, opining that there had been a "relocation of the center of gravity" of scientific inquiry toward solving society's important problems,[2] and cautioning that science education had to be improved dramatically or only a small "technological elite" would be equipped to take part in self-government.[3]

The selection of the 2000 Jefferson Lecturer led to a spate of controversy. The initial selection was President Bill Clinton. William R. Ferris, chairman of the NEH, said that his intent was to establish a new tradition for every President to deliver a Jefferson Lecture during his or her presidency, and that this was consistent with the NEH's broader effort to increase public awareness of the humanities. However, some scholars and political opponents objected that the choice of Clinton represented an inappropriate and unprecedented politicization of the NEH. The heads of the American Council of Learned Societies and the National Humanities Alliance expressed concerns about introducing political considerations into the selection, while William J. Bennett, a conservative Republican and former chairman of the NEH under President Ronald Reagan, charged that the proposal was an example of how Clinton had "corrupted all of those around him."[4] In the wake of the controversy, President Clinton declined the honor; a White House spokesperson said the President "didn't want the work of the National Endowment for the Humanities to be called into question."[5]

Ultimately the 2000 honor went to historian James M. McPherson, whose lecture turned out to be very popular. Subsequently, the NEH revised the criteria for the award to place more emphasis on speaking skills and public appeal.[6]

The next Jefferson Lecture, by playwright Arthur Miller, again led to attacks from conservatives[7] such as Jay Nordlinger, who called it "a disgrace,"[8] and George Will, who did not like the political content of Miller's lecture and argued that Miller was not legitimately a "scholar."[9]

Recent Jefferson Lecturers have included journalist/author Tom Wolfe;[10] Straussian conservative political philosopher Harvey Mansfield;[11] and novelist John Updike, who, in a nod to the NEH's Picturing America arts initiative, devoted his 2008 lecture to the subject of American art.[12][13] In his 2009 lecture, bioethicist and self-described "humanist" Leon Kass expressed his view that science has become separated from its humanistic origins, and the humanities have lost their connection to metaphysical and theological concerns.[14]

In 2013 the NEH went in a different direction, selecting film director Martin Scorsese. He was the first filmmaker chosen for the honor, and he spoke on "the evolution of his films, the art of storytelling, and the inspiration he draws from the humanities".[15] In 2014 the Jefferson Lecturer was author Walter Isaacson,[16] and the 2015 honoree was playwright and actress Anna Deavere Smith.[17] As part of the NEH's celebration of its fiftieth anniversary in 2016, it selected documentarian Ken Burns to deliver the lecture.[18] The 2017 lecturer is University of Chicago philosophy and law professor Martha Nussbaum, who delivered her lecture, entitled "Powerlessness and the Politics of Blame", on May 1, 2017.[19]

Publications based on Jefferson LecturesEdit

A number of the Jefferson Lectures have led to books, including Holton's The Advancement of Science, and Its Burdens,[20] John Hope Franklin's Racial Equality in America,[21] Henry Louis Gates' The Trials of Phillis Wheatley[22] and Jaroslav Pelikan's The Vindication of Tradition.[23] Updike's 2008 lecture was included in his posthumous 2012 collection Always Looking.[24]

Bernard Lewis' 1990 lecture on "Western Civilization: A View from the East" was revised and reprinted in The Atlantic Monthly under the title "The Roots of Muslim Rage".[25] According to one source, Lewis' lecture (and the subsequent article) first introduced the term "Islamic fundamentalism" to North America.[26]

List of Jefferson LecturersEdit

The following table lists the Jefferson Lecturers and the titles of their lectures.[1]

Year Lecturer Lecture Title
1972 Lionel Trilling "Mind in the Modern World"
1973 Erik Erikson "Dimensions of a New Identity"
1974 Robert Penn Warren "Poetry and Democracy"
1975 Paul A. Freund "Liberty: The Great Disorder of Speech"
1976 John Hope Franklin "Racial Equality in America"
1977 Saul Bellow "The Writer and His Country Look Each Other Over"
1978 C. Vann Woodward "The European Vision of America"
1979 Edward Shils "Render Unto Caesar: Government, Society, and Universities in their Reciprocal Rights and Duties"
1980 Barbara Tuchman "Mankind's Better Moments"
1981 Gerald Holton "Where is Science Taking Us?"
1982 Emily Vermeule "Greeks and Barbarians: The Classical Experience in the Larger World"
1983 Jaroslav Pelikan "The Vindication of Tradition"
1984 Sidney Hook "Education in Defense of a Free Society"
1985 Cleanth Brooks "Literature and Technology"
1986 Leszek Kołakowski "The Idolatry of Politics"
1987 Forrest McDonald "The Intellectual World of the Founding Fathers"
1988 Robert Nisbet "The Present Age"
1989 Walker Percy "The Fateful Rift: The San Andreas Fault in the Modern Mind"
1990 Bernard Lewis "Western Civilization: A View from the East"
1991 Gertrude Himmelfarb "Of Heroes, Villains and Valets"
1992 Bernard Knox "The Oldest Dead White European Males"
1993 Robert Conquest "History, Humanity and Truth"
1994 Gwendolyn Brooks "Family Pictures"
1995 Vincent Scully "The Architecture of Community"
1996 Toni Morrison "The Future of Time"
1997 Stephen Toulmin "A Dissenter's Story"
1998 Bernard Bailyn "To Begin the World Anew: Politics and the Creative Imagination"
1999 Caroline Walker Bynum "Shape and History: Metamorphosis in the Western Tradition"
2000 James M. McPherson "'For a Vast Future Also': Lincoln and the Millennium"
2001 Arthur Miller "On Politics and the Art of Acting"
2002 Henry Louis Gates, Jr. "Mr. Jefferson and the Trials of Phillis Wheatley"
2003 David McCullough "The Course of Human Events"
2004 Helen Vendler "The Ocean, the Bird, and the Scholar"
2005 Donald Kagan "In Defense of History"
2006 Tom Wolfe "The Human Beast"
2007 Harvey Mansfield "How to Understand Politics: What the Humanities Can Say to Science"
2008 John Updike "The Clarity of Things: What Is American about American Art"
2009 Leon Kass "'Looking for an Honest Man': Reflections of an Unlicensed Humanist"
2010 Jonathan Spence "When Minds Met: China and the West in the Seventeenth Century"
2011 Drew Gilpin Faust "Telling War Stories: Reflections of a Civil War Historian"[27][28]
2012 Wendell Berry "It All Turns on Affection" [29][30]
2013 Martin Scorsese "Persistence of Vision: Reading the Language of Cinema"[31]
2014 Walter Isaacson "The Intersection of the Humanities and the Sciences"[16]
2015 Anna Deavere Smith "On the Road: A Search for American Character"[17]
2016 Ken Burns Race in America (subject; no title announced)[18]
2017 Martha Nussbaum "Powerlessness and the Politics of Blame"[19]
2018 Rita Charon "To See the Suffering: The Humanities Have What Medicine Needs"[32]
2019 Columba Stewart "Cultural Heritage Present and Future: A Benedictine Monk’s Long View"[33]


  1. ^ a b c Jefferson Lecture at NEH Website (retrieved January 22, 2009).
  2. ^ a b Alvin Krebs and Robert McG. Thomas, "Notes on People; Jeffersonian Theory Gets New Lease on Life," New York Times, May 12, 1981.
  3. ^ "Holton, in Jefferson Lecture, Criticizes Science Education," Harvard Crimson, May 15, 1981.
  4. ^ Irvin Molotsky, "Choice of Clinton to Give Humanities Lecture Meets Resistance," New York Times, September 21, 1999.
  5. ^ "National News Briefs; Clinton Declines Offer To Give Scholarly Talk," New York Times, September 22, 1999.
  6. ^ Ron Southwick, "NEH Wants Jefferson Lectures to Have More Public Appeal," Chronicle of Higher Education, October 6, 2000.
  7. ^ Bruce Craig, "Arthur Miller's Jefferson Lecture Stirs Controversy," in "Capital Commentary" Archived 2008-11-22 at the Wayback Machine, OAH Newsletter [published by Organization of American Historians], May 2001.
  8. ^ Jay Nordlinger, "Back to Plessy, Easter with Fidel, Miller’s new tale, &c." National Review, April 22, 2002.
  9. ^ George Will, "Enduring Arthur Miller: Oh, the Humanities!" Jewish World Review, April 10, 2001.
  10. ^ David Epstein, "A Speech in Full," Inside Higher Ed, May 11, 2006.
  11. ^ Philip Kennicott, "A Strauss Primer, With Glossy Mansfield Finish," Washington Post, May 9, 2007.
  12. ^ Jennifer Howard, "In Jefferson Lecture, Updike Says American Art Is Known by Its Insecurity," Chronicle of Higher Education, May 23, 2008.
  13. ^ Jay Tolson,"John Updike on American Art," U.S. News & World Report, May 23, 2008.
  14. ^ Serena Golden, "Tough Love for the Humanities", Inside Higher Ed, May 22, 2009 (retrieved May 22, 2009).
  15. ^ Dave Itzkoff, "He’s Talking to You: Scorsese to Give Jefferson Lecture for National Endowment for the Humanities", The New York Times, February 19, 2013.
  16. ^ a b Chris Waddington, "Best-selling biographer Walter Isaacson will deliver prestigious Jefferson Lecture in 2014", Times-Picayune, January 28, 2014.
  17. ^ a b Jennifer Schuessler, "Anna Deavere Smith to Deliver Jefferson Lecture", The New York Times, February 19, 2015.
  18. ^ a b Lorne Manly, "Ken Burns to Discuss Race in Jefferson Lecture", The New York Times, January 18, 2016.
  19. ^ a b "Martha Nussbaum Named Jefferson Lecturer", Inside Higher Ed, January 19, 2017.
  20. ^ Gerald Holton, The Advancement of Science, and Its Burdens: The Jefferson Lecture and Other Essays (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press 1986), ISBN 0-521-27243-2.
  21. ^ John Hope Franklin, Racial Equality in America (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1993), ISBN 0-8262-0912-2 .
  22. ^ Henry Louis Gates, The Trials of Phillis Wheatley: America's First Black Poet and Her Encounters with the Founding Fathers (Basic Civitas Books, 2003), ISBN 0-465-02729-6
  23. ^ Jaroslav Pelikan, The Vindication of Tradition: The 1983 Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1986), ISBN 0-300-03638-8.
  24. ^ Carl Dixon, "A critic keeping it surreal", Irish Examiner, January 11, 2013.
  25. ^ Bernard Lewis, "The Roots of Muslim Rage," The Atlantic Monthly, September 1990.
  26. ^ Amber Haque, "Islamophobia in North America: Confronting the Menace," in Barry van Driel, ed., Confronting Islamophobia in Educational Practice (Trentham Books, 2004), ISBN 1-85856-340-2, p.6, excerpt available online at Google Books.
  27. ^ "Drew Gilpin Faust named 40th Jefferson Lecturer in the Humanities", National Endowment for the Humanities, March 21, 2011.
  28. ^ Jacqueline Trescott, "Drew Gilpin Faust, the prize-winning historian and Harvard president, will deliver annual Jefferson Lecture", Washington Post, March 21, 2011.
  29. ^ "2012 Jefferson Lecture with Wendell Berry",, April 25, 2012.
  30. ^ Christopher Orlet, "The Affections of Wendell Berry", The American Spectator, May 3, 2012.
  31. ^ "Scorsese Talks 'The Language Of Cinema'", NPR, May 7, 2013.
  32. ^ "Dr. Rita Charon Named the 2018 Jefferson Lecturer in the Humanities". National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH). Retrieved 2018-10-16.
  33. ^ "Father Columba Stewart Named the 2019 Jefferson Lecturer in the Humanities", NEH, July 18, 2019.

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