Who better to co-chair the Pulitzer Prize board than a Pulitzer Prize winner? Enter historian David Kennedy, who received his bachelor's degree from Stanford in 1963 and returned to teach at the Farm in 1967 (after getting his PhD from Yale). In a Class Day speech a few years ago, Kennedy urged students to "get out and make things happen." Today he talks about how everyone--from award-winning authors to students to alumni--can seize the day and "make the world move." Excerpts:
Since 2002, you've served on the Pulitzer Prize board--and Columbia University just announced that you would co-chair it for the next year. What does this mean for you? Lots of trips to New York? Mega-hours spent reading long books?
This is the culmination of that tour of duty. The board routinely meets in New York twice a year, once in the fall and once in the spring to sprinkle the fairy dust--to actually award the prizes. It's not a terrible burden. It has meant a rather considerable amount of reading. There are 14 journalism prizes and several so-called arts and letters prizes--so 21 categories. For every prize category, there is a jury, and the jury hands up to the board three nominations in each of these categories. The juries cannot rank order or hint at what they might rank order. You've got to read everything very carefully and seriously. From mid-December to the end of March for the last eight years, every single bit of my discretionary time has gone to reading these things. Sometimes the Pulitzer board is described as the world's most interesting book club! Only three members of the board are academics. The rest are senior journalists and editors and columnists. They're people from a different world than mine. I've learned a lot from them and have come to have a lot of respect for the quality of thought and high purpose that goes into the very best journalism in this country.
What makes a book worthy of a Pulitzer?
The short answer is excellence. If you had to sum up the task or the mission of the whole Pulitzer enterprise, it's to encourage and recognize excellence in a variety of domains--reporting, history, poetry, drama. The stated criteria, which are published, are all very general. They say things like, "The prize is for an outstanding work of American history." The Pulitzer endowment, when it was set up, very wisely left it to future boards to determine for themselves what constitutes the very best work. It's a good principle, but it also leaves room for a lot of argument. There's no question that in the book categories, literary quality is important. But it's not sufficient to win somebody the prize. There's also originality--and how much it enlightens the reader. If a book does all those things but is a struggle to read, it's not going to get a Pulitzer prize. It's original work of great substance that is also distinguished as a piece of literature. I daresay that a similar formula applies to the journalism prizes, though we get more fine-grained there. The prize for breaking news is given for rapidity of response and usefulness to the community as well as for distinguished writing. For commentary and editorial writing, the criteria is more, "Do these pieces have any effect on government or reform efforts?" The overall description that fits all the prizes is we're looking for excellence.
What book are you working on yourself these days?
I'm working on two books, actually. I'm writing The Americans and the History That Made Them. It's a reflection on the distinctiveness of the American experience or American "exceptionalism" over five centuries. Then I'm working on a somewhat more modestly construed project that will be in a journal called Daedalus, published by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and, we hope, simultaneously released by Oxford University Press as a book. I'm the editor, and I'm recruiting a stable of authors to reflect on the American military. What is its mission? Who serves and why? What is the demography of the all-volunteer force, and what are the political implications of having an all-volunteer force? The public hasn't caught up with the changes in the military. It's not your grandfather's army, and it's not even your father's army. We have a wholly new military. It has a different mission, it's composed of different personnel and fights with different weapons.
When is that book coming out?
If I remember correctly, the Daedalus issue will come out in the fall of 2011.
Will it be available as an app, too?!
Everything else is, why not?
You teach undergraduate and graduate courses in the history of the 20th-century United States, American political and social thought, American foreign policy, American literature, and the development of democracy in Europe and America. Phew! Do you alternate classes, or what?
I teach what's required of me or what I feel particularly interested in. It's one of the great virtues of being a senior faculty member. You develop new interests. My interest in the military--I never foresaw that. I'm currently the faculty co-director of the Bill Lane Center for the American West. We have organized Sophomore College [courses] on the federal government and the West, on water in the West and so on. Those have been very gratifying teaching experiences. Typically I teach with colleagues in economics and political science. We take the kids to Washington, D.C., and Sacramento, and so on. They're fun, and they're high energy, and I learn a lot, and I think the students do, too.
How many courses do you teach each year?
In recent years not many, running this center. Next fall I'm going to teach a continuing studies course that will be open to undergraduates, though it's principally designed for the community, on the Great Depression and World War II. They're two depressing topics, but they are intellectually interesting.
How have Stanford students changed in the half century since you arrived at the Farm in 1959?
The average Stanford student today is a lot smarter than the average Stanford student when I was an undergraduate. They come to us better prepared than we were, with a surprisingly richer, broader set of life experiences than most of us had. I was a student in the first Stanford in Italy group in 1960. There were 80 of us. To the best of my knowledge, only three had been abroad before. If you took just about any randomly selected group of 80 Stanford students today and asked how many had traveled abroad, it would be the majority. The students who come here today are enormously qualified and bring more life experiences than a typical 18-year-old had then. They're still only 18, and there's only so much you can do in those first 18 years, but they seem to have made more use of it. I get summoned to duty every five years at reunions to give the usual talk about then and now. I tell them the same thing: Ours was the very first Stanford class ever when the admission rate was below 50 percent, and it was about 49.8 percent. Essentially in those days all you had to do was show up. This last year's admission rate was about 7 percent.
Do these students make you feel hopeful about the future of the country?
I'm hopeful about them. They're very talented. They're very invested in public service. But I'll tell you honestly--and I'm an optimist and a patriot--that I have never been more worried about our country than in recent times.
What worries you and keeps you up at night?
It's our inability to update our institutional structure, the increasing inequality in our society, and the repeated deferral of coming to grips with major issues like energy and climate change and immigration and financial reform. It's a pretty dispiriting scene we see out there.
But the students don't get too depressed?
No, thank God. They don't. We'd really be in the soup if 19- and 20-year-old students were depressed. They are the future. If we can't have confidence in them, we might as well hang it up.
What still manages to keep you upbeat?
The Bill Lane Center every year sponsors an event called Walk the Farm. We started this tradition four years ago. We walk no less than 20 miles in one day. We start out on the academic quad and go out to Jasper Ridge and back. This year's theme was climate change. Last year it was biodiversity. The year before that was water. We have presentations along the way about how this site here at Stanford is illustrative of some larger issue in the region. We had about a dozen presentations [last Saturday] on how climate change was affecting the water supply. It is an event I love. It was kind of my brainchild. It's fun, and you're out there on parts of the campus you never see otherwise. There are cattle operations, horse operations--you name it. Saturday was a perfect day. We were standing on the Felt Reservoir dam on a fresh, beautiful California day, with deep green lush grass, cattle grazing, horses grazing, mallards swimming around. It was just a day when you were glad to be alive. There were about 40 hikers at that time. It was such a refreshing, invigorating thing to do.
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