National Humanities Medal
"People often think of history the way they learned it in high school or college: as memorizing dates," says Nickolas Davatzes, founder of A&E Television Network and the History Channel. "One of the wonderful things about television is that it makes things come alive."
When Davatzes launched the History Channel in 1995, he assumed it would be a niche channel with modest distribution. Today, the History Channel has nearly 150 million viewers worldwide.
"History is becoming an ever-more important subject as the world becomes smaller and more difficult," Davatzes says. "We have to understand the past in order to understand the future."
Born in New York City, Davatzes received a bachelor's degree in economics and a master's degree in social psychology from St. John's University, where he now sits on the board of trustees. His interest in history was inspired by his father, who served in the
Greek army in the 1920s before immigrating to America and fighting for the United States during World War II. "He saw a lot about the world," Davatzes says. "And, of course, growing up in a Greek immigrant family, I heard a lot about the glories of ancient Greece."
Davatzes's own favorite moment in history is the Battle of Gettysburg, often called the turning point in the American Civil War. In July 1863, the Union and Confederate armies clashed for three days, each sustaining an estimated twenty-five thousand casualties before Robert E. Lee retreated. "We were so close to failure. This wonderful experiment in democracy was going to go down the tubes if we didn't succeed," Davatzes marvels. "I'm inspired by the will and resolve of Lincoln. He made the right decisions when he needed to make them—that doesn't always happen. If he'd compromised, we would have been lost."
Davatzes serves as cochairman of the Board of Directors of Cable in the Classroom, an initiative in which networks and cable providers supply commercial-free educational programming to 250,000 teachers in public schools across the country. "Teachers are looking for tools that pique the interest of their students," Davatzes explains. "The visual format is the chief cognitive learning style these days.
By providing free television programs, we increase the chances that teachers and students can be successful."
As television and the Internet become increasingly interdependent, he anticipates that the History Channel will continue to evolve. Currently, History.com, the channel's Web site, provides brief history lessons through video clips and audio links to famous speeches. "One of my favorite sayings is: 'If you don't embrace technology, it'll run you over,'" Davatzes says.
More than one hundred and thirty countries have History Channel programming, but Davatzes hopes to build more collaborative international partnerships. "We believe there are different views of history, not just the American perspective," he says. "This kind of communication is increasingly important in a world that grows smaller and smaller with each technological advance."
One of the projects of which Davatzes is most proud is The Crusades: Crescent and the Cross, a 2005 History Channel documentary chronicling the two-hundred-year struggle between Christians and Muslims for control of the Holy Land. "It speaks to the Mideast conflict and how long it has existed. I think sometimes we in the Western world don't understand the driver on the other side very well.
"History plays an important part in developing win-win situations for both cultures," Davatzes says.
By Laura Harbold