Walter Isaacson awarded National Humanities Medal

Martha Sanchez, News Editor

Tulane Professor Walter Isaacson was awarded the National Humanities Medal at the White House on Tuesday. (Courtesy of Walter Isaacson)

Tulane professor Walter Isaacson was awarded a National Humanities Medal “for chronicling the history and genius of America” through his bestselling biographies, the White House said in a ceremony on Tuesday.  

Isaacson, who is from New Orleans, is one of 12 historians, educators and activists who received a 2021 medal. The awards are among the highest honors American authors can receive. 

“I’m grateful to President Biden for celebrating the humanities and to Tulane University for being a place where students and researchers connect the humanities to the sciences, business and other fields of endeavor,” Isaacson said in a Tulane press release

National Humanities Medals honor people or organizations that devote themselves to literature, history and philosophy and enrich citizens’ understanding of the nation. President Biden chose the winners with advice from the National Endowment for the Humanities, a federal agency that funds history and literature around the country. 

Other winners included poet and author Richard Blanco, social historian Earl Lewis and Bryan Stevenson, an advocate for the poor. Elton John received a medal last September. 

The ceremonies also awarded Medals of Arts to actress Julia Louis-Dreyfus, singer Gladys Knight and fashion designer Vera Wang, among others. 

The White House postponed giving out 2021 medals due to COVID-19. Past Humanities medalists include journalist Joan Didion, novelist Philip Roth and the National World War II Museum. 

Isaacson accepted his medal to applause on Tuesday, then stood with President Biden for a photo. Isaacson has chronicled the lives of Leonardo Da Vinci, Steve Jobs, Benjamin Franklin, Albert Einstein and Henry Kissinger. He wrote “The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution,” and is currently writing a biography of billionaire technology entrepreneur Elon Musk.

His most recent book, “The Code Breaker,” is a story about Jennifer Doudna, a biochemist who won the Nobel Prize for gene editing in 2020. 

“Through the stories of our nation’s remarkable citizens, Walter Isaacson’s work, words and wisdom bridge divides between science and the humanities and between opposing philosophies, elevating discourse and our understanding of who we are as a nation,” the White House said in its introduction of Isaacson. 

At Tulane, Isaacson teaches courses on Law and U.S. History and the History of the Digital Revolution. His work often focuses on topics at the intersection of humanities and science, and he stresses the importance of that blend to his students. 

He is the former editor of Time Magazine and has led CNN and The Aspen Institute, a nonpartisan research think tank. He began his career at the Sunday Times of London and the New Orleans Times-Picayune. 

Isaacson recently co-hosted and organized the New Orleans Book Festival, a three day gathering of over a hundred authors on Tulane’s campus. 

“It was just such an honor to meet so many incredible people,” Biden said at the end of the ceremony. “You do make the country better. You make this a better place.”

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