The John W. Kluge Prize: Q&A with Drew Gilpin Faust

Harvard University President Drew Gilpin Faust, recipient of the 2018 John W. Kluge Prize for Achievement in the Study of Humanity. Photo by Stephanie Mitchell.

Today, Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden announced that Drew Gilpin Faust—historian, Harvard University president and author of the Bancroft Prize-winning book “This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War”—will receive the John W. Kluge Prize for Achievement in the Study of Humanity.

The $1 million Kluge Prize, bestowed through the generosity of the late John W. Kluge, will be awarded during a gala ceremony in the Great Hall of the Library of Congress on Sept. 12.

The Kluge Prize recognizes individuals whose outstanding scholarship in the humanities and social sciences has shaped public affairs and civil society. Administered by the John W. Kluge Center at the Library of Congress, the international prize highlights the value of researchers who communicate not only within the scholarly community but also beyond it.

“The Library of Congress is thrilled to recognize Drew Gilpin Faust for her extraordinary work researching, writing and teaching about the fabric of American life,” said Hayden upon announcing the 2018 award. “Through her extensive writing about Southern identity, she has explored themes of deep relevance to our national conversation on race and gender. As the first female president of Harvard University, she has also led one of the most esteemed educational institutions in the world through a period of intense growth and transformation.”

Faust spoke about her research and accomplishments as a leader in higher education with Colleen Shogan of the Library’s National and International Outreach program in advance of the award’s announcement. Here is an excerpt from their conversation.

What drew you to the study of history, particularly the Civil War and the American South?
I grew up in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia at a time when history was very much under scrutiny and contention. It was in the 1950s and early 1960s, when the Civil War centennial was very much on people’s minds, so that around me there were reenactments of battles, and there were commemorations of what had happened in those very places 100 years before.

But at the same time, there was the emerging civil rights movement, with the Brown v. Board decision in the mid-‘50s, and the response of Virginia’s Senator Harry Byrd—who lived actually in my own county—who argued that schools should be closed rather than integrated. Questions of race were very much an issue surrounding me and my childhood. So the question of contemporary society, the world I was growing up in and its relationship to the past, was already very prominent in my mind, even from the time I was quite small.

How did you come to write about death and the Civil War in “This Republic of Suffering”?
“This Republic of Suffering” grew out of earlier work I’d done on the Civil War, particularly the experience of women in the Confederate South.

I did a book called “Mothers of Invention” about slaveholding women in the South during the war, and I found that, repeatedly, what was most on their minds was loss—the loss of a loved one, the fear of a loss of a loved one, the impact of the loss of a loved one—and the presence of death was so palpable in those women’s writings and in their voices as I heard them, that it made me look at the Civil War anew, even though I’d been teaching and studying it for years.

When we recognize that an equivalent rate of death would mean something like 7 million individuals dying in the United States today, that gives us a little bit of a sense of what an enormous toll that the Civil War took. It makes one think, how did people grapple with that in every dimension—from their views of religion to their views of politics to just the simple question of how did they dispose of the dead? That was the real impetus for that study.

What lessons can contemporary Americans draw from the painful reality of the Civil War?
One thing I think we can learn is how costly war is. The Civil War was begun by both sides thinking that it would not be costly, that it would end very quickly. A Southern senator said that he would drink all the blood that was going to be shed, assuming there would be none.

This underestimation of what war becomes is something that we should be aware of, and we should be careful about, and what we ask of our military as well. Politicians may get us into wars as they did in the years before the Civil War, but it was young people from all over the country, young men as soldiers, who died because of those decisions.

And so I think underscoring the enormous cost of war is one of the lessons of the book. That’s not to say that there aren’t times when war should be fought, and that the decision to fight the Civil War was an important and valuable one for the impact it had on the nation. But we need to make those difficult decisions in the context of understanding the cost that is involved. We shouldn’t fool ourselves.

How do you as a higher education leader advocate for the value of humanities, especially as enrollments in humanities disciplines are declining at U.S. colleges and universities?
The importance of studying the humanities—and indeed, in the words of the Kluge Prize, the importance of studying humanity—seems to me at the core of any educational experience. I’ve learned a lot during my 11 years as president of Harvard about the increasingly vocational emphasis in higher education, because I think it diminishes the opportunities for students and the potential for growth that education can involve.

We shouldn’t be training students for a first job, we should be giving them habits of mind—discernment, judgment—that I believe come out of the broad study of liberal arts and particularly out of understanding the humanities. Any student graduating today is going to have to deal with people who are very different from the graduating student—people who will come from different parts of society, different parts of the world, will challenge assumptions that any individual may have grown up with—and so, the ability to empathize, to see the world through others’ eyes, to understand different cultures, different times, and to imagine a world that is different from the one we live in now. That all comes from the study of other times, peoples and places. That, to me, is the essence of what humanistic study involves.

Your appointment as the first woman president of Harvard held special significance for women. How did you respond to expectations placed upon you because of your gender?
Well, when my appointment was announced in February 2007, there was a press conference, and I was standing up there for the first time in front of a crowd, and a reporter said something about being the woman president of Harvard, and I found myself responding almost instinctively – I don’t remember what went through my head – I just found myself saying, “I’m not the woman president of Harvard. I’m the president of Harvard.” And that got very widely quoted. I think my intention in saying that was to not be seen as having this special and different—or diminished—state of power or being an individual with a kind of asterisk after her name, but rather to fully occupy the office of president with as much authority as any of my male predecessors.

But right away after my announcement, I started receiving letters from young women all over the world, and sometimes parents of young women all over the world, talking about how important it was to them that I was a woman and president of Harvard, and so it seemed to me important to fully inhabit the category of president of Harvard who is a woman. On my travels across the United States and around the world, I’ve often met with young women, gone to girls’ schools, talked about ambition and aspiration and tried to do the best job I could for all those young women who wrote to me and who are now 11 years older and perhaps inspired a little bit by the fact that I have done this job.

During your tenure as president, you diversified Harvard’s student body and faculty with a concerted effort to make a Harvard education affordable. How, in your view, does an emphasis on diversity advance the study of humanity, the focus of the Kluge Prize?
The diversification of our student body is a fundamental part of our educational mission because we believe that students who come to a residential university experience like that at Harvard College don’t just come for [what] goes on in the classroom, that a substantial part of what they learn happens in corridors, in houses and dormitories, in between classes, in debates after classes.

And so we want to make sure that that entire environment is just filled with diverse perspectives, with different individuals who bring different experiences, come from different religions, geographic locations, races, ethnicities and political persuasions, because they are all going to educate one another. That happens best when they don’t duplicate one another, when instead, coming to college opens up new views, new visions and new kinds of experiences. That happens in part through what we have in the curriculum, but it happens also through what our students bring to one another. And that, of course, is what the study of humanity is about. In a sense, what I’ve been saying is that we want our student body to be a cauldron for the study of humanity as people get to know one another and are curious about circumstances and surroundings and histories that have made them alike and different.

The Kluge Center encourages mutually enriching relationships between scholars and political leaders. What do you see as the benefits of such exchanges for public life?
There’s so much that scholarship and politics can offer one another. I was asked last year actually to write a little introduction to a speech that John F. Kennedy gave at a Harvard commencement in the late 1950s. I was so fascinated to read this speech because the point he was making was how much intellectuals and politicians had to offer one another and how knowledge and broader perspectives could make a politician’s efforts more fruitful and more wise.

I think we in the academy need to learn about the ways in which our knowledge can have an impact beyond the walls of our institutions. So these interactions I think can be very fruitful. I must say that one of the parts of my presidency that I have enormously enjoyed has been meeting with individuals in Washington and our state and local politicians here in Boston to talk about the impact that universities have on our society, and to try to work together with those political leaders to enhance our ability to be positive forces within our state, local and national communities.

Going back to your book “The Republic of Suffering,” it features striking photographs from the Library’s collections. Can you comment on your experience researching at the Library?
Well, the photographs are obviously such a treasure trove for anybody working on Civil War history. In my book about death, obviously there are many photographs that I think are quite familiar to many Americans of the dead on the battlefield of Antietam or of Gettysburg, of bodies awaiting burial. But there are also things I found that illustrated other dimensions of the history of death. For example, pictures of an embalmer, pictures of a shed on the battlefield where embalmers were working, pictures of Sanitary Commission officers trying to identify bodies. The rich experience of death in the war is chronicled in a very vivid and powerful way in the Library of Congress photography collections.

I’ve been using the Library of Congress since I was a graduate student. Using manuscript collections, I wrote about [a member of Congress] –  first used him as a character in one book, my dissertation, and then wrote a biography about [him]. He served in Congress and then in the Senate from South Carolina. He was the senator from South Carolina at the time of secession, James Henry Hammond. And there’s a very large collection of his papers in the Library of Congress that were essential to my work.

There are other smaller collections of papers I’ve used over the years. But one of my favorites actually was central in the death book, and those are the papers of Clara Barton, battlefield nurse and a really significant figure in trying to transform U.S. policy about obligation to the dead in the aftermath of the war. So the Library of Congress is just an essential institution for historians and has been an essential institution for me as a historian as well.

Your tenure as president of Harvard concludes in July. Can you share with us your plans post Harvard?
Well, I hope to learn to be a historian again in a very direct way. I haven’t had the time to spend in places like the Library of Congress over the last 11 years, and I haven’t had time to stay entirely up to date in my field. There’s a great deal that gets published in the field of Civil War and Southern history every year, and I’ve not read all those books, I confess. I’m eager to catch up on what the latest insights and directions are, and also to catch up with some of the remarkable new means of access to library materials and search materials in the digital revolution that’s been going on over the last 11 years. I have some thoughts about what I might want to write about next, but I’m not entirely sure.

I’d like to explore some research possibilities and get back to writing and thinking about both history and also the impact of history on our own time.

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