History, Not Politics, at Jonathan Spence Jefferson Lecture





Jonathan Spence came here to deliver a speech, but don't let that fool you: his address -- the 39th Annual Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities, which took place Thursday -- in no way resembled the sort typically associated with D.C.

The Jefferson Lecture is sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities, which describes the lecture as "the most prestigious honor the federal government bestows for distinguished intellectual achievement in the humanities." Those chosen for the distinction are typically academics or creative types (or both) -- but, given the setting, the sponsor, and the nature of the award (which "recognizes an individual... who has the ability to communicate the knowledge and wisdom of the humanities in a broad, appealing way"), Jefferson Lecturers have historically taken the opportunity to make a larger (and sometimes tacitly political) point related to the humanities. Last year, controversial bioethicist Leon Kass used his lecture to criticize the way the humanities are taught and researched at American universities; in 2007, Harvey Mansfield argued, with many subtle political allusions, that the social sciences are in dire need of "the help of literature and history"; Tom Wolfe's 2006 lecture discussed how the humanities shed light on modern culture (and lamented the current state of the culture on campuses); and 2005 lecturer Donald Kagan and 2004 lecturer Helen Vendler offered opposing views on which disciplines of the humanities are most crucial, and why.

If any of those in the crowd (noticeably larger than last year's) at the Warner Theatre last night were familiar with the Jefferson Lectures of years prior, they were in for a surprise.

Spence is Sterling Professor of History Emeritus at Yale University, whose faculty he joined in 1966. His specialty has always been China -- his 14 books on Chinese history include 1990's The Search for Modern China, upon whose publication the New York Times accurately predicted that it would "undoubtedly become a standard text on the subject" -- and his lecture was entitled "When Minds Met: China and the West in the Seventeenth Century." Even this relatively specific appellation, however, conveys a misleading breadth, for Spence's lecture focused almost exclusively on three men -- Shen Fuzong, an exceptionally learned Chinese traveler; Thomas Hyde, an English scholar of history and language; and Robert Boyle, also English, a scientist and philosopher of considerable renown -- and one year: 1687....



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