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Ruth Simmons, president emerita of Prairie View A&M and Brown Universities and Smith College, delivered the 2023 Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities to a rapt audience at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture Tuesday evening. Sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Jefferson Lecture is the highest honor awarded by the government for achievement in the humanities.

Titled “Facing History to Find a Better Future,” Simmons’s speech hailed her education in the humanities—particularly language and literature—for guiding her improbable journey from the dusty farmlands of segregated east Texas to the vibrant centers of American higher education.

“I believe that the flowering of such knowledge invariably lifts our sights, bolsters our understanding of who we are, satisfies our curiosity and, by enabling us to be more rounded and capacious as human beings, prepares us to be better stewards of a shared purpose,” she said.

Even in the face of oppression and bigotry, people “possess by birthright the capacity to probe our origins, to tell and receive our own stories, to represent through art the truth of who we are, and to ponder what our future can be,” she noted. “The humanities greatly enlarge this capacity and protect the ability to see beyond measures that stifle truth and access to knowledge. If we protect and facilitate their reach deep into the underserved communities, the humanities will be a lifelong endowment to the poor and one that can never be taken away from them.”

She marveled at the lessons she learned from distant 16th-century French writers, who sought to elevate the “vulgar” French language to the level of the more refined Greek and Latin, drawing a parallel to African and African American works gaining acceptance among the “canonically anointed texts in English and French.”

And she cited her own experience as evidence that “every child needs the humanities to build their understanding of who they are and who they can be in the world.”

“Looking to the examples I encountered in the humanities, I was able to shape a vision of what could be rather than remain mired in what could not be,” she said. “I was able to appreciate the beneficial effects of reflection, self-expression and doubt … Through my encounter with the humanities, I understood that my humanity is worth questioning, worth refining, worth sharing, and worth defending. I learned that it ties me to the past and to others who share the human condition. And most importantly, I grew certain that I could improve upon my contributions to the human condition by acknowledging and promoting the worth of others who differ from me. That is what I know, thanks to the humanities.”