Duke professor leaves classroom, hopes to restore importance of language, history, literature

Retiring classics scholar hopes for revival of language, history

jstancill@newsobserver.com April 29, 2012 

  • He was ‘the one’

    Did Peter Burian stop the Nixon library at Duke?

    In a way, yes. In 1981, Duke was in the throes of a scorching debate about whether to allow a library on campus for the papers of former president Richard Nixon, a Duke law alumnus.

    The university’s faculty body, the Academic Council, was scheduled for a vote at the beginning of the fall semester.

    Burian, who opposed the library, was nowhere near Durham. On a trip to visit his brother in Philadelphia, the professor had suffered a ruptured appendix and was rushed into emergency surgery.

    Back in Durham, history professor Syd Nathans had done a head count of the council. The vote would be a tie, Nathans concluded.

    “He called me up and said, ‘You have to be back here for the vote, it’s going to be that close.’ ” Burian recalled. “And I said, ‘I’m not supposed to get out of bed.’”

    The next thing Burian knew, he was tucked into the reclining passenger seat of his tiny Datsun. The driver was a teacher on strike, a friend of his sister-in-law, and the trip was one painful bump after another.

    But Burian made it to the meeting, where he cast a “no” vote. Library opponents won by a single vote.

    The trustees aimed to push ahead anyway and the faculty rose up in fury that its vote, even a close vote, would be so disregarded.

    Eventually, though, the proposal faded away and the library was built instead in California.

— In a narrow seminar room at Duke University, Peter Burian leads 14 students through ancient Rome to the palatial Baths of Caracalla, where 1,600 Romans at a time could soak in pools of cool, warm and hot water.

His mellifluous voice narrates the slideshow from his laptop. The imperial baths, he said, were a place where all of society gathered, where any Roman could rub shoulders with another. “There’s nothing like taking all of your clothes off to level the playing field,” Burian told the students.

It’s the end of the semester, and that means the students are witnessing the decline of the Roman Empire, with parallels to the modern economic meltdown in Greece and other parts of Europe.

For 44 years, Burian, a professor of classical studies, has transported his students to the ancient world, a place inhabited by emperors and slaves, gods and heroes. And along the way, he has taught them about their own time and place, and maybe a bit about themselves.

Burian’s last class at Duke was Wednesday. At 68, he’s retiring from the classroom, but will spend a year as dean of humanities at Duke, where he will put his wisdom to work on larger questions about the study of languages, literature, history, philosophy, religion.

It’s a point of critical tension for American higher education. For decades, students have been turning away from those subjects in favor of social sciences, business and science. In 1967, nearly 18 percent of all U.S. undergraduate degrees awarded were in the humanities; in 2009, the share had dropped to about 8 percent, according to data from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

It’s no wonder. Any conversation about education these days seems to revolve around “STEM,” the acronym for science, technology, engineering and mathematics. People talk about higher education as job preparation, and parents who pay hefty tuition bills get antsy if their children aren’t acquiring marketable skills.

Amid the rush to math and science, though, there is a growing chorus of those who say the humanities may actually be great preparation for a complex world. Earlier this month, about 250 higher education leaders from across the country gathered at Wake Forest University for a conference called “Rethinking Success: From the Liberal Arts to Careers in the 21st Century.” There, a CEO, an economist and former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice talked about the value of a broad education that challenges students to be critical thinkers and creative problem solvers.

Burian, too, believes there is lifelong value to understanding what happened 2,000 years ago, to digging into the difficult works of Virgil, Homer and Euripides.

“There’s a place for stuff that really does kind of make you slow down and think, make you question whether you understand what’s going on, make you wonder about your own beliefs,” Burian said. “The greater value is discovering yourself in some way.”

Slow down, think

In his calm, gentle way, Burian urges his students to reflect. He requires them to bring a question to class each day, which provides a launch pad for discussion.

Burian arrived at Duke in 1968, long before laptops and iPads, Facebook and Twitter. Students are as smart and accomplished as ever, he said, though they don’t seem to read as much as they used to.

“People are flooded with information,” he said. “Sometimes I think that we should just stop using the word information for a decade or so until we can figure it out exactly what we mean by it. Everything is information. It’s all out there and the idea is to get as much of it as quickly as you can. That sort of leaves open the question of what you do with it. I guess that that’s my feeling about where the humanities ought to come in.”

Duke is taking a new look at how these subjects fit into the university’s curriculum. Last year, the university received a five-year, $6 million grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to revitalize undergraduate humanities.

Part of the effort will look at how the traditional fields fit in with vast changes in society. So, for example, studying the Arab Spring revolutions requires understanding technology and social networks; it also must include questions about language, culture and history.

“We want to be with it, we want to be modern, we want not to seem tedious and old-fashioned and frumpy,” Burian said in his office, surrounded by floor-to-ceiling shelves crammed with books. “But really, a lot of what the traditional humanities have been good for is not speeding up and creating all the information that you can, but in slowing down, reflecting, developing the imagination, taking the long view and thinking about how to think. And if we don’t have that role, I’m not sure where it’s going to come from.”

So there is work to do, and that’s what Burian will sink his teeth into next year as dean.

It shouldn’t be a problem for the scholar in Greek drama and literary translation who has written five books, numerous articles and taught more than 50 different courses during his years at Duke. Even in his last semester in the classroom, he took on a new course and taught every weekday – unusual for a senior faculty member.

He takes on demanding translations, speaks beautiful Italian and he lends his ear to students, said Tolly Boatwright, a professor in classical studies.

“He offers students a way to connect with humanities and being human,” Boatwright said. “He listens to students and draws them out and encourages them to develop in that way.”

Haun Saussy enrolled at Duke in 1977, and decided to try Burian’s course in beginning Greek. By Christmas, he was reading Plato.

“Right away I decided that being a Greek major was the most interesting thing I could do,” said Saussy, now a professor of Chinese and comparative literature at the University of Chicago. “He was just a terrific teacher ... He was just a great observer and commentator and made it come alive.”

Adapting at Duke

Burian was raised around Boston and in Iowa City, where his father was an ophthalmologist at the University of Iowa. His family was dominated by science and medical types, and he tried it himself, working at a hospital kidney lab for two summers.

It wasn’t for him. A bookish youngster, he enrolled at the University of Michigan, where his freshman adviser encouraged him to try Greek. He was hooked, and went on to write his Princeton dissertation on Greek tragedy.

After he took a job at Duke, Burian had to overcome his anxiety about standing up in front of a classroom. Short and just 25, he wore a tie to class every day so the students knew he was the professor.

“I’d never taught anybody anything,” he said. “My greatest fear was that 40 or 45 minutes in I’d run out of things to say and everybody would see me for the fraud that I was.”

So he over-prepared, every night writing and refining his lectures. “Once I relaxed a little bit,” he said, “I realized I loved teaching.”

Then, of course, he had to learn about the South. When he tried to start a chapter of Faculty Against the Vietnam War, he was called on the carpet by an administrator who told him campus mail could not be used for private activities. And crossing the parking lot on the way from a protest in Army surplus gear, the scruffy-bearded Burian encountered the Duke president.

“Terry Sanford emerges and looks at me with this obvious what-the-hell-is-this-person-doing-on-my-campus look and said, ‘Howdy.’ And I said, ‘Howdy.’”

Though he may have started as an outsider, Burian would become something of an institution at Duke. He chaired his department and served on dozens of university committees; he led the main faculty governance body, the Academic Council, in 2000-2002.

Along the way, he got a front-row seat as Duke blossomed from a good regional campus to a national player and a top-10 university. Duke’s rise was partly due to its investment in humanities, Burian said, when a provost realized he could build a first-rate English department for the price of a few chemists with their labs and graduate students.

Back at the classroom, Burian fumbles a bit with a cord that doesn’t work with his laptop. During the slideshow, he clicks on the wrong spot, and the slides disappear. A student helps him get back on track with his mouse.

Burian may not be completely comfortable with the latest technology. But when he assigns his students “The Iliad,” he knows that they gain something from the difficult epic poem.

They ride the emotional journey of Achilles, the fierce warrior who is ultimately a fragile character.

“In the end, the kinds of human issues that we all face are identifiable,” Burian said. “There’s something important about recognizing that people have been worrying about the same things, arguing about them, desperately trying to understand them, forever.”

Stancill: 919-829-4559

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