Professor Mary Beard

Doctor of Letters Professor Mary Beard

Thursday 19 July 2012 at 2.30 pm - Orator: Professor Bob Fowler

Mr Vice-Chancellor,

Let me begin with a few quotations:

There is an American bumper sticker that reads, ‘It’s too bad the people who really know how to run the country are busy teaching school’.

Most ruins are—let’s face it—disappointing.

Death tends to play a big part in a Classics degree. Ancient poetry and drama are full of murder, suicide, assassination...  Archaeologists love nothing better than a cemetery to dig up.

Things will only change when the public and the tabloid press have been convinced that incarceration is not the answer. And that will take a Home Secretary with more muscle and vision than we have had for decades.

Never give an interview to the Today programme on a mobile phone from the back of a bar in Pompeii station.

As you will have guessed, these are quotations from Mary Beard’s best-selling It’s a Don’s Life, a book version of her famous, or is it notorious, blog. At first, Mary was a reluctant blogger; she did it to oblige her boss at the Times Literary Supplement where she is editor for Classics. She expected it would be a short-lived affair, maybe a couple of months, after which she could dismiss the whole thing as a waste of time and cyberspace. Six years on she’s still at it. Her blogs most often cover topics arising from her work as a Cambridge don and Roman historian; but many times they directly address issues of the day, whether it is prisons, multi-culturalism, feminism, the Olympics, Europe, or electronic surveillance, to name a few. But of course this dichotomy between issues of our day and issues of Roman days is completely false. No real historian dwells in the past. All history, in the cliché, is present history; we are drawn to the issues of the past only by the issues of the present, and a serious historian engages continually with contemporary problems. Nearly every one of Mary’s blogs draws a parallel of some kind between ancient and modern. Not of the superficial kind, expressing amazement that the ancients had an exact equivalent of some modern practice. Mary loses no opportunity to debunk a myth, and no myth is more readily debunked than the one that makes the ancients ‘just like us’. Instead, her method is to use an apparent similarity (or difference) to tease out what lies beneath: the problems and principles, the recurring questions and hopeful answers, the ordinary human tragedies and comedies. The blog’s website tells you that Mary is ‘wickedly subversive’: this was not her choice of moniker, and she has tried vainly to have it removed. As she says, it’s hard to be subversive year in and year out. Her technique of demolition is more surgical dissection than dynamite. She does not aim to score cheap, controversialist points; she always sees both sides of a debate. But she will not fail to expose stupidity, arrogance, bigotry or cant for what they are.

Or speak the truth as she sees it. Someone in her position is bound to attract criticism, even for apparently harmless remarks; but on some subjects her comments have provoked responses that range from hurtful to vicious, and even life-threatening. In the face of this most of us would withdraw from the field, and I expect even Professor Beard’s resolve has wavered under the force of such attacks. But she is above all a person of courage and integrity, possessing a missionary’s belief in the importance of history, and in the moral duty to communicate it. This passion, combined with her supreme gifts as a communicator, has made her one of the country’s most prominent public intellectuals, at a time when, more than ever, humane and educated voices must speak out. This is why we honour her today.

In purely scholarly terms Professor Beard’s career has been stellar. Educated at Shrewsbury High School and Newnham College, Cambridge, she was appointed lecturer in Classics at King’s College London in 1979, returning to Newnham in 1984. At Cambridge she rose through the academic ranks to be promoted professor in 2004. Either as sole author or in collaboration she has published ten books on ancient history, all of them standard references for research and teaching. Among them are Pompeii: The Life of a Roman Town (which won the Wolfson History Prize); The Roman Triumph; The Colosseum; The Parthenon; Religions of Rome; Classics: A Very Short Introduction. Her interest in the reception of antiquity chimes with the approach for which the Bristol department is particularly well known, and she is a Vice-President of our Institute of Greece, Rome and the Classical Tradition. In 2008­–09 she gave the Sather Lectures at the University of California, Berkeley, the profession’s most prestigious lecture series; in 2010 she was elected Fellow of the British Academy.

A book with a more than usual personal investment is The Invention of Jane Harrison, concerning the United Kingdom’s first professional woman classicist, indeed the first woman career academic, who died in 1928. Jane Harrison was, like Mary Beard, a fellow of Newnham College, and a pioneering historian of ancient religion. There has been some progress since Harrison’s day, but equality for women is still a long way off.  Not the least of Mary’s services in her columns is her gentle but relentless exposure of the prejudices and obstacles still facing women in academe and the larger world.

Mary Beard’s public profile is now very high indeed. She is a constant contributor to the print media on both sides of the Atlantic. She can be heard on the Today programme, In Our Time, and Question Time; or, in a different vein, on Desert Island Discs and Jamie’s Dream School. She presented the documentary Pompeii: Life and Death in a Roman Town in 2010; more recently, she presented the three-part series Meet the Romans. 1.8 million people watched the first episode. She is constantly in demand for interviews and public appearances.

There are those who would say, shoemaker, stick to your last; what can a professor of ancient history possibly know about modern affairs? who is she to lecture us so? Well, here is the great secret: all of you who are today Mary Beard’s fellow graduands have the same right. You have been studying classics, history, archaeology, or art; but more than that you have been educated. Whatever the discipline, all education is grounded on ideas, principles, and critical thought.  Experts may advise us; but it is only the citizenry expressing informed and respectful opinion who can achieve progress and guarantee freedom. If you do not speak, in whatever way suits your own gifts and opportunities, then someone else will speak for you; and soon you will find your voice is silenced, and in time forgets how to speak altogether. The greatness of a university depends upon the uninhibited pursuit of knowledge, and upon this enterprise is founded the wellbeing of democracy. This is a truth society sometimes forgets, but which voices like Mary Beard’s articulate with eloquent force.

Mr Vice-Chancellor, as a great academic, public intellectual, inspiring role model and leading citizen, I present to you Mary Beard as eminently worthy of the degree of Doctor of Letters, honoris causa.


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