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Jefferson Lecture

Prior Jefferson Lecturers

  • 1972 Jefferson Lecturer Lionel Trilling
    "Mind in the Modern World"
  • 1973 Jefferson Lecturer Erik Erikson
    "Dimensions of a New Identity"
  • 1974 Jefferson Lecturer Robert Penn Warren
    "Poetry and Democracy"
  • 1975 Jefferson Lecturer Paul A. Freund
    "Liberty: The Great Disorder of Speech"
  • 1976 Jefferson Lecturer John Hope Franklin
    "Racial Equality in America"
  • 1977 Jefferson Lecturer Saul Bellow
    "The Writer and His Country Look Each Other Over"
  • 1978 Jefferson Lecturer C. Vann Woodward
    "The European Vision of America"
  • 1979 Jefferson Lecturer Edward Shils
    "Render Unto Caesar: Government, Society, and Universities in their Reciprocal Rights and Duties"
  • 1980 Jefferson Lecturer Barbara Tuchman
    "Mankind's Better Moments"
  • 1981 Jefferson Lecturer Gerald Holton
    "Where is Science Taking Us?"
  • 1982 Jefferson Lecturer Emily T. Vermeule
    "Greeks and Barbarians: The Classical Experience in the Larger World"
  • 1983 Jefferson Lecturer Jaroslav Pelikan
    "The Vindication of Tradition"
  • 1984 Jefferson Lecturer Sidney Hook
    "Education in Defense of a Free Society"
  • 1985 Jefferson Lecturer Cleanth Brooks
    "Literature and Technology"
  • 1986 Jefferson Lecturer Leszek Kolakowski
    "The Idolatry of Politics"
  • 1987 Jefferson Lecturer Forrest McDonald
    "The Intellectual World of the Founding Fathers"
  • 1988 Jefferson Lecturer Robert Nisbet
    "The Present Age"
  • 1989 Jefferson Lecturer Walker Percy
    "The Fateful Rift: The San Andreas Fault in the Modern Mind"
  • 1990 Jefferson Lecturer Bernard Lewis
    "Western Civilization: A View from the East"
  • 1991 Jefferson Lecturer Gertrude Himmelfarb
    "Of Heroes, Villains and Valets"
  • 1992 Jefferson Lecturer Bernard Knox
    "The Oldest Dead White European Males"
  • 1993 Jefferson Lecturer Robert Conquest
    "History, Humanity and Truth"
  • 1994 Jefferson Lecturer Gwendolyn Brooks
    "Family Pictures"
  • 1995 Jefferson Lecturer Vincent Scully
    "The Architecture of Community"
  • 1996 Jefferson Lecturer Toni Morrison
    "The Future of Time"
  • 1997 Jefferson Lecturer Stephen Toulmin
    "A Dissenter's Story"
  • 1998 Jefferson Lecturer Bernard Bailyn
    "To Begin the World Anew: Politics and the Creative Imagination"
  • 1999 Jefferson Lecturer Caroline Walker Bynum
    "Shape and History: Metamorphosis in the Western Tradition"


The Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities, established by the National Endowment for the Humanities in 1972, is the highest honor the federal government confers for distinguished intellectual achievement in the humanities.

Martha Nussbaum
2017 Jefferson Lecturer

Martha C. Nussbaum

Martha C. Nussbaum, world-renowned philosopher, distinguished author, and law professor, will deliver the 2017 Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities.

2017 Jefferson Lecturer

Martha C. Nussbaum

Prolific and celebrated, Martha C. Nussbaum is one of the few contemporary philosophers who not only enjoys great esteem in academic quarters but is able to address large general audiences through her books and writings.

2016 Jefferson Lecturer

Ken Burns

Jefferson Lecturer Ken Burns, the acclaimed filmmaker, has conveyed more history to more Americans than perhaps anyone. 

Anna Deavere Smith
2015 Jefferson Lecturer

Anna Deavere Smith

Even in an era when anyone with a computer connection can broadcast their own life story for everyone or no one to consider, Anna Deavere Smith continues to dazzle audiences with her stage portraits of the marginal and the great.

Walter Isaacson
2014 Jefferson Lecturer

Walter Isaacson

The story of Walter Isaacson—celebrated journalist, biographer, intellectual leader, and humanist begins on May 20, 1952, when he was born at the Touro Infirmary in New Orleans.

Martin Scorsese
2013 Jefferson Lecturer

Martin Scorsese

In a number of interviews, on stage, in print, and on television, Martin Scorsese has already told his life story. The beginning sounds like a script in development, like a Scorsese project that hasn’t yet gone into production.

Wendell Berry
2012 Jefferson Lecturer

Wendell E. Berry

At seventy-seven years old, Wendell Berry continues as a great contrary example to the compromises others take in stride. Instead of being at odds with his conscience, he is at odds with his times. Cheerful in dissent, he writes to document and defend what is being lost to the forces of modernization, and to explain how he lives and what he thinks.

Drew Gilpin Faust
2011 Jefferson Lecturer

Drew Gilpin Faust

“I felt very much that I lived in history,” said Drew Gilpin Faust as she recently described her childhood in an interview for Humanities magazine. A well-known scholar of the antebellum South and the Civil War era and, since 2007, president of Harvard University, Faust had two histories in mind. First was the history of the Civil War.

Jonathan Spence, Sterling Professor of History Emeritus, Yale University
2010 Jefferson Lecturer

Jonathan Spence

For over fifty years, Jonathan Spence has been studying and writing about China. His books and articles form a body of work notable for groundbreaking research, fine literary quality, and extraordinary public value. If the West understands the culture and history of China better now than it did a half century ago, Jonathan Spence is one of the people to be thanked.

Leon Kass
2009 Jefferson Lecturer

Leon Kass

Leon Kass was born in 1939, on the twelfth of February, when we celebrate the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin. A mere coincidence, of course, but an interesting one. In celebrating Lincoln, which we do this year for the sixteenth president’s bicentennial, we pay homage to human dignity; in celebrating Darwin, which we also do this year for it is also his bicentennial, we pay homage to the progress of scientific knowledge.

John Updike
2008 Jefferson Lecturer

John Updike

His pen rarely at rest, John Updike has been publishing fiction, essays, and poetry since the mid-fifties, when he was a staff writer at the New Yorker, contributing material for the “Talk of the Town” sections. “Of all modern American writers,” writes Adam Gopnik in Humanities magazine, “Updike comes closest to meeting Virginia Woolf’s demand that a writer’s only job is to get himself, or herself, expressed without impediments."

Harvey Mansfield
2007 Jefferson Lecturer

Harvey Mansfield

For more than forty years, Harvey Mansfield has been writing and teaching about political philosophy. His commentary "demonstrates the virtues that should guide scholars of the humanities," writes Mark Blitz, a former student. Blitz explains those virtues as "patient exploration of the intention of a superior author, attention to other scholars and generosity to trailblazing teachers, brilliance and wit, and an eye toward what can improve us here and now."

Tom Wolfe
2006 Jefferson Lecturer

Tom Wolfe

"I think every living moment of a human being's life, unless the person is starving or in immediate danger of death in some other way, is controlled by a concern for status," Tom Wolfe has said. As the man in the iconic white suit with a swaggering pen, Wolfe has spent the past fifty years chronicling America's status battles and capturing our cultural zeitgeist.

Donald Kagan
2005 Jefferson Lecturer

Donald Kagan

"Throughout the human experience people have read history because they felt that it was a pleasure and that it was in some way instructive," says Donald Kagan. "Without history, we are the prisoners of the accident of where and when we were born." Known to his students as a "one-man university," Kagan has illuminated the history of the ancient Greeks for thousands of students and readers.

Helen Vendler
2004 Jefferson Lecturer

Helen Vendler

“When you’re in a state of perplexity, sadness, gloom, elation, you look for a poem to match what you are feeling,” says Helen Vendler. She writes that “Poetry is analytic as well as expressive; it distinguishes, reconstructs, and redescribes what it discovers about the inner life. The poet accomplishes the analytic work of poetry chiefly by formal means.”

David McCullough
2003 Jefferson Lecturer

David McCullough

He is called the "citizen chronicler" by Librarian of Congress James Billington. His books have led a renaissance of interest in American history--from learning about a flood in Pennsylvania that without warning devastated an entire community to discovering the private achievements and frailties of an uncelebrated president. His biography of Harry Truman won him a Pulitzer, as did his most recent biography of another president, John Adams.

Henry Louis Gates, Jr.
2002 Jefferson Lecturer

Henry Louis Gates, Jr.

"I've always thought of myself as both a literary historian and a literary critic," says Henry Louis Gates, Jr., "someone who loves archives and someone who is dedicated to resurrecting texts that have dropped out of sight."

Arthur Miller
2001 Jefferson Lecturer

Arthur Miller

"The American Dream is the largely unacknowledged screen in front of which all American writing plays itself out," Arthur Miller has said. "Whoever is writing in the United States is using the American Dream as an ironical pole of his story. People elsewhere tend to accept, to a far greater degree anyway, that the conditions of life are hostile to man's pretensions." In Miller's more than thirty plays, which have won him a Pulitzer Prize and multiple Tony Awards, he puts in question "death and betrayal and injustice and how we are to account for this little life of ours."

2000 Jefferson Lecturer

James McPherson

"No period of American history makes greater demands on the historian than that of the Civil War," C. Vann Woodward once wrote. That being true, then historian James M. McPherson's achievements are manifold. In 1988, his book Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era moved beyond the pillars of academia and into the public realm. Although historians had been McPherson at Gettysburg writing about the Civil War for decades, McPherson's book broke ground in combining the complexities of the war while maintaining the narrative that made it appealing to the American public.