Edward L. Ayers received a National Humanities Medal from President Barack Obama at a
ceremony held at the White House on July 10, 2013.
“Being inducted into ΦBK was the first academic honor I ever received
and is still one of the most meaningful. The key told me that I belonged
to a long and great tradition of learning, a tradition I should do my own
small part to sustain.”
—Edward L. Ayers
By Maria Cox
Edward L. Ayers still recalls the key he was given upon his induction to Phi Beta Kappa at the University of Tennessee. Ayers write, “Being inducted into ΦBK was the first academic honor I ever received and is still one of the most meaningful. The key told me that I belonged to a long and great tradition of learning, a tradition I should do my own small part to sustain.”
Ayers has done much more than simply sustain the great tradition of learning, which began when he received a degree in American studies in Knoxville in 1974 and has led him to his current position as president of the University of Richmond. He entered the American Studies program at Yale University, where he earned a Master of Arts in 1977 and a Ph.D. in 1980.
He then spent twenty-seven years teaching history at the University of Virginia, where he founded the Virginia Center for Digital History in 1997 and co-created the highly regarded “Valley of the Shadows” digital history project. “Valley of the Shadows” electronically organizes the newspapers, battle maps, official records, and personal letters from two counties, one in Virginia and one in Pennsylvania, during the Civil War. By promoting digital archival systems in his field, Dr. Ayers has helped to make history more accessible to the average citizen and allowed history to thrive outside of its traditional repository – a textbook.
In addition to his digital work at the University of Virginia, he published ten books, including his most recent, The Crucible of the Civil War: Virginia from Secession to Commemoration (University of Virginia Press, 2006). He won the Bancroft prize for his 2003 book In the Presence of Mine Enemies: War in the Heart of America, 1859–1863 (W.W. Norton & Company, 2003), and was a Pulitzer Prize finalist and National Book Award finalist for his 1993 work The Promise of the New South: Life after Reconstruction (Oxford University Press, 1993).
While at the University of Virginia, Ayers also served as the Buckner W. Clay Dean of the College and Graduate School of Arts and Sciences.
In 2007 he was selected as the 9th President of the University of Richmond. He has continued to place learning at the forefront of his job, teaching a seminar during the school year and continuing his theme of making history accessible. Since 2008 he has co-hosted Backstory with the American History Guys, a national weekly radio broadcast that delves into how the past still plays a role in American current events.
In July 2012 he was awarded the National Humanities Medal for outstanding achievement in history, “for his commitment to making our history as widely available and accessible as possible.”
For Ayers, history became much more than a degree: It is a gateway to learning as his education career continues.
Maria Cox is a junior and Foundation Fellow at the University of Georgia majoring in English and Mass Media Arts. University of Georgia is home to the Alpha of Georgia chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.