K. E. Brashier - Acceptance Speech

Outstanding Baccalaureate Colleges Professor of the Year National Winner
K. E. Brashier
Associate Professor of Religion and Humanities
Reed College

This title is a great honor, for which I sincerely thank you.

"There are heaven's honors; there are human honors," said the Confucian scholar Mencius back in the 4th century B.C.E. He goes on to say, "Heaven's honors are benevolence, propriety, loyalty, trustworthiness and an unflagging delight in what is good. Human honors are the titles of duke, minister or counselor."

It may sound like fortune cookie wisdom to my students until I ask them to look a bit closer at what links benevolence, propriety and the rest. Heaven's honors are all qualities describing the best relationships between people. They don't vaunt the independent ego or the rugged individualist. Instead, we're like knots on a relationship net. I am really a conglomerate of ties to others, my tie to my student Martin plus my tie to my partner Andrew plus my ties to all of you, right here and right now. That's the real ‘me,' the dispersed, dynamic ‘me.' I am here today only because of my ties to them and to you.

Heaven's honors are all about dragging upward the knot that is your ‘self' so that the surrounding knots are pulled up, too, and they in turn pull up their neighboring knots. My goal at Reed is to help my students learn how to learn so that they will help others learn to learn and so on. My goal at Reed is dynamic, not just seeing today's students, but seeing their future ‘selves' assisting those around them. Conversely, my goal at Reed is not to cement them into a fixed hierarchy through grades. Grades are like Mencius's human honors-a static title. In fact, Reedies don't know their grades, and that in my opinion, is the one thing that elevates Reed relative to all the other places I've been. I've graduated from Oxford, Harvard, Cambridge and elsewhere, but only at Reed can I consistently eavesdrop on students outside the classroom talking about Aristotle, about gene sequencing, about Mencius. (To be honest, they're talking about a lot of other things, too-Reed is Reed, after all-but they're not talking about grades.) The atmosphere is such that they're in it for the education; they're not in it for getting the ‘A.' The latter is a human honor.

"U.S. Professor of the Year" is an ‘A,' a human honor, but that's not to belittle it. Mencius never denounces human honors and instead calls them a natural by-product of heaven's honors. Likewise, we still assign grades at Reed; we just don't give them to the students unless they ask. But the point is ... they don't ask. At their best, human honors can even help us propagate heaven's honors. To me, becoming "U.S. Professor of the Year" should not remain a static title, an end point, a grade. I must learn to use it as a tool to improve how I drag up the knots on the relationship net around me-such as by taking this very opportunity to ask you to think twice about how we use grades.

If I can do that, then receiving this award will indeed be both honorable and heavenly.