William Harris

B.A., M.A. PhD. Harvard

Prof. Em. Classics, Middlebury College



When the Harvard Class of '48 published the 50th year Class Yearbook, just a year short of the much anticipated Millennium, I found myself buried somewhere toward the middle of a ponderous six hundred page volume bound in that traditional Harvard off-crimson, a weighty tome which nobody would consider an exciting piece of bedtime reading. Turning the pages idly, I was surprised how tame and flaccid these undergraduates had become in the course of their years, one drearily listing the grandchildren, or complaining about working at the same old job, almost hinting something about the same old wife. I put down the book and decided I could do a better bio entry here on the web, where it can be seen more easily than in a Yearbook that nobody outside that year would ever read. Let me proceed:



After doing the Classics as an undergraduate, I followed my studies in what was then known as Classical Philology later called Linguistics, continuing to read widely in Greek and Latin literature, and finally taking my Ph.D. at Harvard under the redoubtable Joshua Whatmough. I was only twenty four when I went out to teach the Classics, first at Whitman College in Walla Walla, then a few years later I migrated to an unremarkable Stanford, in the days just before the great explosion into its present grandeur; and in l957 I came to Middlebury College which was then a small school in Vermont with little reputation at that time beyond its innovative Summer Language Schools.

After the wave of the post-war GI students had faded, the colleges were generally in financial trouble, and many had dropped their Classics programs entirely. Coming here in l957 I was able to start up a strong language based Classics Department at Middlebury, teaching simultaneously as many as six courses in Greek and Latin to small tutorial classes, along with Ancient History for the general college students. Latin was started from the level of four strong years of high school preparation, some students came with a year or two of Greek but most had to start that from scratch. All this was in the days before the advent of Classics In Translation, it was a time when Classics meant the study of literature in the original language. But a new General Education was in the wind, and this would soon be for the Classics the end of the tutorial relationship between the teacher and a class of less than ten. It was a time for college administrations to try to adjust education to large numbers of students and put education, or Ed-Biz as it was soon called, on a proper paying basis.

At that time, as I entered the field of college teaching, I naively believed that I would be working with faculty of the sharpest acumen, in an atmosphere where one could explore new ideas and speak out openly on any subject. It was some years later that I discovered this was an illusion, that generally that the faculty were quite ordinary people given to small talk, while the fine minds regularly got fired for one reason or another. It was soon clear that freedom of speech in the Groves of Academe was always a matter of grave risk.

A number of years later two things changed for me. I opposed a tyrannical President in a faculty voting issue which I surprisingly won, and I became suddenly an academic pariah. Colleagues started to worry about associating with a disfavored person, there was a feeling of apprehension in the air as independent teachers were weeded out while others bowed in silence. I put my energies into my students and probably did my best teaching in the course of that period. There were advantages too, there were no more committee assignments, no wasted coffee time with idle colleagues, and bit by bit I developed other interests in new areas, while thoroughly enjoying my teaching with energetic and interested students whom I attracted.

I had developed an interest in sculpture in the l960's when I bought a used electric welder from a farmer down the road. I learned to use it and soon welded up various polychromed steel sculptures. I have continued doing sculpture in various style and sizes through the years, which you can see on my . sculpture page . But there were other areas of interest to explore. I taught college courses about the ideas of Buckminster Fuller, finally working with students on a design for a 40' geodesic dome which I built with them in l971, living there for several years in an unconventional style, my own man on my own terms.

I found opportunities to develop new ideas through courses in music improvisation, or in stone sculpture using Vermont marble under the supervision of the visiting master artist Charles Wells, and I even developed a part-time business in machine-shop with my son John who had finished college here and was looking for a different kind of activity. We built a large 2000 sq. ft. workshop and filled it with all sorts of metal working machinery, learning a great deal about the reality of the intellectual 'nuts and bolts' which held together the core of our industrial society, in those days before the electronic age had dawned.

By l970 things had begun to change. With the appearance of Classics in Translation it became clear to college administrators that classes in English with a hundred students were preferable to intense classes in Latin or Greek with five students. Thus began the slow shift of the classics field to a new Classical Area Studies, which could be done largely in English, in some colleges without any classical language work at all. At times there seemed little difference between the language trained Classicist and his English Department colleague who could probably teach "Homer and the Epic Tradition" just as well as he did it, but in English translation.

All this change originally had economic roots, as the college administrators sharpened their accounting pencils. But also many teachers preferred lecturing to large classes in an engaging histrionic style, as against poring over a Greek text wrapped deep in scholarship. As the century pointed to an end, the Classics started to become popular again, but now as a general social and historical study, while the intensive language work languishes. The Classics may well end up in another quarter century like Sanskrit, a specialty language study preserved in the major universities, while interest in Indian history, geography and religion becomes available via the Internet to an ever wider public interest.

On the other hand what we have now in the new Classical Area Studies is far more liberal and worthwhile than the lock-step, forced Classics of l910 when years of Latin and Greek were required in any good college simply for a B.A. degree But if we had modern, improved language teaching methods we should be able to get students firmly into Greek or Latin in college. Chinese and Japanese are well taught in a four year program, often to students who are not specifically planning to go on professionally with the language, so why not Greek or Latin? First, it is because modern college Classics teachers are often happy to lecture to a hundred rather than coach five language students, and second because the Classics have never developed any modern language teaching methods, which would be needed for reaching a worthwhile reading knowledge.

In l978 I entered a new marriage, this time with a young Korean woman who after University had become a social worker in Seoul. A son soon appeared, my life became more regulated under Min's, or Jung Soon Kim's, watchful eye , my clothes were now neater, my family living far more traditional, and we both look back over the years with a good feeling of satisfaction. Our son James, having finished his BA at Oberlin, is out in the real-world working in a bio-tech laboratory, while he is thinking what new area might come next for him.

It was in l988 that I regretfully taught my last class, noting to myself that over all my years of teaching I could not recall one hour which was not engaging and, to me at least, thoroughly interesting. To be sure, not every student would have agreed with me, there were some who fell asleep in class, others who never followed the elaborate train my speculative reasoning. I never felt that it was not my function to explain complicated things in simplified terms, or to put disordered information into order as preparation for a final exam. I believed quizzes were to check out ideas, not see if the student had actually done the reading. That was his business, that was what his Dad paid for, and if he wanted to slip by without work, that was something he could probably do for the rest of his life. What I wanted as feedback from my students was the appearance of a new idea, especially one I had never thought of, sometime one which I could not really understand. A Dean asked my what my main aim was, to which I said it was 'to confuse the student'. He was shocked, added "But you meant later to explain it to him and put it right?" He had little idea why I responded with a firm NO.

When I finally retired after so many year teaching, I felt the response which most teachers find right off. There is a new sense of freedom but at the same time one loses the audience of students who are always receptive to new ideas. The geodesic Dome, which had started as a brand new idea with my students and excited great interest in l970 for its efficient design using light materials from an engineering aspect, was also felt to represent deep spiritual values. We were visited by astonished grade school classes as well as by hippies rushing up from the highway to ask if the dome really made a difference in spiritual sensitivity. The building was interesting to live in for a while, but when it began to leak and my wife found she didn't have enough pots to catch all the dripping places, we began to think of building something else. When the Dome was taken down in 2007, it was no longer a great idea, is was obsolete and it needed repairs, and that was clearly a mark of the end of an era.

In l990 it was obvious that we needed a new house. This was a great new project for me, I was in good health and had building experience in hand, so we started to build a new house on a high ridge in Shoreham, a pleasant twenty minute drive from the college libraries. I had been interested in much of the design work of Frank Lloyd Wright and in building I followed many of the features of his various later houses, such as a low pitch roof with large overhangs, wide boards always in the horizontal plane, tall windows at proper latitude to get best winter heat and light, but all atop a well insulated basement for workshop space. Wright did not understand the amount of earth-warmth which an insulated basement wall of heavy concrete can retain.

I did the design myself on a CAD program, contracted and supervised the rough work while we did all the trim and finish ourselves. I love building. The design and thinking always complements the hard physical work you have to do, and Min and I are a great carpentry team. We may fight like any married pair, but we never do it on the job.

I was now devoting my time to composing music, I had a l928 Steinway-L totally rebuilt, but recently replaced it was a remarkable 6'1" Falcone grand, which I find a superior instrument with remarkable purity and delicacy of sound. I am recording carefully planned real-time compositions which might sound like the form of Bach's "Inventions" done in Schoenbergian pan-tonal mode with a Bartokian sense of voice-leading. A jazz expert told me I had things in common with Cecil Taylor, another with Thelonious Monk, and that may be. But I keep my eyes on Bach while my hands do the rest as cutting edge of the mind. I can look forward to more of the music that I have had in my mind since undergraduate days.

Just before retiring, I had secured funding from the Sloan Foundation for working on a computerized Latin Dictionary, as an innovation that I felt at the time would make the student of Latin far more efficient and his reading more accessible. I published it in l992 well ahead of the crowd of computer aided Latin materials which soon followed, and it is still available on a CD along with my book "The Intelligent Person's Guide to Latin". Colleagues asked why I would ever want to do an e-Dictionary. The answer by now in this electronic world, is obvious.

Learning in l990 how to use a simple Mac Plus computer, I quickly saw a new horizon appearing. Two years later I pulled out the boxes of stored papers from a lifetime of teaching and thinking, and decided that I could effectively become the desktop publisher of my writings, right here at my rural terminal. What was not in ascii format I ran through a scanner, I cut, edited and pasted and one summer with aid from young son James who then grasped HTML better than I did. I finally put the whole corpus on the web at the website where you are now reading this Bio on the index page. At first this was just a few short papers, then some much longer articles, all cramped in a nine inch window interpreted by the now obsolete LYNX text program which was all we had to work with then. But by l995 things had begun to change, then space was of less importance and I could write an article of over 40k in one amazing piece!

With the house done and time to range over the twenty five acres of wooded hilly land, with the yard at last turning into a fine lawn with a great vegetable garden stretching out toward the ancient stone wall boundary, I could spend time again with my academic inclinations in the study. Writing out new ideas I had never had time to develop with classes or with colleagues. I could edit and hand-write html code for a book-like web appearance which now could reach out worldwide. Retirement was for me like opening the door to a field of new activities, working as Homer had said "with hands and words". As the website became larger with over 250 articles and a worldwide use by people in many lands, I understood that I didn't need a college for my academic interests any more. There was the whole world out there!

I am still surprised how much varied thinking went into that website. In high school I was bookish, I eagerly perused Jowett's Plato and fastened on Hippias the Elean with pure delight. He wove his cloak, made his sandals, composed an ode to commemorate the race he won, and sang it with his own lyre in hand. Plato looked askance at him, but I was delighted and got his message immediately: Do everything you can yourself, in short become what would eons later be called a Renaissance Man. In this age of specialization there are costs to all this but I held to my ideal firmly. The proof of the pudding is found in the materials in this website, which people often remark has the mark of the work of a Renaissance Man. Yes, that is what I always thought a teacher should be like. a person interested in more than his discipline, a citizen of the ideas of the world.

Over the years I have kept an eye out for a piece of firewood before letting it go into the winter stove, to see if there is a broken corner which looks a little like the face of a Druid priest, just peering out of the maple log. And there are branches which the wind brings down, with their noses and jaws needing only two drilled eyes to make a visage of some sort. What wonderful faces I have found, dozens which look out from the shelf in my study window - - - some pathetic, some grim, some dancing and full of motion and joy. A few of these are on the web Sculpture at the last section, along with many pictures of the metal sculpture which I have been doing over the years. But most of the druids are not yet photographed, somehow I still have a shy respect for a Druid's privacy. Later perhaps. . . .

I will not speak of politics or of the war in Iraq, or the devaluation of the dollar and impending recession following uncontrolled lending and spending in the years before 2008. I have always distrusted the judgment of governments, they seem to have led us into a train of continuous warfare for this last century or more, while giving us a promise of an ever better way of life for the common man, who never seems to receive his due. In the meantime we do best to attend to our own lives and problems.

My problem came last fall in the form of Hodgkins lymphoma, which I seem to have survived very well with a six month treatment of cancer fighting drugs. I am strong and have the advantage of having long lived ancestors, and went through the chemotherapy with a minimum of discomfort, to my doctor's surprise. But during the winter I needed some activity, and did two new pieces of artwork, which you will find under The Mime Series and the new piece which I am completing as Intuitive Drawings with sound and word background. To have something innovative and entirely new at my advanced age, says to me something about life being worthwhile after all.

If in conclusion I would say that I have not had an easy life overall, living for those early years poor as a professor in a small college in bad times could possibly be, having several failed expectations with both marriage and friends, being a loner with gregarious penchants who ends being a content loner after all. But I have done as many things in my life as there was time to do. A friend remarked that I was "a jack of all trades" and he added with a thoughtful smile that I was a master of most. Like my Dad who died suddenly at age 93 never thinking of dying at all, I have no thoughts about either mortality or immortality. As to thinking about dying? I don't have the inclination, and above all, considering the pace of the work I am doing, I just don't have the time.

It is still winter for me here with lingering snowflakes, but soon it will be back to the carpentry and cabinetmaking in the woodshop, a lot of house windows to be repainted later, then firewood for next year to be got and stacked under the south shed overhang. But of course I will be waiting as deep snow melts away, thinking about Spring, that grateful time of the year when the tulips first push up their tentative heads, signaling that soon the world is to be reborn in a rush of verdant leafage once again. Then get out the tiller and turn over the garden, where two months later my wife will be kneeling almost hidden by corn and squash and tomatoes as she fills her basket with the goodness of the earth for our dinner. Such fare is not only good to the taste and good for the body, it is a witness that the earth itself is a good place and there is room for many of us to live a good life, as long as we learn how to use it. And above all, if we learn how to use it well!



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William Harris
Prof. Em. Middlebury College
www.middlebury.edu/~harris