Standing between the president and first lady in the Oval Office, Mansfield accepted the award, given to seven other scholars, in front of an audience that included his family.
Mansfield was individually recognized “for a lifetime of scholarship on political theory and contributions to higher education. Throughout his career, he has demonstrated conviction and courage while enriching public discourse,” according to a citation from the National Endownment for the Humanities (NEH).
An active contributer in the field of political philosophy, Mansfield has published multiple texts and provided translations of theorists such as Machiavelli.
His support of Constitutional American political science has set his opinions apart, and sometimes at odds, with the majority of progressive college administrators.
Despite differing political views, Bass Professor of Government Michael J. Sandel has collaborated with Mansfield in the classroom and on the squash courts.
“In the blue-state sea of Harvard, Professor Mansfield is a bold streak of red, a one-man antidote to liberal complacency,” Sandel wrote in an e-mail.
On various occasions, Mansfield said he has spoken up “in defense of academic standards” in response to policies enforced by liberals running the University. Mansfield said that rampant grade inflation, a chaotic curriculum and a profusion of easy courses are issues that he has criticized at Harvard.
“If you want a medal you have to be a hero,” Mansfield said. “If you want to be a hero, you can’t just stand around, shuffle your feet and keep quiet.”
In 2001, Mansfield launched a campaign against grade inflation where he issued his students two grades—one submitted to the registrar based on the College redistribution and the other, given privately, which reflected what he believed the student deserved. The latter was nearly always at least an entire letter grade lower, he said.
Mansfield is among other prominent Harvard affiliates who have received this award in the past, including novelist John H. Updike ’54, Du Bois Professor of the Humanities Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Professor of Comparative Religion and Indian Studies Diana L. Eck.
Eck, who is also a Lowell House Master, received a National Humanities Medal in 1998 for her work with on The Pluralism Project concerning religious diversity in America.
“While we don’t often think of political science as one of the humanities, Professor Mansfield has made clear that lively public discourse and debate are at the heart of our democracy,” Eck wrote in an e-mail.
Mansfield also has a reputation in the government department for his wit, integrity and tendency to “wear hats in a cocky way” according to department chair Nancy Rosenblum ’69, who holds the Clark professorship of ethics in politics and government.
Rosenblum said she has known Mansfield since her years as an undergraduate at Radcliffe and expressed admiration for his accomplishments as a teacher and philosopher.
“He is a deep thinker who challenges moral and political commonplaces from a distinctive philosophical standpoint: one that is skeptical of passing opinion but not skeptical of enduring ideas about human nature and political order,” Rosenblum wrote in an e-mail.
Mansfield is on leave for the academic year, but he said he still frequents his office and entertains student visitors.
He said he has just finished his newest book on manliness and its place in a gender neutral society.
Mansfield said he will be back next year to teach Moral Reasoning 17, “Democracy and Inequality.”