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2013 Centennial Citations

5.29.13

Everett Mendelsohn, PhD ’60, history of science

“Possibly no one has done more to establish the history of the life sciences as a recognized university discipline in the United States,” than Everett Mendelsohn, wrote former students Garland Allen and Roy MacLeod in the introduction to the Festschrift they published in 2001. And, they went on to say, “possibly no one has done more to inspire a critical concern for the ways in which science and technology operate as central features of Western society.”

Indeed, the study of science in its contemporary and historical contexts has always carried with it something of a moral obligation for Mendelsohn, Emeritus Professor of the History of Science at Harvard, where he has been on the faculty since 1960. Whether in his assessment of what science owes to the world, or in his assessment of what he owes to his colleagues, students, and friends, Mendelsohn has been that rare pioneer who is not too busy pioneering to think about the world beyond the pathways of his scholarly pursuits.  

At Harvard he studied under Bernard Cohen and Thomas Kuhn and was energized by scholars ranging from Marie Boas to Robert Merton to JD Bernal. In the fledgling history of science department, he founded the Journal of the History of Biology, thereby essentially inventing that subfield.

He went on to explore the social and sociological history of science, especially in the modern era. He has been deeply involved in studying the relations between science and modern warfare, for example, as a founder of the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s Committee on Science, Arms Control, and National Security, and of the American Academy of Arts and Science’s Committee on International Security Studies.  

“I made a commitment to myself as an 18 year old,” he told Harvard Magazine in 1999, “when I discovered I was a pacifist, to devote some portion of my time from there on out to making the world a better place to live.” He has done so in innumerable ways, as a passionate advocate of nuclear disarmament, public responsibility in genetics research, and Middle East peace and reconciliation efforts.

Everett Mendelsohn is famous for telling his graduate students, “To earn a degree, every doctoral candidate should go out to Harvard Square, find an audience, and explain his or her dissertation.” That story — or, as it may be, that legend — perfectly captures his steadfast belief in the need for public communication of scientific, and, indeed, of all scholarly work.

It was a lesson his students could not help but absorb. In an essay entitled “The Social Context of Science: Soc Sci 119 As a Way of Life and Learning,” Gary Werskey, a former student and teaching fellow (who earned his PhD in 1973), penned an encomium to Mendelsohn’s long-running and highly subscribed Core course as “a testbed for developing teachers, initiating research, and fostering educational innovation.” “Everett was ... a superb salesman as well as an innovative scholar, making a pitch for a product to which he was absolutely committed.”

He is the former Master of Dudley House, the GSAS graduate student center, where House Administrator Susan Zawalich worked closely with him and his wife and co-master, Mary Anderson. “In addition to being a serious scholar and teacher, he’s a very compassionate man and lots of fun,” Zawalich says. She recalls the occasional weekends on which Mendelsohn and Anderson would invite Dudley fellows to their Vermont home. “There he was, up in the mountains, driving his tractor,” Zawalich remembers. “And Everett loves to cook, so he was grilling vegetables and steaks for everyone. He’s totally unpretentious and very accessible.”

Mendelsohn made graduate advising a centerpiece of his activity, laying the foundation for a GSAS-wide effort to prioritize and enhance mentoring across the disciplines. It led the Graduate Student Council to name its annual mentoring award in his honor — which is only fitting, says Anne Harrington, the acting chair of the Harvard history of science department, who has worked with Mendelsohn since she was an undergraduate: “Everett Mendelsohn himself set the standard, not only training but personally nurturing generations of students who now populate leading departments around the world.”

As a mentor, he “took the Louis Agassiz approach: help students get set on a project and then leave them alone,” recalls Gar Allen, professor of biology at Washington University in St. Louis, whose Harvard PhD came in 1966. “He helped all of us establish ourselves in our own ways. None of his graduate students were clones, but we all followed the various paths he himself sketched out. Without quite realizing it, I found myself later combining political activism with scholarly pursuits in a similar manner (though I am sure not as effectively) as Everett has throughout his career. He has been a kind and generous mentor and friend for 50 years.”

Many, many others could say much the same. 

Everett Mendelsohn, for your integrity, your passionate belief in the power of ideas, and your decades of service to Harvard, we are proud to award you the 2013 Centennial Medal.

 

Arnold Rampersad, PhD ’73, English

Arnold Rampersad, the Sara Hart Kimball Professor in the Humanities, Emeritus, at Stanford, is widely considered our leading biographer of African American writers and cultural figures, with a body of work that includes essential studies of Ralph Ellison, Langston Hughes, and W.E.B. Du Bois, as well as Jackie Robinson and Arthur Ashe.

How did this native of Trinidad develop the perfect pitch that allowed him to capture the tensions of American writers, the fullness of what it is to be black in America? When Rampersad was awarded the National Humanities Medal in 2010, he gave credit in part to his early education in literature, which, he said, “some people might dismiss as ‘colonial.’ It nevertheless served me well in dealing with the complexities of American biography.”

His work as a biographer began at Harvard, where he wrote his dissertation on W. E. B. Du Bois. He has said that he was drawn to that work because Du Bois changed his life, and the historians who had written about him had not been able to explain why: they missed, he said, “his genuine essence—which is, in my opinion, the grandly poetic imagination he brought to the business of seeing and describing black America and America itself.”

When the dissertation was published as the masterful intellectual history The Art and Imagination of WEB Du Bois, the acclaim it received drew notice from the executors of the Langston Hughes estate. Rampersad’s resulting two-volume biography, released in 1986 and 1988, was a Pulitzer Prize finalist and is widely considered the definitive work on this most important Harlem Renaissance poet. Exploring the complexity of Hughes’s ambition, intelligence, and commanding talent, Rampersad set him in his time, chronicling not just the life of one black American but the changing world of all black Americans at the time. 

His revelatory biography of Ralph Ellison, published in 2007, considers the full arc of Ellison’s life and — as the San Francisco Chronicle put it — “the extent to which family tragedy, failed ambitions and a prickly, imperious nature combined to isolate him in the years following Invisible Man."

“I know of no other scholar who has consistently told stories that matter so deeply to our society as whole,” says Rampersad’s Stanford colleague Shelley Fisher Fishkin. “Arnold Rampersad has left an indelible mark on our understanding of who we are as Americans.” She recalls co-editing Oxford’s Race and American Culture book series with Rampersad as “an extraordinary education. Arnold’s vision of what kinds of scholarship could move the field in productive directions was always spot-on; his judgment about what authors needed to do in order to transform a good manuscript into a great book was illuminating.”

Rampersad joined the Stanford faculty in 1975 and stayed until 1983, when he left for a position at Rutgers. He went on to teach at Columbia and Princeton, before returning to Stanford in 1998. He is an elected member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the American Philosophical Society, and he held a MacArthur fellowship from 1991 to 1996.

“He is a scholar with few peers, but he has also been a model –- of productivity, intellectual rigor, and intellectual generosity –- whom his doctoral students in American literature and African-American studies have sought to emulate, all to the good of our disciplines and our profession,” says one of those former students, Jeffrey Tucker, who directs the Frederick Douglass Institute for African & African-American Studies at the University of Rochester.

“Professor Arnold Rampersad stands with the outstanding Trinidadian and Tobagonian intellectuals: Eric Williams, C. L. R. James, George Padmore, and Oliver Cromwell Cox. In his distinguished career, Professor Rampersad has shaped the texture and contour of African American literature, in particular the contemporary autobiography,” says Selwyn R. Cudjoe, Margaret E. Deffenbaugh and LeRoy T. Carlson Professor in Comparative Literature and Professor of Africana Studies at Wellesley College. “More specifically, he stands among the great African American theorists such as Benjamin Brawley, J. Saunders Redding, and Addison Gayle. That he is honored by Harvard is testimony to his distinguished career and his place in our intellectual community.”

Rampersad has said that he was “was drawn to biography because I saw the African-American personality as a neglected field despite the prominence of race as a subject in discussions of America. African-American character in all its complexity and sophistication was, and still is, by and large, a denied category in the representation of American social reality.” There is no other scholar who has done more to undo that denial, to assert the grace and the terrifying complexity of the American experience, than Arnold Rampersad. 

Arnold Rampersad, for showing us how biography can illuminate culture and history, and how literature transcends barriers, we are proud to award you the 2013 Centennial Medal.

 

Louise Richardson, PhD ’89, government

Coming of age in Ireland at a time of intense nationalist struggle, Louise Richardson was early on offered a study in how terrorist groups win recruits, and what motivates the people who join an extremist cause. Before most scholars and policymakers were paying attention, she became a leading authority on terrorist movements, and the subject has formed the major part of her scholarly and pedagogical interests. But Richardson has lately had other things to keep her occupied — such as, for instance, running the third-oldest institution of higher learning in the English-speaking world. 

Since 2009, Richardson has been the Principal and Vice-Chancellor of the University of St Andrews in Scotland, a title equivalent to that of president at US institutions. Having come from Trinity College, Dublin as an undergraduate, and later landing at Harvard, Richardson understands the power of tradition. But St Andrews, founded in 1412, makes Harvard look relatively spry, and so she embraced as her mandate the notion of honoring the old while welcoming — and clearing space for — the new. The St Andrews community soon learned that Richardson is as enterprising and visionary an administrator as she is a scholar.

For 12 years following the completion of her PhD in 1989, Richardson was an assistant and then associate professor of government at Harvard, spending 8 of those years as head tutor, overseeing a huge undergraduate program. For years, she taught Harvard’s only courses on terrorism, including the large and popular undergraduate lecture course Terrorist Movements in International Relations. The work was lonely, academically speaking; terrorism studies were “marginalized,” she has said, and no major universities had faculty positions devoted to the field. Students responded, however; her work was honored with the Levenson Prize, awarded each year by the undergraduate student body to the best teachers at the University.

“Her intelligence, wit, lucidity, intellectual courage, her dynamism, her gifts of common sense, and her generosity inspired trust and admiration for her rectitude and for her teaching ardor,” says her Harvard mentor, Buttenwieser University Professor Stanley Hoffmann. “Often, when I had some doubts about my direction, or when I lost my patience with mediocrity, or pretentiousness, or ignorance, I was grateful to her for her patience with inevitable imperfections and impatience with pomposity.”

In 2001 Richardson became Executive Dean of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, helping to steer Radcliffe’s transformation from the woman’s college it was to the creative and interdisciplinary research center it is today. Her scholarly profile increased after September 11 of that year, and her expertise helped to shield the University from criticism about the paucity of its terrorism course offerings.

She is the author of the influential 2006 book What Terrorists Want: Understanding the Enemy, Containing the Threat, which offered a clear, level-headed, and searing critique of the Bush Administration’s counterterrorism policies. The New York Times called it “the overdue and essential primer on terrorism and how to tackle it.”

Richardson is also the editor of The Roots of Terrorism and the co-editor of Democracy and Counter-Terrorism: Lessons from the Past, among other books, journal articles, and book chapters, and she has delivered more than 300 talks and lectures on the subject to international audiences.

“Louise Richardson is one of America’s most astute scholars and observers of terrorism," says Robert Art, the Christian A. Herter Professor of International Relations at Brandeis University and a fellow Harvard PhD. “Long before most experts, she saw the dangers of governments overreacting to terrorist acts, argued why such overreaction was self-defeating, and generally prescribed a measured, steady, and sensible approach to dealing with groups employing the terrorism tactic.”

That sensible approach can still seem radical in its rationalism and tempered wisdom. The lessons she began to teach us — before we knew how much we needed them — grow more relevant with each new incident of terror our world faces.

Louise Richardson, for having the vision to assess emerging threats, for transformative leadership, and for moving seamlessly between the roles of scholar and teacher, we are proud to award you the 2013 Centennial Medal.

 

Sherry Turkle, AB ’69, PhD ’76, sociology

Sherry Turkle has been teaching us about the profound effects of technology on the human psyche since at least as early as 1984, when she published The Second Self: Computers and the Human Spirit. That groundbreaking meditation on our relationships with computers — a part of ourselves and of the outside world, as she describes them — opened a rich line of inquiry that grows more evocative by the year, and through which she essentially created the scholarly field of technology and identity. In computers, she has said, she found a literal instantiation of the psychoanalytic theories she had been studying — of how the self is constructed through language.

After doing a social studies degree at Radcliffe, where she entertained flirtations with intellectual history and political theory, Turkle did her PhD work in sociology and personality psychology. Her first book, Psychoanalytic Politics: Freud's French Revolution, published in 1978, grew out of her Harvard dissertation and reflected, in part, the insights she had formulated while conducting field research in Paris, attending seminars by such figures as Roland Barthes and Michel Foucault.

She started at MIT soon after completing her degree, and there she remains, as the Abby Rockefeller Mauzé Professor of the Social Studies of Science and Technology. A licensed clinical psychologist, she founded and directs the MIT Initiative on Technology and the Self, earning a reputation as the leading anthropologist of cyberspace.

“Sherry’s work challenges all of us who work with technology to consider the assumptions we make about the benefits and harms of new tools,” says Ethan Zuckerman, director of the MIT Center for Civic Media. “Her deep and thoughtful inquiries, her probing skepticism and her understanding of human behavior make her an indispensable scholar of our evolving digital world.”

Her 1995 book, Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet, began to trace the evolution of a new way of viewing the self — as something decentered, with multiple iterations. In 2009, she released Simulation and Its Discontents, an exploration of how simulation and visualization technologies have changed our notions of authenticity and our ways of looking at the world. Simulation has become its own sensibility, she argued, describing architecture students who no longer design with a pencil, or science and engineering students who see computer models as more “real” than physical experiments.

And she is the editor of three books about what she calls “things and thinking,” all published by the MIT Press: Evocative Objects: Things We Think With (2007); Falling for Science: Objects in Mind (2008); and The Inner History of Devices (2008).

“Over the years, I have co-taught many courses with Sherry,” says her longtime MIT colleague Mitchel Resnick — courses that explore “how new technological developments influence (and are influenced by) the ways people think about mind, self, nature, community, and society. The courses have evolved to keep up with changing technological trends, examining everything from neural networks to wearable computers to online communities. But a constant through all of this technological change is Sherry’s penetrating insight into the psychological and sociological implications of new technologies.”

Her assessment of those implications has grown somewhat bleaker over the years, and she is now the leading advocate of moderation in the technological sphere. In her widely acclaimed 2011 book Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other, she worries about the human costs of technology, arguing that we are choosing omnipresent connection over conversation and real relationships, becoming more lonely, less introspective, and less able to feel.

“When other people saw computers primarily as technologies, Sherry Turkle saw them as vehicles through which we made sense of our own identities (our second self), through which we defined our own cultures, and around which we negotiated our relationship with each other,” says Henry Jenkins, a former MIT colleague who is now the Provost’s Professor of Communication, Journalism, and Cinematic Arts at the University of Southern California. “She brought human psychology to digital media well before most humanists even figured out how to turn on the machine, and she’s continued to explore deeply, asking new questions, revising old statements, across the past three decades. We have not always agreed in our conclusions, but I have always learned from my interactions with her, learning to internalize her skepticism as an important challenge to my own more optimistic tendencies. She has been extraordinarily generous through the years to me and to my students, and I often hold her work up as a model of the ways one can mix scholarly rigor with the commitment to good, clear writing, which can insure that one’s ideas have an impact far beyond the academy.”

She remains, as ever, prescient. Howard Gardner, Hobbs Professor of Cognition and Education at Harvard, says Turkle “has the rare gifts of being able to see ahead, to anticipate issues that will come to the fore, and of illuminating their meaning and their significance.”

“In future years,” Gardner says, “readers will turn to Sherry Turkle’s writings to understand what it was like to live at the dawn of the digital era.” 

Sherry Turkle, for helping us to see how technology is shaping our society and ourselves, and for celebrating the power of true connection amid the virtual, we are proud to award you the 2013 Centennial Medal.

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