Daniel Mendelsohn ’94 and Charles Gibson ’65 talked politics and referenced college-day memories onstage as they received awards during the University’s Alumni Day on Feb. 24.
The James Madison Medal and the Woodrow Wilson Award, the top honors University alumni can receive, are customarily presented to one person each year at the annual Alumni Day. This year, Mendelsohn received the Madison Medal and Gibson received the Wilson Award.
A classics major, Mendelsohn has exemplified these criterion through his career as a writer and critic. His 2006 non-fiction memoir “The Lost: A Search for the Six of Six Million” was awarded the National Books Critics Circle Award, the National Jewish Book Award, and the Prix Medicis, a French literary award to an author whose "fame does not yet match his talent." His essays have appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books, and The New York Times.
Mendelsohn has also been the PEN Harry Vursell Prize for Prose Style, a Guggenheim Fellowship, two Mellon Foundation awards, and the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing from the National Book Critics Circle. Mendelsohn is a member of the American Philosophical Association and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
He has contributed to Harper’s Magazine, The New York Times Book Review, and New York Magazine as a columnist. Currently, Mendelsohn is a professor of humanities at Bard College. His most recent book is a memoir titled “An Odyssey: A Father, a Son, and an Epic.”
In his address on Alumni Day, Mendelsohn focused on a definition of civility. He connected the word’s Latin etymology to a discussion of technology’s impositions on today’s public sphere.
“Our word ‘civility’ flowers out of the Latin ‘civis’, which means ‘citizen,’” said Mendelsohn. “Civility is the behavior that marks mutual acknowledgement that we individuals share common public, and political, space.”
“The connection between good manners and good citizenship has been a concern to political philosophers at least as far back as the 300s B.C.,” Mendelsohn said.
He went on to discuss the historical importance of empathy in maintaining a socially healthy public. This contrasted his description of modern-day technology and how it has “enhanced our ability to be asocial.” Encouraging people to “[act] in public as if… still in private” is, to Mendelsohn, how technology threatens today’s society.
“The erosion of basic civility, a process fueled by the advent of the Internet... [and] personal devices,” continued Mendelsohn, “is raising troubling questions about the direction our civilization...is going.”
The Wilson Award recognizes a Graduate School alumnus or alumna who has accomplished the University’s informal motto, “In the Nation’s Service and the Service of Humanity.”
After majoring in history at the University, Gibson’s decades-long career in television journalism included anchoring ABC’s Good Morning America and World News with Charles Gibson. He reported on the Sept. 11 attacks, interviewed South African President Nelson Mandela, and reported on conflicts in the Middle East and Kosovo. He anchored coverage of the O.J. Simpson trial, the Oklahoma City bombing, and the Virginia Tech shooting.
Gibson has also hosted several presidential debates and interviewed U.S. presidents. He was awarded a National Journalism Fellowship by the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Paul White Award from the Radio Television Digital News Association.
Gibson also anchored award-winning news pieces, including ABC’s coverage of the death of Pope John Paul II and the election of Pope Benedict XVI. This piece was recognized by an Alfred I. DuPont-Columbia University Award for broadcast journalism.
His address on Alumni Day centered around his view of journalism as a civic service, and he reflected on the challenges faced by news outlets in the current political climate.
“It is not lost on me that the Wilson Award selection committee has this year chosen a journalist, at a time when the profession is under attack to a degree that I never contemplated possible,” said Gibson, referring to President Trump’s statements discrediting news media.
“These attacks on the broadcast media and the press represent to my mind an existential risk not just to the profession, but to the democracy,” Gibson said.
He also pointed to a trend of sensationalization of today’s news, contrasting it with his own experiences and beliefs.
“I was always conscious in those moments of high drama or even crisis that my overwhelming responsibility talking to the entire country was to remain calm — not to overhype,” said Gibson. “I always thought that was one of the most important duties of my job — to let people decide for themselves.”
Both Mendelsohn and Gibson emphasized the role of the University in making the idea of service integral to their careers.
“Service is in the DNA of Princeton and that makes this award all the more meaningful,” Gibson said.
The annual Alumni Day is sponsored by the Alumni Association of Princeton University.
An earlier version of this article misstated which organization sponsors Alumni Day. The 'Prince' regrets the error.