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Syracuse University, College of Arts and Sciences

Milton First-Year Lecture presents Harvard linguist Steven Pinker

Event is part of Freshman Forum

Oct. 6, 2010, by Rob Enslin

Steven Pinker—one of the world’s leading cognitive scientists, interested in all aspects of language and the mind—is delivering the Milton First-Year Lecture in Syracuse University’s College of Arts and Sciences. Open only to College first-year and transfer students, the lecture is Wednesday, Oct. 6, at 7:30 p.m. in Goldstein Auditorium of the Schine Student Center. The event is funded by the Laura Hanhausen Milton Freshman Lecture Endowment, and is an integral part of The College’s first-year experience.

For more information, call the Office of Curriculum, Instruction, and Programming at 443-1011.

“We are honored to present Steven Pinker, one of the great cognitive philosophers of our time,” says Arts and Sciences Dean George M. Langford. “His interdisciplinary research embodies the spirit of the liberal arts, inspiring scientists and humanists alike.”

Gerald R. Greenberg, The College’s senior associate dean of curriculum, instruction, and programs, says that Pinker is something of a celebrity in academic circles. “His books are bestsellers. His lectures are sellouts. People resonate with him because of his ability to present complex ideas with wit and flair,” says Greenberg.

Since 2003, Pinker has doubled as the Harvard College Professor and as the Johnstone Family Professor of Psychology at Harvard University. Before that, he held a variety of faculty posts at MIT, including director of the McDonnell-Pew Center for Cognitive Neuroscience. He earned a Ph.D. from Harvard in 1979.

Much of Pinker’s early work was in visual cognition—the ability to imagine shapes, to recognize faces and objects, and to direct attention within the visual field. In graduate school, he cultivated an interest in language, particularly language development in children, and this topic eventually overtook his research activities. He has since published hundreds of related articles, essays, and book chapters, and has authored seven award-winning books, including “The Stuff of Thought: Language As a Window Into Human Nature” (Viking, 2007) and “The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature”(Penguin, 2002).

Despite his success, Pinker occassionally makes waves among academics. Some of the controversy stems from what he argues in “The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language” (Harper, 1997), that language is innate and humans have a common “universal grammar.” “Biology isn’t destiny,” he said, after being named to Time magazine’s “Top 100” list in 2004. “Nature is what we’re put in this world to rise above.”

The Milton First-Year Lecture is named for Laura Hanhausen Milton ’50, a member of The College’s Board of Visitors who, along with her husband, Jack ’50, is a long-time supporter of the University. The lecture is the signature event of The College’s first-year experience, a series of programs designed to facilitate students’ transition to University life. Past speakers have included Shen Wei Dance Arts, Jane Goodall, Henry Louis Gates, Isabel Allende and David McCullough.

“Engaging with a world-renowned thinker such as Steven Pinker is a memorable way to begin one’s college career,” says Greenberg, adding that the program concludes with a Q&A session and author book-signing. “It’s one of the highlights of the academic year.”

Photo by Henry Leutwyler