Magazine article Humanities

2011 Medalists

Magazine article Humanities

2011 Medalists

Article excerpt

Nine Who Have Shown the Way

A builder of academic programs devoted to African-American Studies whose recent books have taken a broad look at history and philosophy. A celebrated poet and translator who has also been honored for his contributions to criticism. A librarian and historian who has explored the history of the book and now looks to its digital future to ensure access. A professor of American literature who has searched deeply to understand the promise and purpose of American education. An invitation to middle and high schoolers to practice history themselves and win distinction by offering their takes on the human story. A musician and writer on classical music whose piano playing is as notable as his books and lectures. An economist who is as much a philosopher and never loses sight of the human beings whose moral claims numbers only partly represent. A literary scholar whose examination of the borders running through our literature has illuminated unexplored territory within American culture. A historian of medieval Spain who has traced dark undercurrents running through the story of Western progress.

This year's National Humanities Medalists move nimbly between innovation and tradition. Their thoughts inspire and instruct. Their works show us the way to better understanding.



KWAME ANTHONY APPIAH is well known for his work developing AfricanAmerican studies programs at Yale, Cornell, Duke, and Harvard. Now at Princeton, working in the philosophy department and at the Center for Human Values, the Ghana-born philosopher sits on a board that is advising the New Jersey Ivy on redeveloping its black studies program. Along with his frequent collaborator and friend Henry Louis Gates Jr, Appiah also coedited Africana: The Encyclopedia of the African and African American Experience. His contributions to expanding the humanities curriculum to study black America and African heritage thus recorded, and already widely discussed, what else is there to say?

A great deal, actually. Setting aside this signature portion of Appiah's resume, one notices there are still more than enough books, ideas, and moments of interdisciplinary exploration to fill out a rich and distinguished academic career on their own. And this other work suggests a mind as skeptical as it is constructive, and as historical and literary in its bearings as it is philosophical. The institution-builder looks, at times, like a freelance. The breadth of his journeys seems reminiscent of yet another reference work Appiah has coedited: the ambitiously titled Dictionary of Global Culture.

Born in London to an upper-class English mother and an African politician father he was raised in Ghana. An avid reader as a child, he recalls taking on a book a day, though some took several days, as did War and Peace. After a very challenging book, he'd reward himself with an Agatha Christie mystery. He also read Chinua Achebe and Ngugi wa Thiong'o. The family home contained many books from the Heinemann African Writers Series, and his mother was a writer as well, of children's books and poetry. At boarding school in Ghana, he joined a reading group of earnest young Christian men, who together read theology and later Kant and Kierkegaard.

A sickly child, he had received a good deal of medical attention and grew up intending to become a doctor He enrolled at Cambridge to train in medicine, but still took an interest in philosophy, which increasingly absorbed his studies. Around this time, he met Gates, then a graduate student who had come to Cambridge to study with WoIe Soyinka. Their friendship continued even after Appiah returned to Ghana and, without much intention of pursuing a scholarly career, took a job as a teaching assistent at the University of Ghana. He found academic life congenial, so he returned to Cambridge to earn his doctorate. Meanwhile, an invitation from Gates soon brought him to Yale, where he taught a seminar on pan-Africanism, a movement in which his father had been active. …

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