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2004 National Humanities Medal Winners

Humanities, January/February 2005, Volume 26/Number 1

Eight Who Make a Difference

Passing along the ideas of the humanities to the next generation is a recurring theme among the winners of the 2004 National Humanities Medal. "The beauty of philosophy is that you can lead people to the frontier of a subject immediately. I take my research to my students," says philosopher John Searle, who has taught at the University of California, Berkeley for fifty-six years. The medals recognize those who strive to deepen the public's knowledge of the humanities. Among Searle's fellow medalists are a philosopher at Harvard who examines modern politics, a Victorian scholar, an education reformer, a social critic, an art critic, and a novelist whose book for children won a Newbery award. A medal also went to an institution, the United States Capitol Historical Society.

The medals were presented by President Bush on November 17 at the White House. A reception followed the ceremony.

The following individuals received a 2004 National Humanities Medal:

Marva Collins: Changing Expectations

"All children can learn," says educator Marva Collins. "For thirty years, we have done what other schools declare impossible," explains Collins, who has trained more than one hundred thousand teachers, principals, and administrators in the methodology developed and practiced at her Westside Preparatory School in Chicago. "I don't make excuses--I take responsibility. If children fail, it's about me, not them. I tell my students, if you think excellence is difficult, you don't want to try failure."

Collins says the critical element is instilling self-worth and convincing children that they are born to succeed. "Values can be replicated, excellence can be replicated, but it has to begin with the idea that everything is about me, not the other person, and about being proud of my work. Many parents are busy giving their children everything except a sense of self-esteem and self-worth."

Each morning, students begin with a recitation known as the creed-- twenty-two verses that stress positive thinking, responsibility, and achievement as individual choices. "We greet two hundred children every day, and each one tells us their plan for the day," says Collins. "They come to lunch and bring a topic they're going to discuss. Man is the only species born to be intellectual, but today's children can't discuss ideas. With my own children, at every dinner they were to bring a topic to the table."

Her own childhood in Atmore, Alabama, where segregation meant limited resources for black schools and no access to the public library, seems an unlikely training ground for an educator. For Collins, her father made the difference. He placed a high value on education, self-reliance, and achievement, and expected his children to succeed. "We were expected to be excellent," she says, "we didn't have a choice."

After graduating from Clark College in Atlanta with a concentration in secretarial skills, Collins returned to Alabama, where she taught school for two years. Moving to Chicago in 1959, Collins began working as a substitute teacher and eventually spent fourteen years teaching in the city's public school system. Disenchanted with the education her children received at private schools and her experiences in public schools, Collins opened the Westside Preparatory School in her inner-city Chicago home in 1975.

Collins's student body consisted of children labeled problem or learning disabled, but by the end of the first year every child had surpassed his or her expectations. Her steady success with students has brought national recognition, awards, honorary degrees, and a made-for-television movie about her life starring Cicely Tyson. President Reagan asked her to be secretary of education, but she declined in favor of staying at Westside. Collins continued spreading her methodology to public schools in Oklahoma, Illinois, and Wisconsin.

Today, the staff of Westside Preparatory School includes her daughter Cynthia, who was five when the school began and is now the headmistress, and son Patrick, who conducts teacher-training seminars around the nation. No longer involved in the day-to-day functioning of the school, Collins devotes her time to lecturing and writing books on her methodology.

Collins believes that retraining teachers and shifting paradigms is essential to creating a more positive climate in the classroom. Her first question to teachers in seminars is "what's wrong with the children and parents?" To which she receives a litany of responses. Her next question is, "What's wrong with you as a teacher?"

The Collins methodology advocates a core curriculum that emphasizes phonics, reading, English, math, and classics. The students' reading list includes Sophocles, Homer, Plato, Chaucer, and Tolstoy--something Collins doesn't find extraordinary. "It's all about expectations," she says.

"I read at least twelve or thirteen books a week because I have a passion for excellence," Collins says. "I'll begin a nine-hundred-page book, and I won't stop until I finish it. When students finish their work in our school, they'll never say 'I'm done.' They'll pull out another book from their desk and continue to read."

All Westside Prep students go on to college, she says. "There are no dropouts, no substitute teachers, and when teachers are absent, the students teach themselves. We're an anomaly in a world of negatives. Our children are self-motivated, self-generating, self-propelled.

"To tell me 'can't' is very angering," Collins says. "When you believe in what you do and have a passion about what you do, it is easy. It's like climbing a beautiful mountain--it's difficult getting there, but it's beautiful once you're there."

--Janis Johnson

Gertrude Himmelfarb: Learning from the Victorians

As one of the leading scholars of Victorian studies, Gertrude Himmelfarb has tried to dispel stereotypes about the Victorian world.

"It's not quite a respectable word yet," she says. "It's now used as an epithet, as a derogatory or pejorative word meaning excessively puritanical, repressive, oppressive, hypocritical, and so on. And, of course, in some ways it was all of that compared to our society." Considered from the perspective of its own time, "Victorian society was the least exploitative, the least repressive, the least tyrannical society in the world," says Himmelfarb. "In many respects it was the most open, the most reform minded, the most tolerant. It gave the most promise for improvement--economic, social, and political improvement."

Himmelfarb's path to Victoriana was roundabout. As an undergraduate at Brooklyn College, she earned enough credits for a triple major in three disciplines--history, economics, and philosophy. "But to me, they weren't separate disciplines," says Himmelfarb. "What I was really interested in, although I didn't know it at the time, and I certainly didn't know it under that label, was what we now call the history of ideas."

The subjects of Himmelfarb's master's thesis were Rousseau and Robespierre, on the relationship between the French Enlightenment and the French Revolution. "But one of the works that fascinated me was Lord Acton's lectures on the French Revolution. It was that book that brought me to an interest in Acton himself."

The English historian Lord Acton became the subject of Himmelfarb's doctoral dissertation and of her first book. "Acton introduced me to the very rich, very intriguing realm of Victoriana--Victorian thinkers, institutions, events," says Himmelfarb. "Victorian thinkers, by the way, were far more varied, more subtle, more complicated than we generally give them credit for. This is true, not only of Acton but of those other Victorian eminences--Mill, Carlyle, Darwin, Matthew Arnold, and scores of others."

Himmelfarb, who earned her doctorate at the University of Chicago, is the distinguished professor emeritus of history at the Graduate School of the City University of New York, where for many years she was also chairman of the doctoral program in history. In a long and fruitful career, she has received many honorary degrees, a National Book Award for Victorian Minds, as well as a number of fellowships from organizations such as the Rockefeller Foundation, the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Woodrow Wilson Center, and the American Philosophical Society. Himmelfarb served on the National Council for the Humanities and in 1991, she was the NEH Jefferson Lecturer in the Humanities.

Himmelfarb's interest in how the Victorians thought about and dealt with the social problem of poverty has led to two of her eleven books: The Idea of Poverty and Poverty and Compassion: The Moral Imagination of the Late Victorians. Although there was a law in England dating from the Elizabethan age that acted as a safety net for the temporarily or permanently unemployed, for widows and children, and for the disabled, most charitable organizations were private as opposed to governmental. And they were designed as much as possible to help the poor help themselves: "To help restore paupers, a distinctly Victorian term, to the class of the working poor," says Himmelfarb.

According to Himmelfarb, Victorians used the word compassion in an unsentimental way. "As the Victorians understood it," she says, "there was nothing sentimental, nothing utopian about compassion. It was hardheaded, rational, pragmatic--and at the same time moral and humane."

Helping others was a communal as well as individual obligation rather than a job for the government. In Poverty and Compassion, Himmelfarb writes, "The ethos implicit (sometimes explicit) in matters of social policy and behavior was not a lofty or exalted one. It did not celebrate heroism, or genius, or nobility, or spiritual grace. Its virtues were more pedestrian: respectability, responsibility, decency, industriousness, prudence, temperance. These virtues depended on no special breeding, talent, sensibility, or even money. They were common, everyday virtues, within the capacity of ordinary people. They were the virtues of citizens, not of heroes or saints--and of citizens of democratic countries, not aristocratic ones."

Himmelfarb sees continuity between Victorian society and our society today. "There's a reformist, ameliatory, moral temper that we've inherited from the Victorians and that has stood us in very good stead," says Himmelfarb. "And it is even more valuable today as we are confronted, not with a new industrial revolution, but with a new and very radical technological revolution."

--Caroline Kim

Hilton Kramer: For Art's Sake

"Without art, without high culture," says art critic Hilton Kramer, "sooner or later we'll all be barbarians." As editor and publisher of the New Criterion, which he founded with Samuel Lipman in 192, Kramer is a critic who makes judgments and is not afraid of controversy.

Though he never studied art history, he was always surrounded by artists. "I was brought up in Cape Ann in Gloucester, Massachusetts," says Kramer, "which in my early years, for a good part of the year, was a thriving art community. There were a great many artists working there and art was, really, for anybody who was disposed toward it, a significant, regular part of life. So I grew up tremendously interested in painting."

As an undergraduate at Syracuse University, he studied literary history and philosophy and became interested in writing. After graduating, he found himself again surrounded by artists. "I began at the suggestion of a painter friend to try my hand at art criticism," he says. "I wrote an essay and sent it to Partisan Review, and they published it. As soon as I appeared in Partisan Review with this essay, my phone was ringing and everybody in the world was asking me to write about art for them."

The essay, "The New American Painting," was a response to Harold Rosenberg's essay "The American Action Painters," which had just appeared in Art News magazine. Kramer spoke out boldly in his first piece of art criticism. As Kramer remembers it, "This essay, I straightaway believed to be intellectually fraudulent, and I decided to say something about it. In this theory of action painting, it was claimed that for the abstract expressionist painters, 'what was to go on the canvas was not a picture but an event.' What these artists were said to be creating then was some evidence or residue of an action rather than a work of art that could be experienced as a work of art. This seemed to me a totally preposterous notion," he continues. "For it denied the aesthetic efficacy of painting itself and attempted to remove art from the only sphere in which it can be truly experienced, which is the aesthetic sphere. It reduced the art object itself to the status of a psychological datum."

Kramer was hired by the New York Times in 1965 as a staff art critic and became chief art critic eight years later. His work has been published in influential magazines and newspapers such as Commentary, the New Republic, National Review, the New York Review of Books, the American Scholar, the Wall Street Journal, the Atlantic, and the American Spectator. In addition to teaching at Indiana University, Bennington College, the University of Colorado, and Yale University, he has written critical monographs on the art of Milton Avery, Gaston Lachaise, and Richard Lindner and numerous books of criticism.

Because of his outspoken views, Kramer has been no stranger to criticism himself. "For myself, I could never put Pollack on the same level as Picasso," he said in a speech, "nor could I put Rothko on the same level as Matisse. For doing so, of course, I came to be resented in some quarters. Yet, about such dissident judgments, I remained, and remain now, unrepentant, and I believe history will confirm me."


Madeleine L'Engle: Telling Stories

On her fortieth birthday, writer Madeleine L'Engle entertained serious thoughts of giving up writing. She had received rejection after rejection of both her children's and adult novels. On that birthday, she received news that her latest attempt, The Lost Innocent, had been rejected, too.

"This was an obvious sign from heaven. I should stop trying to write," she recorded in A Circle of Quiet. "All during the decade of my thirties I went through spasms of guilt because I spent so much time writing, because I wasn't like a good New England housewife and mother. When I scrubbed the kitchen floor, the family cheered. I couldn't make decent pie crust. . . . And with all the hours I spent writing, I was still not pulling my own weight financially." L'Engle covered her typewriter in defeat and gave herself over to misery only to discover that her subconscious was at work on a novel about failure.

"I uncovered my typewriter. In my journal I recorded this moment of decision, for that's what it was. I had to write. I had no choice in the matter. It was not up to me to say I would stop because I could not. It didn't matter how small or inadequate my talent. If I never had another book published, and it was very clear to me that this was a real possibility, I still had to go on writing."

Circumstances changed dramatically with the publication of A Wrinkle in Time in 1962, a young adult novel that had been rejected more than thirty times and was only published after L'Engle handed it personally to publisher John Farrar. It became an instant classic. The next year it won the prestigious John Newbery Medal. "Publisher after publisher turned down A Wrinkle in Time," L'Engle wrote, "because it deals overtly with the problem of evil, and it was too difficult for children, and was it a children's or an adult's book, anyhow?"

This question of writing for children versus writing for adults would surface again and again. Participating on a panel of children's writers, L'Engle was asked why she wrote for children and replied, "I suppose I write for children because I'm not bright enough to understand the difference between a children's and an adult's novel."

"I'm not a children's writer," she says. "I'm not a Christian writer. I resist and reject that kind of classification. I'm a writer period. People underestimate children. They think you have to write differently. You don't. You just have to tell a story." Telling stories is something that L'Engle has been doing all her life. "I've been a writer ever since I could hold a pencil," she says.

Born in New York City in 191, the only child of artistic parents, L'Engle describes her early childhood in her memoir Two-Part Inventions: A Story of a Marriage. "My parents had been married for nearly twenty years when I was born, and although I was a very much wanted baby, the pattern of their lives was already well established and a child was not part of that pattern. So I had my own, with which I was well content, reading and rereading, writing stories and poems; illustrating my stories with pencil and watercolors; playing the piano; living far too much in an interior dream world. But that interior dream world has stood me in good stead many times when the outer world has seemed to be collapsing around me."

This interior dream world is not only her safe place but an inspiration for her writing. "The artist, if he is not to forget how to listen," she wrote in Walking on Water, "must retain the vision which includes angels and dragons and unicorns and all the lovely creatures which our world would put in a box marked Children Only."

During a long literary career, L'Engle has produced more than sixty books--novels, poetry, essays, memoirs, and Bible commentaries--and received many awards and honorary degrees. L'Engle never forgets that writing is a form of communication with others. "The writing of a book may be a solitary business," she wrote, "it is done alone. The writer sits down with paper and pen, or typewriter, and, withdrawn from the world, tries to set down the story that is crying to be written. We write alone, but we do not write in isolation. No matter how fantastic a story line may be, it still comes out of our response to what is happening to us and to the world in which we live."


Harvey C. Mansfield: Insight to a Republic

Political philosopher Harvey C. Mansfield looks at contemporary politics through the lens of past thinkers. His thirteen books delve into subjects such as Edmund Burke and the nature of political parties and Machiavelli and indirect government. He has translated Machiavelli from Italian and Tocqueville from French.

Though he wrote in the 1840s, Tocqueville's insights are relevant to modern American politics, and he appeals to both the Right and the Left, says Mansfield. "He worried about big government, which is a theme of conservatives today. He was very impressed with the way Americans actually practice free government and democracy through elected government with many different layers and types of officials, which speaks to the value of civic engagement or participation that we hear from liberals. In fact, not only are Tocqueville's views applicable today, Democracy in America is the best book about American government today."

In Taming the Prince: The Ambivalence of Modern Executive Power, Mansfield focuses on Machiavelli's understanding of the executive office. "Machiavelli made it a principle of free government, and I think he was responsible for the original insight behind the American presidency. Our country is the first republic that had strong executive power, as previously it was thought that executive power was contrary to republican principles. But we managed to combine this princely power with the people's authority."

Executive power, says Mansfield, is one of the important constitutional principles drawn from Machiavelli by the framers and is a crucial element in the American government's separation of powers. "You see instances of one-man rule everywhere in our public and private institutions--in corporations, universities, and our governments, and we hardly think about it," he says. "It's one important constitutional principle that we have maintained. The executive can be strong or weak, according to the demands of the times, but the most successful executive is the one who is able to govern under the approval or legitimization of the people who elected him."

However, Mansfield contends, there are some original constitutional principles from which American governance has strayed. These include the idea that the Constitution is based on a fixed human nature, guarantees and limits freedom, and maintains a certain distance between the people and their government so that government is not too closely tied to public opinion. "Constitutional space is good because it allows the elected leaders to use their initiative and discretion to do something important and even urgent," he says. "And it also allows people to judge them when they come up for reelection without having been too involved in those decisions."

"I did these translations to make available a more literal version of these works for students and colleagues," says Mansfield. Alexis de Tocqueville's Democracy in America, which Mansfield translated with his wife Delba Winthrop, reveals, as he puts it, Tocqueville's subtle insight while his three translations of Machiavelli were designed "to expose Machiavelli as the mastermind behind modernity."

The recipient of Guggenheim and NEH fellowships, Mansfield has been a fellow at the National Humanities Center and, from 1991 to 1994, a member of the National Council on the Humanities. He received his undergraduate degree from Harvard University in 1946 and joined the faculty in 1962, where he is now the William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of Government.

At Harvard, he has gained a reputation as a hard grader and has campaigned against grade inflation. Aware that it was a courageous act for students "to take my course and accept a lower grade or stain on their record," Mansfield devised a two-grade system to "provoke new thinking" about grading. He gave students in his political philosophy course two grades--one for the registrar that was in line with typical Harvard grading and, another, divulged in private, that was "the real grade they deserve from me."

Mansfield doesn't object to being called a conservative. He says it means "conserving the best American principles with necessary adaptations to new circumstances. So I don't look at it as an absolutist position, nor is it nostalgia for an unrecoverable past. In fact, I would say today that conservatives have the new ideas."


John Searle: Philosophy of the Mind

Philosopher John Searle challenges the notion that the mind works as a computer. "That's not to say that computers are useless and we shouldn't use them," he says. "But the computer does a model or a simulation of a process. The computer theory of the mind is a fallacy."

Searle, Mills Professor of the Philosophy of Mind and Language at the University of California at Berkeley, has devoted his career to a central problem of philosophy--how physical brain matter results in conscious thoughts, feelings, anxieties, and aspirations. "We have a pretty good knowledge of how the world works from physics, chemistry, and other natural sciences," he says. "So how do we reconcile a commonsense conception we have of ourselves as mindful, free-will-having, speech-acting, rational, ethical, intentional, social beings?"

Searle, whose mother was a medical doctor and whose father was an engineer, describes his methodology as "an engineering approach to philosophical problems." As a philosophical issue, cognitive science "touches on this whole division between the mind and the body, which is something philosophy has never really resolved." Searle's approach is to fight against the notion of the mental and the physical as two separate realms. "The philosophical problem--how is it possible that the mental can be a real part of a world that's entirely physical--I think I can resolve."

Early in his career, Searle focused on language and speech. "How is it that when I make these noises I succeed in performing speech acts or communication?" he explains. "That's the philosophy of language." That investigation led to an exploration of consciousness and intentionality. "How is it possible that the stuff inside my skull can cause consciousness, and I can direct thoughts?" he asks. That pursuit led to considerations about society and his questions such as, "How is it possible that society, through attitudes and behaviors, can create object reality that exists only because we think it can--such as government, universities, presidents, nations, money?" His focus has now turned to rationality and answering his question, "Since Aristotle, we like to think about ourselves as rational animals --what does that mean?"

For Searle, the philosopher-engineer, it's important to start with the facts. "In philosophy you have to remind yourself of what you know already," he says. "We know that the world is made up of entities that we call particles. They're organized into systems. And these systems have causal relations to other systems. That's how much we know before the philosopher ever goes to work. Then we go to work on that. We don't go back and think, well, maybe the real world doesn't exist."

Searle attended the University of Wisconsin for three years before becoming a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford, where he spent seven years--the last two as a lecturer--earning his undergraduate, master's, and doctoral degrees. His books include The Mystery of Consciousness Mind, Language and Society: Philosophy in the Real World, Rationality in Action, Consciousness and Language, and his most recent, Mind: A Brief Introduction. Searle has served as a member of the National Council on the Humanities.

Although he often writes for science professionals, he enjoys teaching undergraduates at Berkeley, where he has been on the faculty since 1959 and has received the university's distinguished teaching award. "The beauty of philosophy is that you can lead people to the frontier of a subject immediately," Searle says. "I take my research to my students. They helped me with my new book. They bring intelligence, and all I ask is a desperate commitment, a high level of intelligence, and a great deal of work. A good education is a recipe for a permanent state of dissatisfaction."

Searle revels in many activities--jogging, skiing, listening to opera, and reading outside his specialty. "The beauty of philosophy is that everything is philosophy, and you can bring everything into it," he says.


Shelby Steele: Writing on Race

In all of his work, social critic Shelby Steele applies the universal teachings of philosophers such as Jean-Paul Sartre and Thomas Jefferson to illuminate the plight of blacks in present-day America. "The mistake everybody makes when they look at race is to look at race," he explains. "You will never get anywhere that way. I try to bring universal insight on the human condition to bear on what is, in a historical sense, a local situation."

"My work has been a little controversial," Steele says from his Monterey home, about two hours down the California coast from Stanford University, where he has been a research fellow at the Hoover Institution since 1994. "Not to me, of course--to others."

His first book, The Content of Our Character: A New Vision of Race in America, argued that self-doubt and fear of racism in the black community hindered advancement as much as racism itself. It earned him a 1990 National Book Critics' Circle Award, and a wave of disapproval from some black leaders. Many are appalled by his firm stand against affirmative action, which he has called "the greatest force in opposition to black uplift in society today."

"There is absolutely no other way under the sun to gain the respect of your fellow man than to become competitive with him," says Steele. Affirmative action, he says, prevents that, keeping the most talented blacks from vying on an even level with their peers. The son of a black truck driver and a white social worker who met in the Civil Rights Movement, Steele was raised in a working-class Chicago suburb, where he attended segregated public schools and developed a personal understanding of race relations. "Everything I've ever learned or read, I've put through that filter," he says.

After graduating from Coe College in Iowa, he went on to earn a master's degree at Southern Illinois University and a PhD in English from the University of Utah. He taught African American literature in East St. Louis, Illinois, and later lectured at San Jose State before moving to Stanford.

His essays have appeared in Harper's, Commentary, the New Republic, and the New York Times, as well as in his second book, A Dream Deferred: The Second Betrayal of Black Freedom in America. A recurrent guest on Nightline and 60 Minutes, he also won an Emmy for his writing on the 1991 documentary Seven Days in Bensonhurst.

The Hoover Institution is only a few hundred yards from the Stanford University office of his brother, Claude, his identical twin and ideological opposite. As a professor in Stanford's psychology department, Claude Steele also lectures and writes on race. But while their subject matter overlaps, the brothers rarely interact, and-- to put it diplomatically--each counts the other among those who find his work "controversial."

Steele is undaunted by criticism launched at him from figures such as Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, or officials at the NAACP, all of whom he considers "self-appointed leaders" who have been "completely, 100 percent determined by white guilt."

White Guilt happens to be the title of his third book, due out next year. In it, he argues against the symbiosis between black leaders who "rather than insist on the development of their own people keep hammering away at the larger society" and a white establishment looking for a way to avoid the stigma of racism. "So these white institutions create policies such as affirmative action to give themselves moral authority, not to help blacks," Steele argues.

Steele sees himself as something of a whistle-blower, exposing "this corruption of race in America." He continues, "We need to stop relating to each other in this way and move beyond the idea that race is a profound determinism. That's an evil, and I'd like to make a tiny contribution to ending all of that."

In many respects, Steele adheres to the original optimism of his parents and their peers. The day he arrived in Washington, D.C. to receive his Humanities Medal, Condoleezza Rice became the second consecutive black American to be appointed Secretary of State. "I wouldn't have expected anything else once the barriers had been removed," he says. "What's interesting is how true it was, the message of the Civil Rights Movement--that what's important is our humanity, not our race."

--Victor Wishna

United States Capitol Historical Society: A Capitol View

Ronald Sarasin says that one of his favorite pastimes is leading special tours onto the House floor of the U.S. Capitol. "There is so much more to be told about our nation's history from inside this building than simply the making of laws," says Sarasin, who was a congressman from Connecticut in the 1970s. He is now president and chief executive officer of the United States Capitol Historical Society, founded in 1962 by Congress to educate the public on the history of the Capitol and Congress.

On his tours, Sarasin is quick to point out the building's purpose. "It is not a museum, it is a working office building, and I remind people on tours of that--that they are walking through the halls and congressmen and senators are walking through the same halls as well.

"As a former member of Congress, you never lose your fascination for the Capitol Building or the floor itself," says Sarasin. "Our goal in the historical society is, as our founder Fred Schwengel said, to have people 'catch something of the fire that burned in the hearts of the men and women who served here.'"

In forty-two years the society has used its visitor center, books, films, lectures, and tours to provide an in-depth examination of this American icon. Fulfilling its mission has become more difficult because of security restrictions instituted after September 11, 2001--much of the Capitol is now closed off from public view and indoor tours are limited. Consequently, the society's guidebook, We the People, the Story of the United States Capitol, is more in demand than ever. It is published in six languages and is now in its fifteenth printing.

"We've even created an outdoor tour around the building to help visitors imagine what's going on inside," Sarasin says.

The society collects and displays documents and artifacts from the Capitol's history. Among its holdings are nineteenth-century handwritten records of the House and an antique coverlet depicting the Capitol in 1846 before the large dome and House and Senate wings were added. The society sponsors fellowships and internships on the art of the Capitol, the people who built it, and the lawmakers who inhabit it.

Since George Washington laid the cornerstone of the Capitol in 1743, the building has been built, burned, rebuilt, and restored. Ten architects and countless artisans contributed, including a Roman fresco painter named Constantino Brumidi. This year is the two hundredth anniversary of Brumidi's birth, and his work was featured this past September as part of the society's symposium on "The Fourth Rome: Roman and Italian Influences on the Art, Architecture, and Culture of Washington, D.C. and the U.S. Capitol." Brumidi had restored Raphael's work in the Vatican before he came to the United States in 1852. He worked on the Capitol for more than twenty-five years and at age seventy-five was still painting the frieze encircling the rotunda.

His successor was Allyn Cox, who completed the rotunda frieze in the 1950s and went on to decorate the corridors with a series of murals commissioned jointly by the society and the Daughters of the American Revolution. The "Hall of Capitols" shows all the buildings used by Congress, the construction of the current building, and key points in its history. The "Great Experiment" corridor depicts the growth of America in sixteen paintings and the third corridor displays the series "Westward Expansion."

The stories found in the Capitol are important to pass on to the next generation, Sarasin says. The society offers books and lesson plans geared towards different age groups and special tours for visiting school groups. "We take them to the House floor, let them sit in the seats of the legislators, and talk about the House and answer their questions," says Sarasin. "I always enjoy it because often these are the best and the brightest who come as representatives of their own states, and they bring a lot of knowledge, which challenges me."