Monday, February 4, 2008

Hopeful Reflections

To the most non-specialized of non-specialists (i.e., me!), one of the most initially-striking and longest-lasting aspects of the Oriental Institute is the number of truly great minds that have called it home. I am not referring to these people's primary (or secondary or beyond) scholarly foci, which I took and take on faith, but rather to the breadth of their learning and their eager engagement with the world. That might sound trite, but it is not--I know plenty of professors who, as strong as they may be in their own fields, have little grasp of anything outside their bailiwicks. Even at the famously interdisciplinary University of Chicago, the Institute stands out as a place where people breach borders and knowledge does indeed grow from more to more.

One such scholar is Robert McCormick Adams, sometime (as the English so fetchingly say) Dean of the Social Sciences Division and Provost of the University of Chicago, Director of the Oriental Institute, and Secretary of the Smithsonian. At its 75th Anniversary Gala, the Institute was fortunate to have Professor Adams deliver his thoughts about where the Institute had been and where it might go in the years that were then ahead. It was one of the first things I read upon joining the Institute staff, and it had a profound effect on me. Rereading it now, not so many years later, I am equally struck, though much more with sadness over lost opportunities, none of which any of us could reasonably have predicted. It remains, despite the setbacks of the last ten years, a supremely thought-provoking reflection on what the best of the academy can be:

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