A more truthful past is our only way to a more nuanced present
Ferndale, WA (Vocus) December 11, 2008
In a ceremony in the Great Hall of the Library of Congress' Thomas Jefferson Building, Peter Robert Lamont Brown and Romila Thapar today were awarded the 2008 Kluge Prize for lifetime achievement in the study of humanity. They are the sixth and seventh recipients since the Prize's 2003 inception.
Endowed by Library of Congress benefactor John W. Kluge, the Kluge Prize rewards lifetime achievement in a wide range of disciplines including history, philosophy, politics, anthropology, sociology, religion, criticism in the arts and humanities, and linguistics. Among all international prizes at the $1 million level, the Kluge Prize covers the widest range of academic disciplines, languages and diverse cultural perspectives in the world. Brown and Thapar will share the prize.
"Peter Brown and Romila Thapar have used practically every known discipline in the humanities and social sciences to create integrative history over vast periods of time and wide expanses of space," said James H. Billington, Librarian of Congress, who conferred the award.
"They have used multiple languages and multiple sources, and they have covered parts of the world that are important today, but whose origins we have never understood quite so fully until they took up the pen."
Both Brown, 73, and Thapar, 77, brought radically new understandings to fields of historical inquiry that cover vast sweeps of geographical territory, close to a millennium or more of time, and a wide array of peoples, languages, and cultures within a specific civilizational context. Brown brought conceptual coherence to the field of late antiquity, looking anew at the end of the Roman Empire, the emergence of Christianity, and the rise of Islam in the civilizational unit of the Mediterranean world. Thapar complicated the view of Indian civilization, which had seemed comparatively unitary and unchanging, by scrutinizing its evolution and searching out its historical consciousness.
The scholarship of both broadened and deepened over time as they marshaled a vast array of evidence from an expanding range of sources in a growing variety of languages to bring a new comprehensive understanding of large questions of human development. They addressed their scholarship not only to specialists, but also intentionally shared their insights with lay audiences. In re-imagining familiar worlds with eyes unprejudiced by existing paradigms, they each opened large areas of human experience to new historical inquiry.
In his remarks accepting the award, Brown praised the commitment of Kluge and the Library to the humanities. He also touted the study of languages as a pathway to intercultural understanding.
"A more truthful past is our only way to a more nuanced present," Brown said. "It is up to us to ensure that this richer vision will not remain for us only a poignant glimpse of the world that we have lost.
"But if we study hard, this may not happen. If we come to value the particularities of culture, lifestyle and worldview that are best revealed through the pursuit of difficult languages … then we might see a modern Middle East regain the vivid and variegated colors that have become gray in recent times."
Like Brown, Thapar also stressed the importance of the humanities.
"In redefining civilization and reconsidering identities, whether of the past or the present, a turn to the human sciences is imperative," she said. "Both civilizations and identities can only be explained by reaching out beyond our territorial boundaries and those of our imagination, and if we can bring serious historical inquiry to center stage.
"The uniqueness of India, it seems to me, has been its plurality of the peoples and cultures that it has knit together over time. The cultivation of this plurality is our common heritage."
Kluge, 94, spoke at the ceremony after a video honoring his vision and philanthropy, in the fifth anniversary year of the prize that bears his name. "The recipients are the important people because they have dedicated their life to their scholarship," he said.
Through a generous endowment from John W. Kluge, the Library of Congress established the Kluge Center in 2000 to bring together the world's best thinkers to stimulate and energize one another to distill wisdom from the Library's rich resources and to interact with policymakers in Washington. For further information on the Kluge Center, visit http://www.loc.gov/kluge/.
Founded in 1800, the Library of Congress is the nation's oldest federal cultural institution. It seeks to spark imagination and creativity and to further human understanding and wisdom by providing access to knowledge through its magnificent collections, programs and exhibitions. Many of the Library's rich resources can be accessed through its Web site at http://www.loc.gov and via interactive exhibitions on a new, personalized Web site at http://www.myLOC.gov.
Contact: Matt Raymond, (202) 707-0020
NOTE TO MEDIA: Photos of the event mentioned are available upon request. Background material, high-resolution images and other resources are available via an online pressroom at: http://www.loc.gov/loc/kluge/prize/pressroom/
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