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Resources, Ideas, and Discussion Topics for Jefferson Lecture Events

The 43rd Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities - The Intersection of the Humanities and the Sciences (Left to right: Benjamin Franklin, Albert Einstein, Steve Jobs)

The Jefferson Lecture is presented by the National Endowment for the Humanities. Its purpose is to demonstrate the importance of critical thinking and scholarship for the benefit and enjoyment of a large public audience. This year the lecture is delivered by best-selling biographer and former Time managing editor Walter Isaacson, president of the Aspen Institute. The title of Isaacson’s lecture is “The Intersection of the Humanities and the Sciences.”

Thank you for hosting or considering a  group screening of the streaming video of this lecture as NEH seeks to expand the discussion of an important topic. 

Isaacson, who calls himself a "storyteller" by vocation, weaves together the lives, insights, and landmark achievements of individuals ranging from Benjamin Franklin to Steve Jobs—among many others—to illustrate significant "intersections" between the humanities and sciences. When the humanities and the sciences come together, he argues, they powerfully reinforce one another, each adding a valuable perspective that informs the other, creating outcomes that neither would accomplish alone.

This lecture continues an American conversation about the role of the humanities for us as individuals, communities, and a nation in arenas ranging from learning and civic discourse to the global economy. It is a subject that may have real-world implications for economic, cultural, and educational decisions in many communities. Events like yours help to expand the conversation by sharing this lecture and sparking additional discussion.

Tools, Tips, and Resources

To help make your event successful, we've included a variety of resources on this page. Events will vary widely in format and scale for different communities and organizations; some hosts, for example, will simply screen the lecture, while others will include an after-lecture discussion. Please consider the following a "toolkit" for you to select from, use, and adapt as you plan an event that best fits your audience and setting.

Technical Checklist

Consult this list of technical requirements as you prepare to share the streaming video of the 2014 Jefferson Lecture. You will need:

  • A laptop or other computer, set up to use an external display and speakers
  • A large flat screen or projection display for viewing the video
  • Suitable external speakers
  • A reliable Internet connection with a minimum speed of 500+ Kbps, although a speed of at least 1.5+ Mbps is preferable. Note, however, that you will need a faster Internet connection than that, and greater computer processing power, to ensure optimal streaming speeds and view the video at the best possible resolution. The video will automatically adapt its resolution to changing network speeds and available bandwidth.

Test your system ahead of time, using the 2013 Jefferson Lecture by Martin Scorsese for your trial run. Make sure that your computer settings and Internet connection are working, the display is sharp, and the sound is clearly audible.

When the time comes, go to this link for the 2014 Jefferson Lecture by Walter Isaacson; closer to the lecture time, it will direct your computer to the correct page.

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Planning for an After-Lecture Discussion

Many organizations hosting this lecture plan to continue the conversation afterwards with a discussion or question and answer session. In planning the discussion, consider these suggestions.

  • Have a designated facilitator to lead the discussion, keeping it lively and on track. Encourage the facilitator to prepare by reviewing some of the sources below on Isaacson and the topics and historical figures he discusses.
  • Think about who will attend and their likely interests. For example, an event at a scientific organization may attract individuals who are more familiar with science and technology; an audience of educators and parents might be more interested in humanities and science teaching in schools and colleges. Audiences with strong local knowledge and civic engagement may be drawn to discussions about local achievements, leaders, and community projects that illustrate the lecture's themes. Other audiences may consist of generalist lifelong learners.

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Suggested Discussion Topics and Questions

Most likely, you will need only a few topics for discussion—certainly not all of the following. Choose some from this list or invent your own, and select those with which you'd like to start, and end, the session.

Individual Figures, from da Vinci to Steve Jobs

Walter Isaacson includes the "stories" or biographies of several individuals in his lecture. Which person was most surprising or compelling for you and why? Are there other present-day figures you were reminded of, who bring together humanities and the sciences in their life's work?

Local Examples

For audiences familiar with their communities (or communities with especially rich history or well-known industries), you may want to ask:  How have humanities and sciences intersected in our community? Are there new ways that they could intersect, whether for better education, economic development, or quality of life?

Note: For a specialized, unexpected question like this one, be ready to jump-start the conversation with a few suggestions. Examples might include particular historical events and figures; breakthrough products or innovations; cultural tourism sites (GPS-based apps for historic trails, museums combining history and technology); education or library programs that creatively use modern technology; community projects still in the planning stage; startup business incubators; and so on.

Social Media and Communication

For decades, we've experienced almost constant innovation in communication—from radio, movies, and television to telephones, texting, e-mail, Facebook, and Twitter, to name a few. How has this technology changed how we experience language, writing, and the humanities, and what hasn't changed? On the other hand, how do the humanities—including history, literature, and philosophy—help us understand the impact of new technologies, and imagine the next innovations?

Humanities and sciences

To explore the intersection of humanities and sciences from both sides, consider asking a pair of questions like the two below:

How do the humanities advance and inform science and technology?

Answers might include imagining useful, beautiful products; helping to think through the ethical dilemmas of modern technology (from performance-enhancing drugs to the allocation of organ transplants); finding creative ways to use new technology to transform lives, solve problems, and connect remote areas.

How do science and technology advance and inform the humanities?

Answers might include ever-increasing online access to rare materials, information, and colleagues around the world; mobile devices and the ease of digital photography, digital video, and other data gathering; the ability to analyze or search very large archives and databases; the use of x-rays and chemical analysis of paintings, manuscripts, and rare books; and so on.

Writing, Language, and Communication

Isaacson points out that good, clear writing has been central to the humanities-sciences intersection, as far back as Franklin's writing on electricity and his invention of electrical terms we still use today. How can schools and universities build strong writing and thinking skills today for both humanists and scientists? How can such skills advance science and technology or make them more accessible for business, policymakers, and society?

Biography as Literature and History

Throughout his lecture, Isaacson uses biography as a key to understanding the humanities and sciences—and, by extension, ourselves. It's been said that an effective biography inspires us to look in the mirror and consider our own lives. How do you see the role of biography, or, more broadly, history and literature, in understanding ourselves, our current challenges, and the future? Which biographies have you read, or seen as documentaries, that you recommend for those reasons?

Artificial Intelligence and Human-Machine Partnership

Isaacson relates the intersection between humanities and sciences connection to emerging partnerships between human beings and computers. What examples of this human-machine partnership are already at work, or just on the horizon, perhaps in medicine, exploration, or modern design? Do you see true "artificial intelligence" as possible, likely, impossible, or inevitable?

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Promoting Your Event

Spreading the news about your event starts by making a list of the relevant civic, educational, and cultural groups in your community. Reach out to community leaders directly. Be in touch with the local press, in print or online, on the radio, and on television. Make sure your program is listed on local event calendars.

Sample Press Release:

If you wish, customize our sample press release. Modify it to include the correct time, place, contact information, and other details for your event.

Social Media:

Social media outreach thrives on rich content like video and images. Whether your organization prefers e-mails, blogging, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, other social media, or all of the above, feel free to share the content we've assembled below. When using Twitter, include the hashtag #JeffLec2014 in your tweets to build awareness of the lecture.

Video Clips – One-minute Segments with Walter Isaacson:

Walker Percy video thumb 1
Walker Percy—storyteller, family friend
Walter Isaacson video thumb 2
Imaginative thinkers


  • Walter Isaacson, 2014 Jefferson Lecturer - photograph

    Walter Isaacson, The 43rd Jefferson Lecturer - James Kegley

  • Steve Jobs (1955-2011) - photograph,  - Flickr: Ben Stanfield

    Steve Jobs (1955-2011) - © Flickr: Ben Stanfield

  • Walter Isaacson and Walker Percy (1916-1990) in 1988 - photograph

    Walter Isaacson and Walker Percy (1916-1990) in 1988

  • Alan Turing (1912-1954) - photograph

    Alan Turing (1912-1954) - photograph by Elliot & Fry

  • Albert Einstein (1879-1955) - photograph

    Albert Einstein (1879-1955)

  • Ada Lovelace (1815–1852) - painting

    Ada Lovelace (1815–1852)

  • Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (1797 – 1851) - painting

    Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (1797 – 1851)

  • Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826) - lithograph

    Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826)

  • Benjamin Franklin (1706–1790) - lithograph

    Benjamin Franklin (1706–1790)

  • Leonard da Vinci (1452–1519) - Vitruvian Man

    Leonard da Vinci (1452–1519) - Vitruvian Man

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Additional Resources

This lecture—and your discussion—are likely to leave participants wanting to learn more. The following resources may be of interest. You may wish to share them individually as subjects come up in the discussion, or prepare them as a print or digital handout.

More About Walter Isaacson:

Biographies by Walter Isaacson:

  • Steve Jobs, 2011
  • American Sketches: Great Leaders, Creative Thinkers, and Heroes of a Hurricane, 2009
  • Einstein: His Life and Universe, 2007
  • Benjamin Franklin: An American Life, 2003
  • Kissinger: A Biography, 1992
  • The Wise Men: Six Friends and the World They Made, 1986 (with Evan Thomas)

Other Resources:

You May Also Wish to Explore:

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EDSITEment! Features and Lesson Plans

A partnership among the NEH, Verizon Foundation, and the National Trust for the Humanities, EDSITEment!: The Best of Humanities on the Web offers several lesson plans, websites, and other resources related to the topics of this lecture:

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The Heart of the Matter: 2013 AAAS Report on the Humanities

To learn more about the current national discussion of the humanities and sciences in today's schools, universities, economy, and larger culture, you may want to revisit an influential 2013 commission report produced by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, The Heart of the Matter, and its short companion film.

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