Publication Date

March 1, 2012

Perspectives Section


Two AHA members—Robert Darnton, who served as president of the AHA for 1999, and who is the Carl Pforzheimer University Professor at Harvard University (where he is also the director of the university library), and Teofilo Ruiz, a former vice president of the AHA (in the Research Division, 200 is 5–08), and professor of history at the University of California, Los Angeles, were among the nine scholars who received the National Humanities Medals for 2011.National History Day was also among the recipients of the medal. Cathy Gorn, executive director of National History Day, received the medal on behalf of the organization.

The medals were presented by President Barack Obama at a White House ceremony held on Monday, February 13, 2012, during which the president also presented the National Medals for the Arts to eight practitioners or supporters of the arts.

President Barack Obama awards the 2011 National Humanities Medal to Robert Darnton in the East Room of the White House. Official White House Photo by Pete Souza.President Barack Obama awards the 2011 National Humanities Medal to Robert Darton in the East Room of the White House.

Robert Darnton was awarded the medal, the citation read, “for his determination to make knowledge accessible to everyone,” and because, “As an author he has illuminated the world of Enlightenment and Revolutionary France, and as a librarian he has endeavored to make his vision for a comprehensive national library of digitized books a reality.”

Familiar to readers of recent issues of the New York Review of Books as the persuasive proponent of a national digital library, Darnton is known for his many scintillating books on the cultural history of modern Europe, especially the history of the printed book, and even more, of its producers and consumers. A Rhodes Scholar who received his PhD from Oxford University, Darnton taught at Princeton University for many decades before returning to Harvard University (where he received his undergraduate education) in 2007. Darnton’s many books includeThe Great Cat Massacre and Other Episodes in French Cultural History (1985),The Kiss of Lamourette: Reflections in Cultural History (1990), The Forbidden Best-Sellers of Pre-revolutionary France (1995), George Washington’s False Teeth : An Unconventional Guide to the Eighteenth Century (2003), The Case for Books: Past, Present, and Future (2009), and The Devil in the Holy Water or the Art of Slander from Louis XIV to Napoleon (2010). In all these books, Darnton brilliantly melds multidisciplinary perspectives with fluent and lucid exposition to illuminate the past not just for the scholar but also for anyone who is interested.

President Barack Obama awards the 2011 National Humanities Medal to Teofilo Ruiz in the East Room of the White House. Official White House Photo by Chuck Kennedy.Teofilo Ruiz received the medal “for his inspired teaching and writing,” and because “His erudite studies have deepened our understanding of medieval Spain and Europe, while his late examination of how society has coped with terror has taught important lessons about the dark side of western progress.” Ruiz, who received his PhD in medieval history from Princeton University, is the prolific author of numerous books (and editor of several others), includingCrisis and Continuity: Land and Town in Late Medieval Castile (1994), Spanish Society, 1400–1600 (2001),From Heaven to Earth: The Reordering of Castilian Society, 1150–1350 (2004), andThe Terror of History: On the Uncertainties of Life in Western Civilization (2011). His latest book, to be published this spring, is A King Travels: Festive Traditions in Late Medieval and Early Modern Spain.

A gifted raconteur, Ruiz manages to distil his deep erudition into entertaining classroom lectures, which he delivers without notes to enraptured groups of students at all levels. Not surprisingly, Ruiz was honored as U.S. professor of the year by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching in 1995, and as UCLA’s Distinguished Teacher for 2008.

The Humanities Medal was awarded to National History Day because, the citation indicated, it was “a program that inspires in American students a passion for history.” It so inspires as “Each year more than half a million children from across the country compete in this event, conducting research and producing websites, papers, performances, and documentaries to tell the human story.” The AHA supports this increasingly popular program, and the headquarters staff participate as judges in the national level final competitions held annually on the campus of the University of Maryland at College Park.

The other six winners of the medals were: philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah, “for seeking eternal truths in the contemporary world”; poet John Ashbery, “for his contributions to American letters”; literary scholar Andrew Delbanco, “for his insight into the American character”; musician and scholar Charles Rosen, “for his rare ability to join artistry to the history of culture and ideas”; literary scholar Ramón Saldívar, for his “bold explorations of identity”; and economics Nobel laureate and philosopher Amartya Sen “for his insights into the causes of poverty, famine, and injustice.”

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