2021 Senior Banquet Speech– Dr. Eric Rust

Remarks to Graduating BIC Seniors, April 8, 2021- By Eric C. Rust

Thank you, Dr. Schultz, for the kind invitation to speak to our graduating BIC seniors today.  Students, you may remember me from your freshman year as that crazy history guy in World Cultures II who would begin every lecture with a picture essay on some weird place far away, let’s say on a lake in China with a bunch of pagodas in it, or on a monastery off the coast of France, on the islands Columbus ran into on his voyages in the Caribbean, or on Jewish synagogues and cemeteries from Hamburg to Mandalay.  I will return to the theme of travel in a bit.

But first and foremost, I congratulate you on your accomplishment, hoping it was much more than an endurance contest and instead a special Baylor experience only you as a group could have enjoyed and presumably will treasure for the balance of your lives.

I am presently in my 25th and last year of teaching on the World Cultures II faculty team before retiring soon from Baylor after 38 years as a Professor of History.  In looking back, I wish to thank not only you BIC students and the BIC staff, but also my faculty colleagues in World Cultures II, for a wonderful ride.  Dr. Larson will soon become the last still teaching founding member of our course since when we started it back in the mid 1990s, while others like Dr. McGlashan, Dr. Tatum and Dr. Wang climbed on board early to lend our course a continuity in terms of personnel and subject coverage–and above all in friendship and collegiality—that probably no other BIC course can rival.

The BIC was born as a revolutionary innovation at the same time that Baylor’s History Department, for instance, scrapped all its courses on Western Civilization and has taught World History in its place ever since, the first and for a long time the only university in Texas to do so.  We rejected the notion that only the West, the privileged Occident, was worthy of study and admiration.  Instead, we have for the past quarter century embraced the persuasion that the cultures of all of humanity deserve, indeed demand, as much understanding and examination as feasible on their own terms.

In pursuing these goals, the BIC relied in the beginning entirely on volunteer faculty like myself who would teach BIC courses while on loan from their home departments all over campus.  Only gradually would the BIC gain the standing to hire at least some faculty for the exclusive purpose of teaching in the BIC.  The Zoris are a fine example of this.

Allow me to lay out briefly the three considerations that attracted me to the BIC. They all had to do with the central letter in our logo, the “I” in BIC:

First, we understand the world and its affairs to be inherently Interdisciplinary and Integrated–to be examined with faculty and students from across all academic disciplines while addressing issues and experiences in all fields and forms of human knowledge and activities.

Second, the BIC is Intercultural and Multicultural.  We cover not just the West, but all of humanity past and present, not as we would wish it to be, but as we find it.

Third, the BIC is International and Transnational.  Our focus is global and we are proud of it.  We take issue with insularity, parochialism, and narrow nativism.  We are proud citizens of the world, no matter whether our passports are blue like most of yours, or maroon (as mine is), whether we were born in Texas or 10,000 km from here (as I was), or whether our DNA differs markedly from those around us.

For my sixth birthday, my parents gave me a present I have cherished more than any other in my life-–a big, round, colorful globe–turnable, shining from within, tilted at 23.3 degrees, as it should, and emphasizing physical features rather than political divisions.  I played with it and studied it and experimented with it endlessly.  I measured distances and great-circle angles with a string.  I could figure out the time zone in Timbuktu and the depth of the ocean off Tahiti.  The ice cover of Antarctica was immense then—quite different from today. The globe found a place of honor and prominence on my desk and I looked at it constantly when I did my homework for school.  So kindly make a note of this.  When you have children of your own, do for them on their sixth birthday what my parents did for my brothers and me, and as my wife and I have done for our children: get each of them a beautiful globe.  There would be no need for instructions.

And that brings me to my last topic: Travel.

At the beginning of his lovely story “Honolulu,” my favorite short-story teller of all times, W. Somerset Maugham, declares, “The wise man travels only in his imagination.” And in his earlier travelogue on Spain, he had concluded, “It is much better to read books of travel than to travel oneself; he really enjoys foreign lands who never goes abroad”–meaning, of course, that the reality one would encounter on the ground would be forever disappointing, as it could rarely match the splendor and purity and romance of what one had imagined it to be from afar.  Yet the strength of Maugham was also that sometimes he would not listen to his own advice.  He does, after all, go to Hawaii, and to a thousand other places besides, and there meets a Western traveler whose story, perhaps, he would never have listened to, or heard, if he had met the man in London or Paris or New York. On his 90th birthday—he had enjoyed Japan and Italy while in his 80s—Maugham confessed that perhaps his greatest wish now was to go back to the Orient from his fancy villa in France. “I have one desire left,” he wrote, with his powers failing, “which is to return to that lost village in the jungle I had encountered so long ago in the Far East.” In truth, as every reader of the man knows, he had never really left that place at all.

We in the BIC and especially in World Cultures II travel much in our imagination. Through our readings or crazy picture essays or visits to churches, synagogues, mosques, temples, museums, restaurants with and without belly dancers, theater performances and concerts, we seek to offer a glimpse and taste of that wider world out there.  But nothing can rival or replace the real thing.  We faculty of World Cultures II have been blessed with being able to travel to faraway places and cultures as a group for the past 25 years, about once every second or third year: twice to China; once each to Andalusia in Roman and Islamic Spain; to Reformation Germany, Bohemia, Switzerland, and France; to Renaissance Italy; to Celtic, Visigoth and Christian Spain and Portugal; to what’s left of the Viking culture in Denmark, Sweden, and Iceland; and to the world of the Incas in Peru, including Cuzco, the Sacred Valley, and, of course, Machu Pichu. A scheduled trip recently to medieval France fell victim to the virus.  Baylor has been helpful in picking up some of the tab, but every dollar, euro, crown, yüan or sol that we spent out of our own pockets was a minor sacrifice to make compared to the rich experiences we carried home to our students and the treasured friendships we could form and deepen as colleagues.

Follow our lead!  You are young and energetic.  By the time I was your age, I had visited virtually every free country in Europe, had plowed the waters of the Baltic, the North Sea, the English Channel and the Eastern Atlantic while serving in the German Navy, and had been to South Africa, modern-day Namibia, and Angola.  Save up your money; don’t spend it frivolously or mindlessly!  Become a little like my parents who never spent their savings on a house of their own, even though they could have afforded one, and who never bought a car with more than 36 horsepower.  (I am told the average horsepower of student vehicles at Baylor is about 350.  One would suspect the possibility for some savings right there.)  My father, by the way, always paid cash for his cars and had the dealer remove the car radios as unnecessary and distracting ballast.  With all the money we saved our family would travel wide and far, summer after golden summer, usually for six or more weeks at a time!

Be imaginative!  For example, lend a global dimension to your honeymoon.  Instead of embarking on some brain-constricting cruise on the Love Boat or shaking hands with Mickey Mouse in Disneyland, begin your married life at the majestic Alhambra Palace Hotel in Granada, Spain, or at the Bayerischer Hof on the island of Lindau in Lake Constance, or at a quaint hotel overlooking West Lake in Hangzhou in China, or at the Inkaterra Hacienda Urubamba in Peru’s Andes.  You will be amazed to discover how breathtakingly magical such places are and yet amazingly affordable if you plan it right.

Yes, we will have to sit out the Corana crisis for a while longer, but remember, you can always start your journeys in your imagination before actually hitting the ground.  So, do get vaccinated, but not against the travel bug.

Bon Voyage!

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