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Steven Pinker Headlines Contemporary Thought Series

Harvard psychology professor to discuss new book on violence declining in our time

EVANSTON, Ill. --- Acclaimed Harvard University Psychology Professor Steven Pinker will deliver the inaugural lecture for the Contemporary Thought Speaker Series at Northwestern University Feb. 20 as part of a new student-led initiative designed to strengthen intellectual community on campus.

Pinker, the Johnstone Family Professor of Psychology at Harvard College, is the best-selling author of numerous books, including, most recently, “The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined,” and “The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window Into Human Nature.”

Pinker argues that, despite constant coverage of war and terror, violence is on the wane in our time. In fact, the Harvard professor contends we may be living in the most peaceful era of human existence and that a variety of factors helped our "better angels" prevail.

The Contemporary Thought Speaker Series grew out of an undergraduate initiative creating a large-scale lecture to focus on issues of wide interest to students and to unite the Northwestern academic community in a conversation that transcends schools, disciplines and majors.

In fact, the series revives a Contemporary Thought speakers tradition going back nearly a century to the 1920s and 1930s, when Professor Baker Brownell taught a course on that topic and brought noted speakers to campus -- ranging from Frank Lloyd Wright, Clarence Darrow, Jane Addams and Harriet Monroe to Carl Sandburg, Bertrand Russell, Henry Wallace and W.E.B. Du Bois.

Tickets for the Pinker lecture will be available through the Norris Box Office beginning Feb. 13 for students, faculty and staff. Tickets are free but needed to reserve a seat.

The new series will launch Feb. 20 with the lecture by Pinker, titled “A History of Violence,” which will take place at 6 p.m. in the Ryan Family Auditorium of the
Technological Institute, 2145 Sheridan Road,
on the Evanston campus. (Tickets will be available at the door as well.) In addition, there will be a general meet-and-greet with Pinker at 5 p.m. in the Graduate Student Commons, room 250, at 2122 Sheridan Road.

Last February, in its annual budget report, the Undergraduate Budget Priorities Committee (UBPC) requested that administrators support the creation of a major speakers series that would bring nationally known public intellectuals to campus and spark meaningful discussions on topics at the heart of education today. Northwestern President Morton Schapiro and Provost Daniel Linzer agreed to support the program in fall 2011.

“We are delighted to welcome Dr. Pinker to Northwestern for the inaugural lecture in a new series that will bring leaders in contemporary intellectual discourse to campus,” President Schapiro said. “This series has been created largely by our students, and they’ve made a great selection for the first speaker. The goal of these talks is to highlight the big questions of our era in society and culture and to draw interest and participation from all of our different schools and disciplines.”

“Our goal was to improve the quality and depth of intellectual community here at Northwestern,” said Jonathan Green, chair of the UBPC and the head of the steering committee charged with planning the lecture series. “By reviving one of the University’s best traditions, we hope to encourage students and faculty from across the schools to grapple with difficult moral and social questions. As a well-known academic specialist who nevertheless embraces perennial topics, Pinker represents just the sort of intellectual life we hope to foster.”

Tim Sanker, project manager in the University’s Office of Change Management, has also helped coordinate the project. Earlier, an advisory group was assembled in April 2011 to plan the program. Members included faculty, undergraduate students and administrators, including Ronald Braeutigam, associate provost for undergraduate education, and Burgwell Howard, dean of students.

Northwestern has seen a number of efforts to cultivate campus intellectual community during the last decade, notably the One Book program. Among the key priorities of the University’s Strategic Plan, unveiled in November, are goals to connect our community and engage with the world.

"We are incredibly excited about the future of this series,” Green said. “In recent years, Northwestern administrators have made a strong commitment to strengthening our community, and particularly to uniting students of different backgrounds and interests through school-wide traditions. We think this initiative dovetails perfectly with those aims, and we look forward to it growing into a strong annual tradition in the years to come."

Pinker’s name was selected from a list of prominent intellectuals generated by the steering committee. The popular social scientist’s previous works include “The Blank Slate” and “How The Mind Works,” which were both Pulitzer Prize finalists. Pinker has been listed on Time magazine's “100 Most Influential People in The World,” as well as on Foreign Policy’s list of “The World's Top 100 Public Intellectuals.” He has received awards and honors from the National Academy of Sciences, the Cognitive Neuroscience Society and the American Psychological Association.

He follows in a great heritage of pre-eminent speakers coming to Northwestern, particularly the practice of inviting public intellectuals in contemporary thought created by Brownell, a poet, author, Chicago newspaperman and later, a longtime Northwestern professor of journalism, philosophy and contemporary thought.

University Archivist Kevin Leonard described Brownell’s course in contemporary thought as “a legendary development within the Northwestern curriculum,” intended to help students organize fragments of their educational experience into an intelligible whole.

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