Last night I received a major award. No, it wasn’t this one:
The College of Letters and Science at the university where I have worked my entire academic career gave me its annual Distinguished Professor award. I was especially honored because I’d been nominated by my Department of History and International Studies.
It was also kind of bittersweet since this is my last semester as a professor. I opted for a retirement incentive because of the way the university administration has proposed to deal with a big budget deficit. The intention is to slash 13 majors, most in the humanities and social sciences, and lay off faculty due to program discontinuance. The History major is one of those 13. I knew I could not work at that kind of university.
When I found out I would be expected to make remarks at the ceremony when I received my award, I knew I couldn’t go away without saying something.
So I delivered some brief remarks, which went like this:
I thanked the interim dean and the staff of the College who have been doing their best to help everyone through this difficult time. I thanked my department chair for the same thing, without mentioning that I don’t know how he ever manages to keep his temper in all those meetings he has to sit through. And I thanked my husband who knows the ins and outs of academia, from both the teaching and the administrative sides. Plus he’s always made life on the home front very easy while I’ve spent so much time teaching, researching, writing, and doing committee work.
I acknowledged that I was honored to be part of such an accomplished group of scholars who have received this Distinguished Professor award, including three of my fellow department members who were colleagues for most of the years I’ve been in the department. I pointed out that all of us are women, so yay us!
Then I said it was time for a brief history lesson. I took everyone back fifty-some years ago to the New Frontier and the Great Society, when there was a push for federal funding for the arts and the humanities to keep them on par with the sciences.
Speaking before a Senate committee, the head of the Atomic Energy Commission, Glenn Seaborg, said: “We cannot afford to drift physically, morally, or esthetically in a world in which the current moves so rapidly perhaps toward an abyss. Science and technology are providing us with the means to travel swiftly. But what course do we take? This is the question that no computer can answer.”
Surely, a strong statement about the importance of the humanities.
In September 1965, when President Lyndon Johnson signed the bill that created the National Endowment for the Humanities, he affirmed the need to value the humanities on an equal basis with the sciences, pointing out, “We in America have not always been kind to the artists and the scholars who are the creators and the keepers of our vision. Somehow, the scientists always seem to get the penthouse, while the arts and the humanities get the basement.”
Of course, the humanities have never belonged in the basement. So in conclusion, I paraphrased that famous line from the 1980s classic movie “Dirty Dancing,” and said, “No one ever puts Baby in the basement.”
I’m now heading into the last two weeks of my teaching career.