Humanities, March/April 2003, Volume 24/Number 2
Making a Difference
The Greek word kleos describes deeds worthy of recognition by society, historian Donald Kagan tells us. These deeds abound in the work of the National Humanities Medal winners--six individuals, Kagan among them, and two organizations whose insight and energy have enriched the lives of all Americans through their books, their buildings, and their ideas.
One group has brought an American icon back from ruin--the home of our country’s first president--while another medalist has revived the art of theater in a place where a president was once shot. One medal recipient has fostered the literary talent of generations of writers, while another nurtures the love of reading in the youngest of readers. Another medalist reaches out to the American community in the most effective way, through laughter. One uses the airwaves to inform the citizenry. Another helps us synthesize the facts of economics into an understanding of our society. And another shows us what we can learn about ourselves from studying the civilization of ancient Greece.
The National Humanities Medal was presented to each of them by President Bush at a ceremony on February 27 at the White House. It is awarded to those who have worked to deepen the public’s understanding of and engagement with the humanities.
The following individuals received a 2002 National Humanities Medal:
- Frankie Hewitt
- Iowa Writers' Workshop
- Donald Kagan
- Brian Lamb
- Art Linkletter
- Patricia MacLachlan
- Mount Vernon Ladies' Association of the Union
- Thomas Sowell
A casual conversation at dinner with friends led Frankie Hewitt to her thirty-eight-year connection with Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C. The year was 1965 and Ford’s was known mostly for what had happened at its last performance--the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. The theater was closed that night and left standing for a century.
Hewitt’s conversation was with Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall. He told Hewitt the federal government, which owned Ford’s, was going to renovate the building and reopen it as a museum.
Hewitt was horrified. “They were going to put the theater back exactly as it was the night Lincoln was shot,” she says.
“They didn’t even plan to restore the backstage area. It was like building a monument to John Wilkes Booth.” She suggested that it reopen as a real theater. Udall responded by telling her “the government can’t run a theater.”
But Hewitt could. She soon formed the nonprofit Ford’s Theatre Society and negotiated a ten-year contract with the Department of the Interior under which the Society would produce live theater at Ford’s. The theater reopened on the 158th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s birthday--February 12, 1968--with a production of John Brown’s Body. After two theater companies failed to garner critical or financial success, Hewitt herself became the producing artistic director and has held that role ever since. Her first production was the all-black musical, Don’t Bother Me, I Can’t Cope. She has since staged shows such as My Arm’s Too Short to Box with God, Give ‘Em Hell, Harry, and Will Rogers’ USA. The theater runs an annual holiday production of Dickens’s A Christmas Carol. The shows are all original productions and some have gone on to the Broadway stage.
What makes Ford’s dear to Hewitt’s heart is that it is a family theater, emphasizing shows for young people. “It’s the perfect place to introduce young people to theater,” she says with pride. “At Ford’s you get a history lesson and an arts experience.” (The box where Lincoln sat on that fateful night is preserved in his memory.) “That’s what separates us from other theaters.”
It probably also has something to do with Hewitt’s tenacity. The daughter of migrant workers from the Oklahoma dust bowl, Hewitt moved to a prune farm in California’s Napa Valley area as a child. Her hardscrabble early years gave her a sense of what hard work and persistence could accomplish. During high school she was the women’s editor of the Napa Daily Register. At age nineteen she was assistant director of advertising and publicity at a swimsuit company.
By 1958 she was working as a speechwriter and legislative liaison in Washington, D.C. Within a year she was staff director of a Senate subcommittee investigating juvenile delinquency. She was the first woman to run an investigating committee on Capitol Hill and the first non-lawyer to run a judiciary committee. Two years later, during the Kennedy administration, she moved to New York City to serve as public affairs adviser to Ambassador Adlai Stevenson at the United Nations.
Her biggest challenge was making Ford’s Theatre a success. She used her political and fundraising skills to bring Ford’s Theatre into American homes through the annual televised presidential evenings staged at the theater. The galas help raise funds for Ford’s and have included performers such as Luciano Pavarotti, Mikhail Baryshnikov, and Whoopi Goldberg. “Every president and first lady have attended since it started during the Nixon administration,” says Hewitt, “and they seem to enjoy it. I feel very lucky about what I do.”
Three walls of the office of Frank Conroy, director of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, contain floor-to-ceiling bookcases, and they are completely full. They are filled with the works of the writers who have graduated from this prestigious creative writing and poetry program begun at the University of Iowa in 1936. “The program is the humanities,” says Conroy. “The basis of the humanities is the written word as represented by books and poetry.”
The Iowa Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa in Iowa City was the first creative writing degree program offered at an American university and the first to give thesis credit for creative work in the arts. “It is the oldest program of its kind,” says Conroy.
It is a two-year program in writing, either poetry or prose, that awards participants a master of fine arts and gives them a chance to learn from established writers and poets. The faculty is composed of distinguished writers who have included such literary talents as Kurt Vonnegut Jr., Philip Roth, and John Cheever.
A dozen Pulitzer Prize winners and a number of National Book Award winners have been Workshop graduates. It has produced four of the last five poet laureates. Graduates include Flannery O’Connor, John Irving, Wallace Stegner, Jane Smiley, Andre Dubus, and T.C. Boyle. “The program acts as a magnet,” says Conroy, “drawing a broad spectrum of students from all over the United States and Canada.”
The seeds for the Workshop were planted in 1922 when Carl Seashore, dean of the Graduate College, announced that creative work would be accepted as theses for advanced degrees. After that the School of Letters began offering regular courses in writing in which selected students were tutored by resident and visiting writers. The Workshop became a full-fledged program in 1936, and from the beginning enjoyed a series of distinguished visitors, including Robert Frost, Stephen Vincent Benét, and Robert Penn Warren, who would lecture and stay for several weeks to discuss students’ work.
Since then the program has graduated thousands of writers. “We don’t have an exact count because in the beginning no one kept track and there are no records,” says Conroy.
One of the first students to receive an M.A. in creative writing was Paul Engle. His dissertation was a collection of poems, Worn Earth, for which he won the Yale Younger Poets prize. He became director of the workshop in 1941 and stayed for twenty-five years as the program took shape and grew.
“It is a focused program, like Juilliard,” says Conroy, who is the author of three books, including Stop-Time, which was nominated for a National Book Award in 1967. “We read constantly, rereading the classics.” And they write. “They can write anything they want,” says Conroy. “We teach them what we’ve learned as writers.”
The success of the program is evident at the bookstore as a force in American literature. Conroy notes that twenty-five prose students graduated from the program in 2001. “By 2002, seven had serious books of literature in bookstores,” he says. He adds that a recent graduate, Adam Haskell, was just nominated for a National Book Award for his collection of stories, You Are Welcome. “In the face of popular culture, the Workshop helps keep alive literary culture,” he says.
The Workshop gives writers a community of fellow authors and poets to connect with. “Being in a community of writers is half the reason they come here,” says Conroy. “There’s no distraction; it’s a close community. They call each other at two o’clock in the morning to say, ‘You’ve got to hear this stanza I just wrote.’”
“Education in a democracy ought to have as its goal civics, the education of citizens,” says Donald Kagan, Sterling Professor of Classics and History at Yale University, where he has taught for more than thirty years. He is perhaps best known for his comprehensive knowledge of classical Greek politics and wars, including a four-volume study of the Peloponnesian War. He is also known for his teaching of ancient history.
“At first I focused on modern history, but then I got sidetracked by a good teacher,” Kagan says. “Looking at classical Greece, I was struck by this amazing thing: it was a turning away from the typical pattern of civilization before that time. The Greeks and what came from them, including our society, are different from other societies. The Greeks are more immediately relevant than anything in between.
“The Greeks began with the remarkable assumption that the human being is not trivial. They were the first to say that human beings belong to the same race as the gods. They focused on life here on earth.
“What the Greeks did was to win fame or glory, which they called kleos, by their actions. If you did something splendid for your city--the equivalent of a country today--someone would write about it and you would be remembered by the citizens and by your children. That was the basis of their idea of achieving immortality. . . . It is an argument not for quietude but for excellence.”
These are ideas that Kagan stresses in his introductory course at Yale. He feels that a civic education should include a common curriculum. “One of the most powerful ways people educate themselves is through conversation, discussing ideas. That can’t happen if people are not looking at the same things.”
Kagan points to Yale’s Directed Studies course as an example of what a common curriculum should be. The year-long course surveys the literature, history, politics, and philosophy of Western civilization from ancient Greece to modern times, focusing on key ideas and primary sources. Typically, there are three times as many applicants for the course as there are spaces.
“There are enormous benefits to this,” Kagan explains, and not just for students but also for their teachers. “We have to collaborate on a curriculum and stretch ourselves beyond our specialties.”
At the start of his career in 1958, Kagan received a Fulbright to study in Athens. More fellowships and teaching awards have followed, including the Clark Award for Distinguished Teaching from Cornell University and a year at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. Among his many books are Pericles of Athens and the Birth of Democracy, On the Origins of War and the Preservation of Peace, and The Western Heritage.
Kagan has also explored his interest in modern history. In While America Sleeps: Self-Delusion, Military Weakness, and the Threat to Peace Today, Kagan and his son Frederick, a military historian, look at the possible consequences of military reductions and disengagement from international affairs by the United States in the post-Cold War era. “Now my sons tell me I have a responsibility to write a history and commentary on what has happened in the world of education in the last fifty years,” Kagan says.
In the meantime, he is savoring his National Humanities Medal and the kleos it represents. “In my soul I’m an ancient Greek,” he explains. “It is a way of being singled out for honor by my fellow citizens that I really appreciate.” .
Brian Lamb is the man who brought television to the House of Representatives and then to a wider world. Lamb talked about this with NEH Chairman Bruce Cole before the National Humanities Medals were awarded. For their conversation, read "Changing the Channel: A Conversation with Brian Lamb."
For decades, Art Linkletter has been synonymous with laughter. Two of his television shows, House Party and People Are Funny, hold the top places for the longest-running shows in broadcast television history. Now in his ninetieth year, Linkletter is known as an entertainer, an author, a businessman, and a philanthropist.
His philanthropic work began early. “I’ve been mentoring kids for forty years,” he says. He is a member of the Horatio Alger Association of Distinguished Americans, which offers educational support and college scholarships to help students overcome adversity and earn a degree. He also served on the Presidential Commission to Improve Reading in the United States. The suicide of one of his daughters in 1969 prompted Linkletter to become involved in anti-drug campaigns.
“I do a lot for Springfield College, the YMCA’s college,” Linkletter explains. “The YMCA was a big influence on me. The people there were like my father and mother. I know how important it was, keeping me on the straight and narrow.”
His early years have influenced the direction of his philanthropy. “I was an orphan, abandoned at birth,” Linkletter explains of his beginnings in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan. “I was adopted by an older couple. My father, a Baptist minister, was sixty.”
The family soon moved to San Diego, California, where Linkletter grew up. “I was surrounded by the church, by the humanities, and by the philosophy of religious people,” he says, and by a pervasive spirit of giving. “My father took in hurt people wherever we were.”
After high school, Linkletter spent a few years working in New York before heading back to San Diego State College and a planned career as an English professor. A phone call from a local radio station changed his trajectory. The station manager asked him to take on a weekly show. “I didn’t have any show business talents like singing or dance,” Linkletter says. “My specialty was man-in- the-street shows.” House Party started off as a radio show and then moved to television, where it stayed for twenty-five years. People Are Funny lasted nineteen years. Many other shows followed, including Kids Say the Darndest Things, which has been running off and on for forty-five years.
Show business was never Linkletter’s only interest. He began writing books in the 1950s, and the count is now nearly two dozen. Among them are three autobiographies, along with his bestsellers, Kids Say the Darndest Things and Old Age Is Not for Sissies.
As he has grown older, Linkletter has become involved in organizations supporting seniors. Among them are UCLA’s PLATO Society for over-fifties (Partners in Learning, Actively Teaching Ourselves). The society builds on its association with UCLA by encouraging seniors to pursue learning, offering a range of seminars, lectures, and weekly meetings. Linkletter is also involved in the UCLA Center for Aging and the French Foundation for Alzheimer’s Research.
“I believe in lifelong learning. One of the things I preach to seniors is never stop learning, volunteering, expanding your consciousness, and doing things that keep life interesting.”
Linkletter is still busy spreading his message. “I do about seventy speaking engagements a year,” he says. “A big part of life is having a passion for what you do . . . . I’ll never quit.”
Books have filled the world of Patricia MacLachlan since she was a little girl growing up in Wyoming. As a child she and her father acted out the different stories she read. “Books became real to me,” says MacLachlan. “That’s how I grew up.”
It’s no wonder then that she grew up to become one of today’s most respected children’s authors, known for her award-winning book, Sarah, Plain and Tall, and many other treasured children’s stories.
MacLachlan loves writing for children because of their openness. “Children read with a certain belief and vision about finding themselves in literature,” she says. “Literature changes their lives. They have a sense of closeness with literature that speaks for them.
“And they feel they know me as a writer,” she says. “One child told me that from my picture on the book ‘I can look into the eyes of the person who wrote the story.’”
Sarah, Plain and Tall, published in 1985, is a simple narrative of two children and their widowed father living on the plains in the nineteenth century, waiting for the arrival of a mail-order bride from Maine. It has been praised for its clear-cut prose, wisdom, and gentle humor. The New York Times called it “the simplest of love stories expressed in the simplest of prose.” And the American Library Association (ALA) said it was, “a near perfect miniature novel that fulfills the ideal of different levels of meaning for children and adults.” It won the John Newbery Medal from the ALA and the 1985 Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction for Children.
MacLachlan’s popularity and acclaim are not just for Sarah, Plain and Tall. She has won awards for many of her sixteen books, including the ALA Notable Children’s Book award in 1984 for Unclaimed Treasures. She followed up Sarah with The Facts and Fictions of Minna Pratt, which appeared on the ALA’s 1988 list of notable children’s books.
Children and families are the subjects of most of MacLachlan’s stories, probably because that’s what MacLachlan knows best. She did not begin her writing career until age thirty-five, after her own three children were in school, and only after she had read as many children’s books as she could get hold of. She had also, earlier in her career, written a series of articles on adoption and foster care that deeply affected her. Her interest in families, however, stems from her own experiences. “I had an amazing growing-up and have a wonderful family now,” she says. When a child asked her what a family is, it reminded her of the importance of extended families and she wrote Journey, the story of a boy whose mother leaves him with his grandparents.
MacLachlan loves the comments she gets from her young readers, either in letters or during her visits to classrooms. “One child told me, ‘I don’t like any of your books that I’ve read so far. I’ll let you know when I do.’ Another told me Sarah, Plain and Tall is her second favorite book.”
Although she recognizes the immense effect television has on children today, she believes “they still do read.”
“My own children would have the television on, with a book on their laps,” she observes. “There’s something about a book--you can close it and open it a while later and it’s all still there.”
Ann Pamela Cunningham’s mother complained bitterly about the dilapidated state of Mount Vernon when she passed by it in 1853. “I was painfully distressed at the ruin and desolation of the home of Washington, and the thought passed through my mind: Why was it that the women of his country did not try to keep it in repair, if the men could not do it?”
Ann Cunningham answered her mother’s question by recruiting women and appealing for donations from North and South, despite the growing political tensions between the two regions. By 1860, the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association owned the house and the surrounding two hundred acres. That has become five hundred acres today.
Because of a century-and-a-half of research and restoration by the Association, about a million visitors each year are able see the house and gardens of Mount Vernon much as they were in George Washington’s lifetime. Prudent land management by the Association and agreements with neighbors have also kept the views from the house intact. The image of the portico of Washington’s overlook of the Potomac River is one of the most recognized in the nation.
The Association draws a member from each state. Over time every state is represented, but the Association doesn’t have members from all fifty at the same time, explains Ellen Walton. She is the group’s regent, or head, and has held the post since 1999. “We live at Mount Vernon during our semiannual meetings and we just don’t have space for fifty.”
Historical research and archaeology have led the Association in a variety of directions. “We’re currently reforesting the acreage,” Walton says. “Our horticulturist noticed that there were only big trees, a common problem where you have a lot of deer. So we are planting young trees. We even have two clones of the famous Wye Oak.”
Though Washington’s house at Mount Vernon is original, many of the other buildings are reconstructions based on drawings, written records, and photographs. Washington’s grist mill has been rebuilt on its original location. The publicity surrounding the reconstruction prompted an unusual phone call. “A gentleman called to tell us he had a document we might be interested in,” explains Walton. “It was a letter from Washington to a friend about his plans for the grist mill—the quality of flour he expected to get and the kind of miller he wanted. The caller was a collector. He contacted us because his children weren’t interested in his collection but he thought we would be. It was wonderful because he gave the letter to us. Two hundred years later, documents like this are still coming to light.”
Educational outreach is an important aspect of the Association’s work. “As part of our Pioneer Farm Project, we reconstructed the sixteen-sided barn that Washington designed,” Walton says. “It’s a two-story barn for treading hay. The horses tread the hay upstairs and the grain falls through to the floor below.” The project also tries to show how the plantation would have looked in Washington’s day by using eighteenth-century tools and techniques. “I met one of our interns, a young man from the Midwest, hoeing a small crop by hand. He said, ‘I can’t believe I’m going to be back in a combine on ten thousand acres next week.’”
The Association distributes a complete George Washington biography lesson for fifth graders to schools in more than thirty states. “The importance of children knowing how this country was put together is of inestimable value,” says Walton.
This year the Association is in the midst of one of its largest fundraising efforts since the 1853 appeal for two hundred thousand dollars. The organization hopes to raise eighty-five million dollars for a new museum and orientation center to tell a broader story about Washington and introduce him to a new century of admirers.
Thomas Sowell’s path has not been an easy one. His education as a child in Harlem didn’t include graduation from high school; a stint in the Marines coincided with the Korean War. Despite the difficult start, he went on to receive degrees in economics from Harvard University, Columbia University, and the University of Chicago.
For more than thirty years now, Sowell has been applying the principles of economics to a range of intellectual disciplines, including history, politics, and education. He began his career by teaching, holding professorships at Cornell University, Rutgers University, Amherst College, Brandeis University, and the University of California, Los Angeles. Today he is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.
His career as an author began in 1972 with the autobiographical Black Education: Myths and Tragedies. More than thirty books later, Sowell’s latest is Basic Economics: A Citizen’s Guide to the Economy, aimed at general readers. During the thirty years in between, he has explored the intersection of economics and society with several bestsellers, including Race and Culture: A World View, The Quest for Cosmic Justice, and Vision of the Anointed: Self-Congratulation as a Basis for Social Policy.
In his work, Sowell focuses on empirical evidence rather than theoretical probabilities. It is an approach he believes is missing from modern education. “In classrooms today, your imagination is just as good as knowing the facts,” he explains. “For example, in studying our colonial history, we ask a child, ‘How would you feel if you were a child in those days?’ But how can we expect that child to understand before knowing the facts. I call it the preposterous approach to education. You literally put in front what belongs behind.”
Grade inflation is another problem Sowell sees in education. “It’s a great tragedy,” he says. “Students need honest grades to tell them where they are. Otherwise they will be going into the world unequipped, and unaware that they are unequipped.” He tells a story about his year teaching at Howard University. “I was teaching price theory and I had brought my work from Rutgers. When I explained that I would not lower my standards, there were a lot of student complaints and a lot of controversy. Some went to the dean to have me fired. But once they found out that I wasn’t going to change, they did well. By the end, students were lobbying for me to stay . . . it was the best and worst year of my teaching career.”
Sowell feels that intellectual rigor, whatever the subject, is needed in education to prepare students for the world outside the academy. “In the twentieth century, we need people who are trained to analyze,” he says, so they can understand long-term consequences. “We don’t see that, even in national policy. Something sounds good right now and sounds good in the media, so they do it. For example, when Nixon introduced wage and price controls, it sounded good at the time, but it was a disaster, just as it had been when Diocletian passed the same laws in the days of the Roman Empire.”
One of Sowell’s current projects is a manuscript on the results of affirmative action programs. “I’m looking at it around the world--Africa, India, Asia. That would give us an idea of what works and what doesn’t. Most of the benefits of these programs go to people who are better off; the rich and the poor are the least affected by affirmative action.”
Between books, Sowell explores contemporary subjects as a syndicated columnist in more than 150 newspapers. “I write a weekly column,” he says, “except when I’m really revved up. Then I write two or three.”