Thursday, April 18, 2013

Homage to Teachers and Professors

Thomas H. Wilson  

Consider how we come to have knowledge of the humanities.  We learn to read on the laps of our caregivers.  We hear our first languages from those around us, and absorb cultural traditions from hearing stories at the feet of our elders and by participating in the events of our families and societies. We imbibe poetry, songs and oral histories, and register the visual icons across cultures and through time from books, public art and a plethora of electronic formats.  We have the beginnings of knowledge that will flower into the humanities by the time we enter elementary school. These and other sources continue to influence us throughout life. Simultaneously, educators in formal settings—schools, colleges, universities and similar institutions—help us channel our interests and broaden our horizons.  Teachers and professors introduce us to the formal study of the humanities.  They help us develop the skills and tools to pursue our own interests and educate ourselves about subjects that ignite our intellectual passions or form the great debates of our day.

I wish to acknowledge some of the teachers and professors who influenced my thinking about the humanities and to whom I owe a profound debt of gratitude for the guidance and insights they offered, and for the passion for their subjects that they demonstrated daily.  Such enthusiasm is infectious, and I caught the humanities bug.  It turned out to be a chronic condition, this love of the humanities.

David Townsend was my secondary school history teacher.  Somehow he managed to paint a picture of the unification of Italy and the leading characters in that drama—Count Camillo Cavour, Mazzini and Garibaldi—that I still carry around in my head.  It is nothing short of miraculous to make the unification of Italy interesting to a secondary school student.  He explained, probably better than all my later reading on the subject, the inexplicable beginnings of the First World War.  Mr. Townsend, who is very proud of his service in the Marine Corps, subsequently earned his Ph.D. in history, was elected to the New Mexico legislature, helped redraft the New Mexico constitution, and coauthored a centennial history of our town.  He is most beloved by his students, and has played a significant role in the civic life of his town and state.

 David H. Townsend
New Mexico State University

Frank Hibben was one of the most popular professors at the University of New Mexico.  He taught the famous Anthropology 101, physical anthropology and archaeology, and his classes were packed with hundreds of students.  He was an inspiring speaker who sprinkled his lectures with captivating stories of the people and places about which he spoke.  Hibben possessed the gift of storytelling, a wonderful knack to share the humanities.  He came to the university out of Harvard in the late 1930s and stayed for the rest of his career to help build the department and the museum of anthropology.  He gave the money for a major research building at UNM, and established a well-funded trust to support graduate students.  Frank Hibben is why I became an archaeologist, and when I teach or lecture I try to emulate his skills.

Frank Hibben
University of New Mexico 

Florence Hawley Ellis came to UNM in 1934 from the University of Arizona, after earning her Ph.D. from the University of Chicago for research on the archaeology of Chetro Ketl in Chaco Canyon.  She taught the Southwestern archaeology and ethnology classes, and ran the field school that I attended at the large prehistoric pueblo site of Sapawe in the Chama drainage in northern New Mexico.  Every day at lunch in the field at Sapawe, Dr. Ellis would lecture on the archaeology of the Southwest, and then in the evenings after dinner we worked in the laboratory or studied in the library at Ghost Ranch until all hours of the night.  Now, the museum at Ghost Ranch is named in honor of this “Daughter of the Desert.”

Florence Hawley at Chaco Canyon
University of New Mexico 

At the University of California, Berkeley, Sherwood Washburn taught physical anthropology—primate evolution and behavior, and J. Desmond Clark lectured in African prehistory.  Washburn, Harvard educated and lured from the University of Chicago to Berkeley, was named University Professor because of his stellar teaching ability.  I was his teaching assistant for two years, and it was a joy to participate as he inspired hundreds of undergraduates in biological anthropology.  Clark was a graduate of Cambridge University, and was recognized by all as the doyen of African prehistoric studies.  He was remarkable for the breadth and depth of his knowledge, and you left his lectures with writer’s cramp from trying to capture his knowledge and ideas.  I was with him in 1995 in Zimbabwe and Zambia, where at the Livingstone Museum scores of young students in their school uniforms respectfully mobbed the famous former director of their museum.  You have accomplished a certain measure of success when elementary students treat you like a rock star.

Later I attended law school at the University of Maryland, where the passionate and articulate Michael Millemann teaches constitutional law.  “When all else fails,” he suggested, “argue Magna Carta,” which is still the law of the original 13 colonies because at independence they incorporated English common law.  Millemann may have been telling us literally to argue Magna Carta, but he was also encouraging us to think beyond the obvious and to be creative in analysis and argument.  Judge Ellen Heller taught the law and education seminar, and Larry Gibson, one of the teachers of civil procedure, once won his case by singing his summation in court.  You have to be pretty confident to sing your closing argument in a court of law.  Their biographies reveal how much they have contributed to our society and others, far above the daily responsibilities of their jobs.

These teachers and professors influenced my education in the humanities and beyond.  Not only did they impart the facts and theories of their disciplines, they demonstrated how to approach problems, to analyze critically, and to seek creative solutions.  You too probably had teachers in the formal system of education, and most likely professors influenced your intellectual development.  Perhaps you have a personal hall of fame in which you enshrine those teachers and professors who have been most influential in your development.  These humanists showed us the way to think independently, forge our own ways of reasoning, write well and explore the enriching power of the humanities.  We are in great debt to our teachers and professors.

Frank Hibben, Florence Hawley Ellis, Sherwood Washburn and Desmond Clark have, to use two of Hibben’s favorite phrases, “shuffled off this mortal coil” and “been gathered to their primate ancestors.”  They did so before I told them how much I appreciate their teaching and guidance, and how much their work in the humanities influenced mine.  Teachers and professors change our lives.  Let them know what their lives mean to you.

Thomas H. Wilson is Chair of the Arizona Humanities Council and Director of the Arizona Museum of Natural History

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