2018 Senior Banquet Speech — Dr. Bill Pitts

Bill Pitts, Department of Religion
Coordinator of World Cultures II, 1995-2018
April 11, 2018


Greetings to the BIC graduating class of 2018 and to BIC faculty and staff. I am deeply grateful for the privilege of having been part of this program since its inception. Thank you for the opportunity to speak to you this evening.

I have distributed a list of great books prepared by Baylor faculty. I wonder how many of these you have read. I was appalled when I saw the list. I had read only five or six, but it spurred me on to wider reading. Education is a lifelong process.

This evening I would like to address briefly three topics that have been central to my life and work.
(1) First, the nature of the university
(2) Second, Baylor’s place among Universities
(3)Third, the Baylor Interdisciplinary Core

I. First, the University

A. The impact of a university

You have now completed a degree at Baylor University. Congratulations! Research shows that as a result of this intense preparation in responsibility you will likely:
1. Work and make friends with a comparable class of people
2. Enjoy significantly more financial security than non-graduates of a university
3. Open your life to further opportunities of education and development, promotion, . . . and so on—

Again, congratulations.

B. What is the nature and task of a university?

1. Edwin Gaustad, a leading scholar of American religion and distinguished Baylor graduate, summarized the tasks of the university in two brief statements:
a. To transmit the culture (teaching) and
b. To discover new truth (research)

2. Alfred North Whitehead (1861-1947), eminent British thinker and sometime Harvard professor of a century ago, wrote in the The Aims of Education that the essence of a liberal education comes by knowledge of masterpieces of thought (philosophy, history, science, etc.) as well as by knowledge of imaginative literature, art and religion. The BIC strives to introduce students to many of these masterpieces of the cultural heritage.

3. Gilbert Highet (1906-1978), well known classicist of the generation following Whitehead and author of The Art of Teaching (1950), counselled students to prepare:
a. By learning the language they would work in
b. By reading the primary sources in the original
c. By becoming familiar with relevant secondary literature
d. And then trusting their own capability in presenting their arguments and conclusions

This description of research sounds simple, but it is pretty demanding, as you will discover if your write a thesis, dissertation or book.

4. During our generation, in The Idea of a University Jaroslav Pelikan identifies four critical components essential for a great university; namely, highly developed:
a. Teaching
b. Research
c. Library resources and
d. Academic press

This is quite a list, and it has all been in play for a long time at Yale where he worked.

C. His fourfold criteria is a challenge for other aspiring universities such as Baylor.
1. Before 2000 Baylor qualified on only one of these four points—teaching and preparing people for life and for vocations.
2. Baylor produced some outstanding teachers, including
*Henry Trantham, a Rhodes scholar
*A. J. Armstrong, English professor for whom the Armstrong-Browning building is named
*Ann Miller, inspired by Armstrong
*Historian Jim Vardaman, Ann’s brother
*Bob Reid, the historian who brought the past to life for me

These people all inspired students in extraordinary ways through their lives, their passion and their delivery of ideas. They shared the power of language and story in unique ways to touch imaginations of countless students.

II. Baylor’s Place as a University

A. For the past two decades the dominant academic narrative at Baylor has been to shift to research and publication.

B. The shift may be outlined in three stages during a 25-year period:
1. President Abner McCall (1961-1981) emphasized good teaching, Every year at the fall faculty meeting he emphasized that Baylor did not have a publish or perish policy, but rather a teach or perish policy. A law professor himself, he insisted on excellence in teaching.
2. President Herbert Reynolds (1981-1995) began to emphasize research. He often said, “We do not require research, but we encourage it, and he supported summer sabbaticals to facilitate both teacher development and small-scale research.
3. President Robert Sloan (1995-2005) moved to require research for tenure at Baylor. In order to achieve tenure in my department now, for instance, one must publish a book and three articles in refereed journals (or nine articles) in the first 6 years at the university.

C. And so the university is serious about making contributions to scholarship.

D. Two criteria remained
1. Digitization and the Internet have revolutionized access to library resources. It is no longer as essential that libraries spend fortunes collecting original copies of manuscript, or that scholars travel to distant archives or libraries to access hundreds of thousands of documents. These vast resources are now available in the researcher’s home.
2. Baylor Press has increased its productions enormously, aspiring to join other notable university presses.

E. So by Pelikan’s criteria, for achieving academic excellence we are on the way at Baylor..

III. The Baylor Interdisciplinary Core at Baylor:

I will recount a couple of memories of the early days of the BIC

A. First, the Beginnings
1. A couple of years before BIC was organized, President Reynolds asked me to chair a committee to explore the organization of a creative general education curriculum for all Baylor students. The committee met often during the year.
2. However, there were a couple of problems we did not work through:
a. One was the assumption that we could create a program for the entire undergraduate student body of about 2000 (now about 3000).
b. The second problem was the size and complexity of the committee—25 people from a diverse collection of disciplines.
3. As you can imagine, people resisted for a variety of reasons. In essence, they did not want to lessen current requirements for their majors nor add hours to graduation requirements to achieve an interdisciplinary program.
4. My reluctant report to the President was that there did not seem to be a will to go forward with this innovative project.
5. However, not to be denied, the next year President Reynolds appointed Bob Baird to chair a committee addressing the issue. By reconceivig the BIC as a self-selecting program of 200/2000 (200/3000 now) instead of a requirement for the entire university, it succeeded.

B. Story Two: Bill Cooper’s Commitment to this program
1. Bill Cooper, a philosophy professor who still teaches in the BIC, at that time was serving as Dean of Arts and Sciences. He was supportive of the idea.
2. And so we began to create something new and valuable.
3. Why would I be interested? I had a double major in history and religion. I had taught Western Civilization in history departments for nine years before joining the Baylor Religion Department.
a. I loved my Western Civilization courses. But it was time to look more broadly at World Cultures, not just European cultures.
b. Second, much of our material for general education courses was excerpts pre-digested and delivered in textbooks and lectures. Now we would read excerpts from masterpieces and set aside time for student discussion.
c. Third, we would have mane opportunities for connecting disciplines. We would be interdisciplinary.
4. World Cultures II was charged with teaching four major components, including China.
5. Our faculty did not know the culture at all so we asked Bill Cooper about the possibility of visiting this ancient culture. Frankly we were amazed and profoundly grateful that he said “yes.” He found funds to send us to China which vastly improved our knowledge, and equally important, inspired us to continue learning more. As I recall, Ann Marie Bowery was on that trip and remarked, “I want to see the pyramids.” She planted a seed for future travel in my mind. I’m glad she did.

C. Values of BIC—There are many rewards for being in the BIC. One is learning from Faculty.
I illustrate by paying tribute to the BIC colleagues I have worked with for ten or more years.
1. Eric Rust’s video essays are aesthetic masterpieces, combining art, music and poetic use of language.
2. Ann McGlashan reminded us that it is okay to take some leisure time, where creativity is more likely to flourish. Her presence and lectures made me aware of the roles of women in multiple cultures.
3. Paul Larson’s passion for Spain remains undimmed. He models the love of other cultures and the value of travel and living abroad.
4. Lynn Tatum introduces students to essentials of Islam and Judaism with energy of delivery as explosive as it was 25 years ago.
5. Having Xin Wang join our faculty meant that Chinese culture came alive in students’ imaginations in ways no non-Asian (the rest of the faculty) was capable of achieving.
6. We also have recently added newer colleagues: David Zori, Colleen Zori, Ivo Novakovic, Craig Clarkson, and John Michael Marrs. All of them add to the richness of the course through specialized knowledge and insights we would never acquire individually.

D. Value of the BIC Studies
1. One of the values and great contributions of the BIC is its aspiration to sustain and promote Baylor’s tradition of high quality teaching and learning. Team teaching and student discussion offer a special site for academic growth.
2. I don’t have the time to re-count the many values of the BIC for students, but you have experienced them for yourselves for four years—diversity, tolerance, breadth of knowledge, analysis of issues, critical reasoning and writing . . . The list goes on. You have worked hard at engaging new ideas and expanding your horizons.

In conclusion
1. Value your university degree. You have accomplished something of value which can never be taken away from you.
2. Value Baylor for the treasure of opening intellectual vistas, providing a place for finding significant friends, preparing you for vocations, and for providing models for your life. Also commend Baylor for aspirations to be a better university than she already is.
3. Finally, value the BIC for the way it has informed your mind, but perhaps even more for the way it has formed your life.

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