History Department
History Department

History Department Commencement Ceremony 2010

Mon, June 7, 2010
History Department Commencement Ceremony 2010
Graduate Fatima Bhuriwala with friends who share her Longhorn pride and talk on the phone at the same time

Almost 200 graduates participated in the ceremony, bringing hundreds of family and friends with them. The ground floor of the auditorium filled to capacity with the crowd spilling over to the balcony as well.

Chair Alan Tully opened the ceremony by recognizing the graduates for their accomplishments and the faculty for their continued teaching and research excellence. Honors students were acknowledged along with students who had studied abroad by standing for a round of applause.

"Many of our students graduated in four years or less," Tully said. Of course, there are those who take a little longer because of family, children, work or the numerous other things that happen in life. "But this year, we have one very energetic, young-at-heart graduate who took the longest to earn his bachelor's."

How long was that — 52 years. He then asked Dr. Harvey Michael "Mike" Jones to stand and be recognized.

Jones currently teaches pathology at the University of North Carolina (UNC) School of Medicine in Chapel Hill. So how did this circuitous route to a bachelor's degree come about?

In 1958, he started at The University of Texas as a Plan II major with the goal of becoming a lawyer. But after three years, he changed his mind and decided to become a medical doctor instead. He scrambled to take the necessary science and biology courses in his remaining year. So with four years of coursework, but not his bachelor's, Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis waived the undergraduate degree requirement and admitted Jones.

After eight years as a Navy physician, he had a private practice for 29 years before joining the UNC faculty. But his love of history — especially medical history, continued to grow over this time.

Three years ago, he had the idea to see if there was any way he could complete his bachelor's degree in history. Academic Advising Coordinator Nancy Sutherland remembers their first conversation. "He just felt things were incomplete and wanted to see if he could finish it," she said.

It usually takes some investigative research for any returning student, she says, because degree requirements change over time, course numbers change, etc. It is a multi-layered process to figure out at anytime, but especially going back this far. However, advisors are known for going the extra mile(s) for returning students to assist them with exactly these kinds of situations — help them navigate through the "changed" university.

Jones completed the remaining coursework and walked across the stage at the Forty Acres to a huge round of applause for being the department's oldest-young-at-heart graduate.

Professors Judith Coffin, Bryant

Professors Judith Coffin, Bryant "Tip" Ragan, Howard Miller

The commencement speaker, Professor Ragan, was then introduced by History Associate Professor Martha Newman, chair of the Department of Religious Studies. Newman and Ragan first met as fellow graduate students while studying in Paris one summer.

She recounted the Thanksgiving dinner they shared in France. He had called to let her know that he'd found a turkey, which was very rare for that country. But there was a catch — he needed her assistance in preparing it for dinner. And by the way, it still had all its feathers. The crowd erupted in laughter.

"He is a person who always brings people together," Newman said. "He has the ability to get people to do things for him, all the while making it seem like it is to their benefit." A skill that administrators can always use and seek to cultivate. Now he is the chair of the Department of History at Colorado College in Colorado Springs.

Ragan began his address by offering his own congratulations to the graduates. He told them how humbled and happy he was to be asked to come back to give the commencement address. But even after almost 30 years, "Talking in front of my former professors, some of them here, and friends and colleagues is particularly nerve wracking. I feel as if I am going to be graded again," he said half jokingly, and everyone laughed.

He told the graduates how well he could remember his own graduation. "I was already a bit nostalgic about my years at Texas, and nervous about the new chapters of life that were waiting for me to write."

Ragan assured them that however nervous they may be about jobs and whatever else that might be awaiting them in the coming months and years, that they had been given the tools they needed to succeed because of their liberal arts education. It gives one "analytic, communication, problem solving, and leadership skills," he told them.

He posed the question, "What makes the University of Texas such a unique place to grow as a person?" He answered by mentioning the more obvious: the vast library collections and research centers, bright fellow students, and world-class faculty.

But as he pointed out, what is at the heart of all these attributes is intellectual freedom. "Freedom" was a word that he saw on practically a daily basis as he walked past the Tower with the biblical inscription, "Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free," on his way to class in Garrison Hall.

He remembered pondering this quote and the ideas that it brought forth. "What I was learning in the classroom seemed to suggest that the idea worked in reverse: you need freedom in order to search for the truth," he continued.

History Honors students proudly display their certificates(first row) Aasha Rajani, Elena Dufner, Rachel Burkhart,(second row) Michael Redding, Matthew Greenberg, Griffin Seifried, (last row) Adrian Chapa Montemayor, Benjamin Davis, Zach Cuyler

History Honors graduates proudly display their certificates: (first row) Aasha Rajani, Elena Dufner, Rachel Burkhart; (second row) Michael Redding, Matthew Greenberg, Griffin Seifried; (last row) Adrian Chapa Montemayor, Benjamin Davis, Zach Cuyler

"You historians will recall that in the middle ages that artes liberales comprised study that was appropriate for someone who was liber, free, not a slave. Liber implies being unrestricted, unprejudiced, frank, autonomous," Ragan said. "All too often, as the Wars of Religion between Catholics and Protestants in the Age of Reformation show, when people started from the position of 'knowing the truth,' it didn't lead to freedom, but rather to the oppression of other people who refused that particular truth."

He spoke about how fortunate both he and the graduates were to have been able to attend this university that provided them with that free environment necessary to pursue knowledge to the fullest extent. And with that freedom, they had chosen to study history.

"The most important course I took that put history to the question was a seminar on historiography taught by Howard Miller," Ragan recalled. "On the first day of class, Dr. Miller asked why we study history. We went around the circle, and most of us tried to sound profound, usually giving some kind of answer like, 'We study history so as not to repeat the mistakes of the past.'" The audience laughed at this story and the students quoting the ubiquitous phrase by philosopher, novelist George Santayana.

He remembered how Dr. Miller's smile just kept getting broader as they went around the room. He now better understands why his former professor was so amused. "What evidence do we have that anyone or any country for that matter ever really learns from the past?" Ragan queried.

"It's safe to say that I've thought about Howard's question pretty much every day since. So, Howard, you have a lot to answer for," which caused the crowd and stage filled with faculty to laugh.

He compared studying history to the social sciences and decided that the reason majoring in history was such an important decision is, "History is more contemplative, more meditative," he said. "I believe that it helps us uncover our humanity."

Acknowledging he could spend hours talking about history, he narrowed down his approach to three key points about how studying history "shapes us as individuals."

"First, history stokes our passions. Second, it encourages us to be more cosmopolitan by introducing us to historical subjects who are very different from us and consequently makes us more open-minded and tolerant. And third, it demands that we be honest — with ourselves, with our historical subjects, and with our own contemporaries," he enumerated.

He countered the usual notion that historians are "boorish, pedantic, and impractical...We are a passionate people! Studying the past — studying dead people — makes us more alive!" he said emphatically. He credited his professors at the university with cultivating his own passions and curiosity about what exactly happened, for instance, during the Middle Ages or Stuart England in the 17th century and why.

Danielle Loftin, Dr. Mike Jones, Berri Primo

Danielle Loftin, Dr. Harvey Michael Jones, Berri Primo

As for being more cosmopolitan, he said many people think that the main point to studying history is to learn that people are in essence like us. But if one delves deeper into history, what makes it so fascinating is learning about "how different people were from us and from each other," he said.

"'Meeting' people in the past, speaking with them, enables us, then, to think in ways that we would never have thought about in the isolation of the modern world," Ragan explained. This can't help but foster a more tolerant mindset.

Thirdly, "History insists that we be honest," he told them, "and you need freedom in order to find the truth, and the truth will make you free. You all know that we cannot know everything about the past, and as historians we have to be at times quite speculative and creative. Nonetheless, we believe that there is a good to being honest about history. Unlike politicians who let their ideological imperatives drive the teaching of history, real historians strive to be true to the past, regardless of what they find."

He gave a personal example of growing up as a gay teenager in Houston. There were so many negative stereotypes about homosexual men, but when he came to UT, his professors and fellow classmates made him feel valued. This freedom was instrumental in allowing him the space to explore who he really was.

"So what do I wish for you? I want to encourage you to take the idea of freedom that you have found here at UT and live that ideal wherever you find yourselves. Living freely creates more freedom. I want you to continue your interest in history, even if not everyone here becomes a 'professional historian.' I want you to live passionate lives. I want you to engage people who are different from you, whether they are dead or alive. And I want you to live and speak with integrity. These values are dear to us as historians, as Texans, and as humans," Ragan concluded.

Speaking of truths and other quotations, there was the usual mortar board embellishments with students' favorite, famous quotes. Graduating senior Berri Primo used plastic letters to affix hers, by the Broadway musical lyricist Dorothy Fields who wrote, "It's not where you start...it's where you finish."

Another one was from J.R.R. Tolkien's book, Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. "It's a dangerous business, going out your door...If you don't keep your feet. There is no knowing where you might be swept off to," Frodo would say quoting Bilbo's advice.

Related Links:
Colorado College, Colorado Springs
Professor Ragan's speech (PDF, 56K)

Story and photos by: M.G. Moore

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