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Introduction of Jonathan Spence at the 39th Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities

Jim Leach, Chairman, National Endowment for the Humanities

The Warner Theatre
513 13th Street
Washington, DC 20004
United States

May 20, 2010

Good evening. On behalf of the National Endowment for the Humanities, it is my pleasure to welcome each of you to the 39th Annual Jefferson Lecture.

By background, the Jefferson Lecture is both a substantive and symbolic effort to narrow the gap between the world of academia and public affairs, reflecting the imperative of bringing scholarly and creative ideas into the political and social life of the nation. Hence prior lecturers—scholars, novelists, poets—have addressed themes from poetry and its role in democracy to the nature of American art; from politics and the creative imagination to concern that man is by nature still a human beast; from mankind’s better moments to issues of racial inequality.

On the assumption that America is a national culture with a mosaic of subcultures and that every other country in the world is a unique conjunction of cultures, we at the NEH are emphasizing bridging cultures as our principal policy thematic. Indeed, at a time of polarization at home and conflict abroad, of dangers to civilization posed at one end by weapons of mass destruction and at the other by the anarchist implications of terrorism, it is arguable that the most consequential challenge in man’s relation to man is to understand and respect cultural differentiations.

In this context, we are proud to present one of the world’s leading cultural historians to give our country’s most prestigious national lecture.

Jonathan Spence received his primary education in Britain in two 14th Century institutions. After the academic peculiarities of England imbued him with an elegant accent and writing style, Jonathan found his way at the age of 23 to our shores where he received two advanced degrees at Yale. Unable to leave the cradle of New Haven civilization, he remained on the faculty, eventually becoming the George Burton Adams and then the Sterling professor of history.

A former president of the American Historical Association, Professor Spence is the recipient of numerous awards and honors, including Guggenheim and MacArthur fellowships, and ten honorary degrees.

As a cultural historian, Professor Spence has devoted his career to revealing the complexity and beauty of China’s history and culture. For more than four decades he has been both a story teller and fact finder. In 14 books and numerous articles he has written of the men and women who built China—emperors and peasants, wives and courtesans, traders and tax collectors.

With a knack for taking a seemingly insignificant moment and a seemingly inconsequential individual, Professor Spence reveals through them and their stories the larger workings of Chinese culture, with particular emphasis on cross-cultural currents, especially encounters with the West.

Professor Spence understands that the sharing of language, philosophy, literature, and art—the history of peoples—is the profoundest bridge between societies. No diplomat or public official can advance policies of long-lasting significance that aren’t rooted in historical understanding.

And so, with great admiration and pleasure, I present to you, the 2010 Jefferson Lecturer in the Humanities, Jonathan Spence.