Monday, April 2, 2007

A Man Who Distinguished Himself in History: Ted Widmer

This week I will be taking an additional departure from my blog entries with the final refinements being placed on Pomp and Circumstance No. 1 (and the all too familiar mortar board pictured at left) for the fast approaching commencement ceremonies and the achievement of scholastic excellence. Among the various degrees bestowed upon college graduation day there is one degree that has often caused much debate: the honorary degree. As president emeritus of the University of Iowa and Dartmouth University, James Freedman, describes what he believes the true attributes of the presentation of the honorary degree ought to be to “celebrate distinguished and sublime achievement” because when a university gives an individual such a degree “a university mak[ing] an explicit statement to its students and the world about the qualities of character and attainment it admires most.” However, he goes on to provide the aspect of the honorary degree that causes debate among many individuals as to the legitimacy of the award. Freedman believes that over the years the North American higher education system has warped the original intention of the honorary degree into something used “to flatter generous donors and prospective benefactors” or “mere celebrities-who are often famous principally for being famous.” By taking Freedman’s perspective on the state of the honorary degree in American higher education one can see how they can be seen as “trivialized” piece of paper.

In spite of Freedman’s doubt as to the validity of the honorary degree I still believe that there are those individuals existing in the world in various fields of specialty who are deserving of a degree. A degree described by The University of Southern California as a designation to “honor individuals who have distinguished themselves through extraordinary achievements in scholarship, the professions, or other creative activities, whether or not they are widely known by the general public” and “recognize exceptional acts of philanthropy to the university and/or on the national or world scene.” Under the guidelines that have been specified by the university there is an exceptional individual in the field of history who is most deserving of an honorary degree from the University of Southern California named Edward L. “Ted” Widmer.

Ted Widmer (pictured at right) is currently the director of John Carter Brown Library at Brown University and a former speechwriter for President Bill Clinton. However, despite his two prestigious occupations what makes Mr. Widmer most deserving of one of USC’s honorary degrees (for there are seven different fields of honorary degree that USC gives out) is his dedication to the furthering people’s education of American history. He has performed this task through various avenue of involvement. He has taken on the task of educating America’s public on various topics of American history from his book on Martin Van Buren a part of the American President Series to collections of America speeches from the Revolution to Bill Clinton a two part book series aimed at providing primary sources demonstrating the important political, social, and moral ideologies that shaped America into what it is today. Widmer’s books are not simply additions to the already prolific array of non-fiction historical works existing in the world that makes important contributions to the field of history, but his first book, Young America: The Flowering of Democracy in New York City (pictured at left) has been recognized for its merit by the Washington Irving Literary Medal given out by the St. Nicholas Society of New York City for excellence in the literary field at representations of New York’s history. To help further American knowledge of American history even farther Ted Widmer has helped establish a literary award of his own in 2001 for recognition in the field of America’s early era history. The award named the George Washington Book Prize awards a $50,000 prize to the author of the book which “contributes to a greater public understanding of the life and career of George Washington and/or America’s foundering era” as described by the awards description. The important aspect of the award is that the book selected must have provide the public with a better understanding of American history and not an esoteric group of scholars and experts in the field.

Perhaps Ted Widmer’s greatest accomplishment was his work through the C.V. StarrCenter for the Study of the American Experience at Washington College in which he helped develop programs to enrich the knowledge of American history to groups that were lacking in their comprehension of that history. Through his programs he brought a more stimulating learning experience to under-funded inner city schools in Maryland all the way to Muslim college students in Anti-American regions of the world. More specifically during his work in at the C.V. Starr Center he developed the prototype in conjunction with the Untied States State Department for the American Studies Institute which “invite[s] undergraduate college students (pictured at right) exclusively from Islamic backgrounds to study American culture and history up-close and in-depth. A grant of $250,000 from the State Department covers 90 percent of the cost of the program” as described by John Buettner of media relations in a 2004 article published by Washington College on

Ted Widmer’s unwavering dedication to the not only national, but international expansion of the understanding and knowledge of American history through his books and the programs that he has brought into existence qualifies him to receive the Doctorate of Human Letters. For Widmer has shown that he is an outstanding citizen of the United States of America. He has helped to educate the public in areas that they have been found wanting in and has even extended that branch of knowledge to diverse groups of individuals such as Muslim students living in anti-American locations shortly after a time in America’s history when such actions may not be the most popular in American society. Widmer’s courage and dedication to his field of history makes him an indispensable figure to modern American society in which he would have much knowledge to pass on a new generation of graduates through a commencement address for he is the living embodiment of his field, something that any individual who has labored for the past four to five years on a degree in their field.

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