Monday, February 03, 2014

Interview with Professor Emeritus, Dr. Richard Gerberding

Dr. Richard Gerberding, a professor in the Department of History at UAH, retired last year after twenty-nine years of teaching. The good professor emeritus is still alive and kicking, and even teaching Latin up in Oregon. Some retirement! Dr. Gerberding answered the following questions later last year and provided some wonderful memories and advice. Thanks for everything, Dr. G.!

Why did you decide to pursue a graduate and doctoral degree in history, as opposed to continuing your studies in psychology?

 The reason had more to do with Psychology than history. The more I studied psychology, the more I realized that it was, in its modern academic form, an empty science - more or less jargonized common sense. I wanted to learn about human nature, and it was pretty obvious, even to a 23 year-old punk, that history was the far better teacher of that.

One of your greatest legacies is your creation and sponsorship of The Society for Ancient Languages. Why did you decide to begin the Society?

 I didn't. It was the students at the time who did, under the leadership of Ken Swaim. They came to me and asked if I would lead an informal reading group in the evenings so that they could move beyond the rather disjointed readings in Wheelock to real and coherent Latin texts. The Society grew naturally out of that reading group.

What do you think is the ultimate aim of an education in history, and in education itself?

 Those are huge questions, and I cannot pretend to answer them. I have thought about them a lot and continue to do so, but have only come up with guides, thoughts, and partial answers. As you know, I differentiate strongly between education and training. Education is the matter of the undergraduate, training that of the graduate student or someone attending a tech/vocational school. The undergraduate studies history, the graduate history student is in training to become a historian. So education has to do with the student, perhaps even more than the discipline he/she chooses. Otium cum dignitate is high on my list of education's most important purposes. Politics is another - helping the young become critically aware and developing their sense of social responsibility so that they live larger than their own little patch.  All of this has to do with humanitas - refinement -, the attempt to polish and hone the talents and breaks we are given and raise them to a level beyond the selfish.

While you taught history, you also taught Latin. Indeed, language is a passion for you. What is the significance of studying language, especially in tandem with history?

 There are two reasons for studying languages as an academic exercise; I leave the practical ones to the business school. 1) It is fun. 2) Nothing more quickly and more fundamentally teaches you a different way of thinking than to try it in a language not your own. Both these reasons are important to people studying history.

While it is cliché to ask, what are some of your best memories from your time at UAH?

 It is not a cliché: one of the great things about being old is that you have a lot of memories. My professional life was largely that of a teacher, and so my best memories are not of UAH [...] but of its students. One vignette that continues to give me pleasure happened years ago at a Convivium. Our distinguished speaker that year was Julia Gaisser, professor of classics at Bryn Mawr, most years rated as America's best undergraduate institution. After dinner, she said to me privately, “You know, Dick, I am jealous of you.” 
“Huh?” I responded, “How could you, coming from Bryn Mawr and being such a famous scholar possibly be jealous of me?”
“It's your students,” she said. “They are hungry for learning. My students are much less passionate about it. By the time I get them they have seen it all, have been to Europe twice, and never really develop academic passions. Your students do.” Whatta memory. She said it far better than I ever could. 
You are currently teaching Latin in Oregon now that you have retired, if only from UAH. What other plans do you have for your post-teaching life? 
 I have no plans. I am enjoying my current adventure in the Pacific Northwest, but it is not part of a plan. A wise friend of mine, retired now about six years, said, “Make no important decisions about your retired life until you have been retired at least two years.” I think that is good advice.
 Is there any advice you would like to give to university students?

Advice to the young?
 You have heard this sermon many times. The advice I would give to young undergraduates, and did give to them for decades, is the same that my father gave to me as I walked down the front steps of our house setting off for college on a Greyhound bus. “Look around and then follow your academic passions.” And I, like most all-knowing youth with sensible and wise parents, didn't. At least not at first. Practical considerations, such as future employment prospects or even a sense of social responsibility, should take a decided backseat to what cranks your tractor when deciding what to study. This includes the obvious caveat that the subjects you choose should be ones of intellectual and academic value. Basketball-arena concession-stand management should not enter the field no matter what your passion for basketball. Take good professors for your General Education Requirements and treat these courses as exploratory - find out what which ones make the heart beat faster. Then go. Worry about jobs and the world later; if you get yourself educated first, you will be in a far better position to tackle the practical things later.  Ipse dixi.

Photo Courtesies:
1: Gerberding in Office: The Society for Ancient Languages
2: Gerberding, Students, and Hotel Staff in Rome: Cameron Umphrey
3: Gerberding clearing out Office: UAH Department of History

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