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Dean’s Remarks

College of Humanities University Conference 2021 Dean's Remarks

I begin by echoing the appreciation expressed by Academic Vice President Reese, President Worthen, and Elder Holland for the gracious and dedicated way all of you have navigated the past eighteen months. I have been very proud of the way we, as a College, have risen to the occasion and made extraordinary, and at times exceptionally creative, adjustments to serve our students.

On Rust, Trust, and Healing

Our use of the brand logo H+ for Humanities+

is a convenient way to telegraph the idea that our students can combine their study of the humanities with other skills or competencies to make the most of their college educations. H+ is, coincidentally, also shorthand for a hydrogen ion, and the chemist-punster in me wants to play with that coincidence a bit.

Water, the universal solvent and one of the miraculous molecules of the cosmos, is made up of hydrogen ions and oxygen. When water encounters other elements, the hydrogen ions help oxygen effect some very remarkable changes. Hydrogen ions are curious little things, and they are often at the core of very dramatic chemical reactions, such as ocean acidification when carbon dioxide levels rise in the surrounding atmosphere. So, H+ for “Humanities plus” is not bad coincidental shorthand, given the way that a small “plus” adds dramatic change to our students’ futures!

Oxygen plays many roles in the cosmos, including the process of photosynthesis that gives us the food we eat and the air we breathe. When oxygen was first identified chemically in 1774 by the English theologian-chemist Joseph Priestley, it created quite a sensation. Literally. Priestley describes inhaling oxygen as follows: [1]

‘I fancied that my breast felt pe-cu-li-ar-ly light and easy for some time afterwards. Who can tell but that, in time, this pure air may become a fashionable article in luxury. Hitherto only two mice and myself have had the privilege of breathing it.’

Scientists continued to study oxygen, and, like Priestley, found it to be a wonder substance that sustains life. They also came to better understand its impact upon other things, how metals corrupt, for example. When metals contact water, small electrical flows and chemical reactions take place that eat away at the metal, or, rather,

combine metal with oxygen to form oxides that look nothing like the original. With prolonged exposure to the oxygen in water, eventually there is little or nothing left of the original metal, everything converted to rust, change, and decay in all around we see.

In scripture, oxidation is often called canker, and sometimes paired with the word rust to describe the effects of self-indulgence. In the Book of Mormon, for example, rusty weapons testify of nations gone mad with bloodlust for vengeance:

“And again, they have brought swords...and the blades thereof were cankered with rust.” (Mormon 8:11) James condemns the overindulgent rich in very strong terms: “Your gold and silver is cankered; and the rust of them shall be a witness against you.” (James 5:3) We find a similar warning in modern revelation: “Wo unto you rich men, that will not give your substance to the poor, for your riches will canker your souls.” (D&C 56:16) Lest we be too smug, however, Mormon suggests that pride and intellectual overindulgence can likewise rust our souls when, “because of the praise of the world” we sell ourselves “for that which will canker.” (Mormon 8:38)

Judy and I moved here from America’s rust belt,

specifically a place in upstate New York that had seen better days but was waning as manufacturing moved elsewhere. There is something unspeakably sad about the outline of a rusting factory complex in the early spring, as we saw not many years ago along Geneva Road, when the steel plant went under and left behind sad silhouettes. Rust, a sign of too much oxygen, is also a modern memento mori for the hubris of the Industrial Age.

Oxygen can “rust” living organisms as well. When I was fourteen years old and certifying as a scuba diver, the WWII-veteran instructors cautioned us about the effects of breathing straight oxygen. One of them had purchased a period rebreathing system from nearby Smith & Edwards Army Surplus,

and as we were awestruck at the thought of making no bubbles while breathing underwater, he emphasized that pure oxygen, breathed under pressure, becomes toxic, breaking down the nervous system and the lungs, and can lead to tunnel vision, spasms, unconsciousness, and even death.

In contrast to these ill effects, oxygen therapy

—a stream of pure oxygen, administered in a non-pressurized way that keeps systems going long enough for the body to catch its breath and restore vitality—has proven a godsend to millions, especially during the pandemic. Likewise, as I learned from a member of the Cambridge ward in England after he saw my sad attempts to fight rust on a 1970-era Morris Mini,

substances like a dilute solution of phosphoric acid, or naval jelly, can be applied to rust and—through a chemical reaction involving oxygen!— convert the rust into a thin layer of stable metal. Depending upon the dosage and method of interaction, then, oxygen can sustain life, or it can destroy it.

Just as humans depend on oxygen to survive; we scholars depend upon suspicion to find truth. The history of human intellectual and technological development is punctuated by individuals questioning the status quo. As scholars, we often disdain the Pollyanna perspective and have found some of our greatest professional success in questioning received notions or discovering new ways to approach traditional paradigms. So we encourage our students to ask questions, not accept things on faith, and examine everything. Yet, just as too much oxygen can lead to rust and other nasty consequences, too much suspicion can lead to cynicism, which can break us down individually and corrode systems erected and sustained for our good. Rust can be the antithesis of trust.

We begin life instinctively trusting those around us and are rewarded for such trust with food, clothing, shelter, language, knowledge, and a trajectory. Sometime around early adolescence, if not before, we begin to learn not to trust. We see people betray us; we learn that things aren’t always what they appear to be; we discover the hypocrisies of those very people in whom we’ve placed lifelong trust. About this same time, we develop critical thinking skills that reward us for asking questions, doubting the received wisdom, and learning to seek confirmation and proof for speculations. For a decade or so, we fluctuate between the instinct to trust and the impulse to disbelieve.

It is at this stage that our incoming first-year students join us in the College. They are high on life, but also high on the oxygen of suspicion. With our students at a critical point in their lives, it is important that we help them prepare for the future, both a future world where the ravages of carbon dioxide and distrust make the globe less hospitable, and also their individual futures, where they will need to sort out lifesaving truths from a panoply of falsehood, and learn to sustain faith amid ongoing calamities.

Our students this year come to us as few have come before, at least for a century: scarred by the premature demise of opportunities and expectations, if not family and friends, at the hands of a global pandemic. They, like us, have experienced disappointment, fatigue, boredom, dashed hopes, loss, and fear. They, like us, seek healing, and we offer them, at BYU, a unique opportunity to heal, one that involves a double regimen of critical thinking skills and strengthened spirituality.

If we are lucky, we will be able to get our students to overcome their pandemic shellshock, suspend their suspicion of our fields, or of our credentials, and come to trust us as mentors and fellow citizens of the Kingdom. With God’s help, we will be able to guide them to new passions, new hope, and the joy that can come through learning to study by reason and by faith. As we engage in these acts of healing our students, see them discover hope and joy in learning, may we also find healing to our own wounded souls.

The Grace of Great Things

One of the concomitant blessings that comes from reading College Rank & Status files each year is the chance to sample the kind of thinking and writing our faculty are engaged in. This past year, as Don Chapman successfully sat for his Full Professor review,

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I was impressed by a phrase he anchored to his philosophy of teaching: “the grace of great things.”

Professor Chapman came upon this phrase in Parker Palmer’s 1998 tome, The Courage to Teach,[1] a work that suggests, as Don puts it, that “an ideal teaching situation allows me to learn and explore with the students… When I was a student, I valued those teachers who made their subject matter ‘great things’ for me. Learning new things from every course and even every class period is one of the most rewarding parts of teaching for me, and I hope that my enthusiasm shows through. I want students to join me in the grace of learning about great things.

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The phrase “the grace of great things” has a storied history. It was first uttered by a monk to the Gothic/Renaissance sculptor Michel Colombe while inviting him to work hard, study the great works of his contemporaries, and love God so as to acquire that transformational key to mastery: “la grâce des grandes choses” (the grace of the grand things).

The term came to the attention of August Rodin, or at least was used by Rainer Maria Rilke in his magnificent portrayal of Rodin to describe the object of the sculptor’s lifelong work. Rilke suggests that Rodin’s singular creation, “The Burghers of Calais,” embodies the principle of the grace of great things in both its origin story and its execution.

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During the Hundred Year’s War, the French port city of Calais came under siege by England’s King Edward III, and the French King Philip VI was unable to break the siege. When the starving town reached out to Edward for mercy, he demanded six volunteers from the city bring to him the keys and their lives to do with as he willed. Six men stepped forward and sacrificed themselves for those in the city. When they arrived before the king, he ultimately spared them, owing to the intervention of his wife, Queen Phillipa.

Rodin created the six burghers as individual figures pausing at the city gate, representatives of Calais’ diverse citizenry as well as of humankind, before walking to what they imagined to be a certain death. According to Rilke, in their faces and poses Rodin sought to capture them “Larger than life: the proper scale of their great resolve.”[1] (Überlebensgroß: in der naturlichen Größe ihres Entschlusses) Rodin combined the greatness of his artistic skill with a story of supreme grace and thereby incarnated in bronze the idea of “the grace of great things.” His success in capturing this notion of grace is proven by the fact that duplicate casts of the six figures can be found in museums and town centers around the world.

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There is something compelling about the story of people willing to give up their lives for others.

The monk invited Colombe to observe the works of humanity around him and combine that careful study with active love for God.

Here in the College of Humanities we, like the sculptor Colombe, have a similar injunction and opportunity: study well and love God, and you will come to see the grace of great things. Those great things can be artifacts, such as paintings or sculpture, buildings or gardens, or they can be collections of words that captivate us with the brilliance of their sound or the depth of their thought. They can be the very fundamental differences of perception that myriad languages emphasize, or the transcendent universalities they reveal. This habit of surprise at the compelling greatness of what humans keep coming up with brings us together in wonder and in awe, a state approaching, if not exemplifying, grace.

The ability to be both impressed and inspired by the grace of great things is a portable skill that we model in the College, one that students can take with them wherever they go: into their homes, their places of work and worship, even into the public commons as they live out the balance of their mortality. This is one of the greatest contributions we can offer them for lifelong learning that will continue to surprise and edify them, and all those over whom they may have some degree of influence. It is a sacred privilege to come together, in any context, to puzzle over, investigate, articulate, and celebrate the expressions of divine genius latent in humanity. To study the humanities in BYU’s College of Humanities is, indeed, to study God at work in humankind.

Our Business and Mission in All Our Lives

I was struck this past spring, as the redesign of the General Education program continued apace, at the harmony that exists between the Mission and Aims of a BYU education and the things we cherish and teach in the humanities. Even though the Mission and Aims reflect the signature thinking and writing of our colleague John Tanner, it is not a coincidence that our fields align closely with the goals of a university established to serve in the building up of the Kingdom of God upon the earth. I believe that, as a College, we are setting a strong, positive example of humane thinking and action, both on campus and in the world.

When Joseph Smith and his colleagues were establishing the organization and leadership of the Church in the early years, they were trying to make sense of how they should spend their time. With the background tension between the models of professional and lay clergy they saw all around them, they wondered how leadership, especially the First Presidency, should best occupy itself. Their divine inquiries resulted in a revelation, now found in Section 90 of the Doctrine and Covenants, that reveals how the Lord wished them to see both their vocation and avocation:

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“Study and learn, and become acquainted with all good books, and with languages, tongues, and people…this shall be your business and mission in all your lives.”

God did not give them the location of a vein of gold ore, nor a hot stock tip, to set them up with financial stability so that they could devote their lives in service to the Kingdom. His commandment for the best use of their time? Study and learn. And what should be their subject matter? Good books, languages, tongues, and people.

Their primary occupation to date had been translating the Bible. The Lord revealed that, once that task was completed, they should, “from time to time, as shall be manifested by the Comforter, receive revelations to unfold the mysteries of the kingdom; And set in order the churches.” This receiving of revelations, and setting in order churches, was not to be accomplished ex nihilo, nor using the best self-help books published in the day, but rather alongside their study of the same things we in the College cherish and study, what we are now engaged in helping our students learn! That, according to the Lord, was to constitute the business and mission of Joseph and his brethren.

For many of us, the study of these things is our business and mission. But, given the context of using such study to build the Kingdom and, by extension, to edify and improve the world, the question for us is this: “How do we apply what we know of good books, language, tongues, and people to help set the world in order during times of chaos? How can we better prepare our students to do the same?”

Although many of us are called to the respective and compelling causes championed within our fields of study, at BYU we share a unique commonality of belief that can help us address issues in fundamentally different ways. On a trip to New York many years ago, I was bumped to First Class and ended up sitting next to a Jewish lawyer who had been in Salt Lake for a few days on a case. As we talked of this and that, and he discovered I worked at BYU, he started to drill me about local conflict resolution. “You probably don’t need as many lawyers here,” he surmised, “given that you have a foundation of mutual faith that shouldn’t require as much litigation as we do in New York.” I’ve thought about that remark a lot as I’ve seen at BYU, time and again, our shared faith gently tone down most potentially fraught interactions into mild conflicts, most of which find eventual resolution.

That shared common trust in basic principles of righteousness, combined with a willingness to forgive and a commitment to learning and growth, offers us a unique way to approach many of the world’s problems. As honored College alumna Sharon Eubank has noted,

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“I believe the change we seek in ourselves and in the groups we belong to will come less by activism and more by actively trying every day to understand one another. Why? Because we are building Zion—a people ‘of one heart and one mind.’”

This suggests to me that, despite the savage impulses of the day, we are blessed to be part of a community committed to love and understanding. Thus, as we work collectively at inclusion, belonging, and intellectually enlarging and spiritually strengthening our students, we can lay claim to using the Spirit and our natural interest in humanity to better understand others.

We have much to learn from each other, and that learning is enhanced by the complexity of our relationships.

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In the BYU Museum of Art hangs a unique piece of textile art, “Plexus No. 29” by Gabriel Dawe. Although its colors are now fading, I remember observing the crew putting up the piece, threading strands to small, numbered hooks on the walls using a long pole called a needle and a special machine that fed out the threads. This is a photo I snapped shortly after its completion. I love the way it captures light coming from above, the simple, clean lines, and the faux-prismatic beauty of its perfectly aligned spectrum of color.

Contrast that with this mid-century tapestry by French artist René Perrot.

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No less complicated in the mechanics of its creation, and containing the same colors as “Plexus No. 29,” this woven sculpture is alive with arabesques of movement and complexity. It is a unique blend of northern European needlepoint technique,

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allusion to Japanese artist Hokusai’s “Great Wave off Kanagawa,” autumnal fowl, and fishes. Amid the chaos there is order and flow, and its title suggests the overarching power and unifying effect of gravity.

Mosiah 18 describes how Alma, converted by martyr Abinadi’s words, restores the Gospel at the Waters of Mormon. [1] Alma does what we do: he teaches people, sometimes as individuals but mostly in groups, who have removed themselves from the world to learn truth. When the sum of his teaching arrives at critical mass, he is inspired to baptize them, and himself, as a token of their commitment to that truth, and its Source. As we have heard and celebrated this University Conference, from that point on Alma seeks for his students to no longer identify themselves as single, diverse-yet-parallel strands, but rather as a tapestry woven together through their common experience of faith, of baptism, and of learning glorious truth at the Waters of Mormon, their hearts “knit together in unity and in love one towards another.” (Mosiah 18:21)

May we take advantage of the opportunity we are blessed with here in the College of Humanities and at BYU to help each other and our students knit, or weave, hearts together through the common experience of stepping away from the world, discovering and sharing the grace of great things, and exercising faith together. In so doing we will discover greater love, one towards another, than we have yet experienced. We will also be blessed with tapestries of complexity, variety, color, and power that celebrate the universal gravitational influence of God in our individual lives and in a world we seek to improve.

May God bless us all throughout the coming school year.

[1] Parker Palmer. The Courage to Teach: Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher’s Life. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1998, p. 107.