A date at the White House

by Tom Lee

Harvard Arts Blog is pleased to recognize several alums, honorary alums and faculty who are recipients of the 2012 National Humanities Medal, announced by the White House on July 3. President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama will present the Medals, which are managed by the National Endowment for the Humanities, at a ceremony in the East Room on Wednesday, July 10.

The humanities honors will be presented in conjunction with the National Medal of Arts managed by the National Endowment for the Arts, whose recipients include singer Renée Fleming, who has conducted master classes at Harvard under the auspices of the Office for the Arts' Learning From Performers program; and playwright Tony Kushner, who has also participated in Learning From Performers and delivered the Tanner Lectures at Harvard in 2008.

Recipients of the Humanities Medal with ties to Harvard include:

Jill Ker Conway AM '63 and PhD '69, "for her contributions as a historian and trailblazing academic leader. Dr. Conway has inspired generations of scholars, and her studies of exceptional and empowered women have revealed a common drive that unites women across the globe—to create, to lead, and to excel." Conway was Smith College's first female president (1975-1985) and is currently a visiting professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Natalie Zemon Davis AM '50 and Honorary Degree '96, "for her insights into the study of history and her exacting eloquence in bringing the past into focus. With vivid description and exhaustive research, her works allow us to experience life through our ancestors’ eyes and to engage truly with our history." Davis is currently a professor of history at the University of Toronto; among her many books is The Return of Martin Guerre (1983).

Joan Didion, Honorary Degree '09, "for her mastery of style in writing. Exploring the culture around us and exposing the depths of sorrow, Ms. Didion has produced works of startling honesty and fierce intellect, rendered personal stories universal, and illuminated the seemingly peripheral details that are central to our lives." Didion is the author of many novels, essays and memoirs, the latter including The Year of Magical Thinking, for which she received the National Book Award for Nonfiction in 2005.

Robert Putnam is the Peter and Isabel Malkin Professor of Public Policy at the JFK School of Government: "For deepening our understanding of community in America. Examining how patterns of engagement divide and unite, Dr. Putnam’s writing and research inspire us to improve institutions that make society worth living in, and his insights challenge us to be better citizens. In 2000, Putnam published his controversial book about the decline of social capital, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community.

Robert Silvers, Honorary Degree '07, "for offering critical perspectives on writing. As the editor and co-founder of The New York Review of Books, he has invigorated our literature with cultural and political commentary and elevated the book review to a literary art form." Silvers was co-editor of the Review with Barbara Epstein for over 40 years until her death in June 2006 and has been the sole editor of the magazine since then.

Anna Deavere Smith, Bunting Fellow '92 (Radcliffe Institute), "for her portrayal of authentic American voices. Through profound performances and plays that blend theater and journalism, she has informed our understanding of social issues and conveyed a range of disparate characters." Smith is currently the artist in residence at the Center for American Progress and widely known for her roles on TV's "The West Wing" and "Nurse Jackie." She is also known for her "documentary theater" plays such as Fires in the Mirror and Twilight: Los Angeles, both of which featured Smith as the sole performer of multiple and diverse characters.

The National Humanities Medal and National Medal of Arts ceremony will take place on July 10 at 1:30 pm and will be streamed online.

[Caption: Jill Ker Conway]

[Caption: Robert Putnam]