Writer Robert Putnam '63 Receives Nation's Highest Humanities Honor from President Obama

by Zach Epstein
Robert Putnam '63 and Barack Obama
President Barack Obama congratulates Robert Putnam '63 as he awards him the 2012 National Humanities Medal during a ceremony in the East Room of the White House on Wednesday.

 

This week, noted author Robert Putnam '63 received the nation's highest honor in the humanities from President Barack Obama at a ceremony at the White House. The National Humanities Medal honors individuals or groups whose work has deepened the nation's understanding of, broadened citizens' engagement with, or helped preserve and expand Americans' access to important resources in the humanities.

Putnam, one of the few social scientists to ever receive the award, was honored for "deepening our understanding of community in America. Examining how patterns of engagement divide and unite, Dr. Putnam's writing and research inspire us to improve institutions that make society worth living in, and his insights challenge us to be better citizens," according to his official citation.

Putnam, the Peter and Isabel Malkin Professor of Public Policy at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government, graduated with highest honors from Swarthmore and went on to study law at Oxford University as a Fulbright Scholar. He received his doctorate degree with distinction from Yale University in 1965 and holds several honorary doctorates, including an honorary doctor of laws from Swarthmore, awarded in 1990. Putnam is a member of the National Academy of Sciences, a Fellow of the British Academy, and past president of the American Political Science Association. He has written 14 books, including the best-selling Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community  and more recently Better Together: Restoring the American Community, a study of promising new forms of social connectedness.

"Swarthmore was the most important thing that ever happened to me, period," Putnam told the Bulletin last year. "Swarthmore is where I met my wife, where I became intellectually open and alive, and where I became involved politically and socially. That intense interest in public service and public affairs is an extremely powerful part of the Swarthmore culture, and I drank that in."

"For all their differences, today's honorees have one thing in common," President Obama told the New York Times, "and that is that they were teachers, whether they realize it or not. They have taught us about ourselves and about our world."

Additional recipients of this year's medal include actress and playwright Anna Deaveare Smith, sportswriter Frank Deford, and author Joan Didion. For a list of all the honorees, visit the White House website.