Professor Andrew Delbanco Awarded National Humanities Medal

February 13, 2012

Andrew Delbanco, who has been called “America’s best social critic,” was awarded a National Humanities Medal by President Barack Obama (CC’83) yesterday. The Mendelson Family Chair in the Center for American Studies was honored for his writings on higher education and the place classic authors hold in history and contemporary life.

During the White House ceremony, the President presented the medal to Delbanco, a faculty member of Columbia’s Department of English and Comparative Literature. Delbanco’s most recent book, "College: What It Was, Is, and Should Be," is a collection of his essays originally written for the "New York Review of Books."

“America promises that our lives are not predestined, that we have the capacity to reinvent ourselves,” Delbanco has said. “We are not doing as well as we should in keeping that promise for all our citizens, but I believe it is still an animating principle of our culture, an aspiration we should strive to keep alive.”

After the ceremony, the medalists joined the President and First Lady Michelle Obama for a reception.

The bulk of Delbanco’s work is based on the idea that authors of the past, like Herman Melville and Ralph Waldo Emerson, can offer Americans insight on how to live today. His books include "Required Reading: Why Our American Classics Matter Now," "The Death of Satan: How Americans Have Lost the Sense of Evil," "The Real American Dream: A Meditation on Hope," and "Melville: His World and Work."

“I’ve long been interested in the existential themes with which Americans have wrestled—and no one did so more powerfully than Herman Melville,” Delbanco said.

The 2011 National Humanities Medals were awarded to nine Americans for their work, which has deepened Americans’ understanding of the humanities, broadened citizens’ engagement with the humanities, or helped preserve and expand Americans’ access to important resources in the humanities. The medals, first awarded in 1989, were previously known as the Charles Frankel Prize, named after the American philosopher, a Columbia alumnus and a professor at the University for more than 30 years.