B.U. Bridge is published by the Boston University Office of University Relations.
Award-winning polymath Mason prizes student interchange
By Eric McHenry
Eamon De Valera was a towering figure in 20th-century Irish politics, to be certain. But Herbert Mason wants to know if he was a true world leader. Was he of de Gaulle's stature? Churchill's? Gandhi's?
"Ireland is a very small world," Mason cautions the students in his History of Ireland course, "and we can be very easily absorbed into it. I remember, by analogy, living in France for a number of years. If you live in a country for more than three years, the military says you're a risk, because you acquire the point of view of the natives. And I did. I began to absorb, after four or five years, the French view, until I really did feel that somehow the salvation of the world was dependent on the French."
A number of students chuckle at this.
"You can begin to think that of Ireland after a while, too," Mason says. "And it's a tiny world. We universalize what's homogeneous, and we lose a sense of comparative value."
It's a characteristic teaching moment for Mason: thoughtful, genuinely funny, and drawn not only from his reading but from his life's experience, not only from a knowledge of multiple cultures but from a belief that no single cultural perspective is sufficient.
For these and other qualities, Mason's teaching was twice honored in the 2000-2001 academic year. A longtime professor in the CAS history and religion departments and The University Professors program, Mason now answers to two new titles: William Goodwin Aurelio Professor of His- tory and Religious Thought, and United Methodist Church University Scholar/Teacher of the Year.
"In giving Herb the University's United Methodist Scholar/ Teacher Award for 2001," BU Chancellor John Silber said in presenting the prize, "we recognize his extraordinary career of scholarship, but also the gifts of friendship and wisdom that have informed his writings and have made him such a remarkable teacher."
Silber praised Mason's exceptional scholarly range.
"His interests in Islamic history, comparative medieval studies, Irish history, religion in literature, and oriental classical texts," Silber said, "have inspired him to write 13 books and numerous essays, articles, and reviews."
Along with several academic titles published by university presses, Mason's books include memoirs, novels, and volumes of original poetry. His most enduring work remains a translation of the Babylonian verse epic Gilgamesh, published by Houghton Mifflin in 1970 and nominated for the National Book Award the following year. The book is now in its 25th printing.
Asked if he's ever considered hanging up his academic robes in order to write full-time, Mason says that his scholarship, teaching, and personal writing are now more interdependent than they've ever been. He's currently at work on a novel set in Maine, a collection of Arabic poems in translation, and a volume of personal essays on such topics as dread, loss, obsession, and friendship -- themes he treats frequently in his courses.
"The book of essays is, in a way, the project that's most dear to me," Mason says, "and I'm deriving quite a bit of material from my teaching. I like the feedback, and not just for the sake of my own work. I really enjoy the interchange with students -- undergraduate and graduate -- and I think it would be inappropriate for me to stop teaching at this time, because of the value of that."
William Goodwin Aurelio (CAS 1900) taught in the College of Arts and Sciences for 50 years, and left his entire estate to the University. The Professorship of History and Religious Thought is the fourth endowed chair made possible by Aurelio's bequest.
The University Scholar/Teacher of the Year Award, established by the Un ited Methodist Church and conferred at colleges and universities historically affiliated with it, recognizes outstanding faculty members for their dedication and contributions to the learning arts and to the institution. BU traces its founding to the Newbury Biblical Institute, the first Methodist seminary in the United States.