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New school brings promise of ‘intellectual spice’

October 14, 2009

The unifying factor among the faculty and graduate student community in the new School of Historical, Philosophical and Religious Studies at Arizona State University is that they are humanists, said Mark von Hagen, the founding director of the school, during a launch ceremony Oct. 14.

Established last year through action by the Arizona Board of Regents, the school combines three previous departments in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences: history, philosophy and religious studies.

“My colleagues are all humanists, some admittedly with a bent toward the social sciences and others perhaps toward the natural sciences or professional schools, but all are making impacts on their local, regional, national and even global communities,” said von Hagen, a professor of history.

Relating several stories of remarkable research under way by faculty members and students in the school, von Hagen noted that all are engaging their humanities skills of interpreting texts, contexts and practices, “to not only pursue new knowledge, but knowledge that is grappling with real-life problems of our fundamental humanity.

“We remain convinced that, for all the progress that policymakers and scholars in the social and natural scientists have been able to achieve with the precision of numbers and quantitative methods, more broadly, we in the humanities have some important space to ponder those questions that don’t have precise mathematical answers and never will – questions of value and morals,” von Hagen said.

ASU President Michael Crow said that in a changing world, “the last thing we want to be is to be like everyone else.”

“My hope for this new school is to take three outstanding faculties and find ways, through these faculties coming together, to create new teaching, learning and discovery opportunities and new teaching, learning and discovery environments, while not abandoning the degrees in history, philosophy or religious studies, but building from those opportunities,” Crow said.

He cited the success of the School of Life Sciences, which began a transformative process five years ago to integrate teaching, scholarship and discovery around complicated questions.

There has been “tremendous enhancement, robust enhancement” in intellectual outcomes, creativity, more students graduating, more students taking different subjects, according to Crow.

“We saw that and learned from that lesson,” he said.

In anticipating the next steps, Crow asked the assembled faculty members to help identify what other kinds of areas to emphasize in the new school, as well as other faculty to attract who will “bring a certain kind of intellectual spice … to more traditional disciplines,” Crow said.

Within the school are more than 70 faculty members, who by doctoral dissertation affiliation, include historians, philosophers, anthropologists, American studies, Jewish mysticism and Kabbalah studies, according to von Hagen. “One colleague additionally holds a J.D.,” he said.

They are organized into three faculties, each with a faculty head: Kent Wright, an associate professor (history); Peter de Marneffe, a professor (philosophy); and Joel Gereboff, an associate professor (religious studies).

Also speaking at the ceremony were Quentin Wheeler, ASU vice president and dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, and Deborah Losse, the dean of humanities.

“The faculty and students of this school are bringing new energy and innovation to some of the oldest disciplines, rethinking the synergy of their intersections and applying them to some of the most pressing and complex problems facing humanity,” Wheeler said.

“I have a deep appreciation for the disciplines we celebrate today in my area of biology and exploring species – the history of life on Earth,” said Wheeler, a taxonomist in the School of Life Sciences.

Losse acknowledged the enormous work to date by faculty members and the faculty heads of the new school. She referred to von Hagen, who has an interdisciplinary background in Russian and Soviet history and cultural/literary studies, as “the ideal scholar to direct the transformation.”

Additionally, Losse thanked the staff for embracing the founding of the new school and those who have “agreed to take on new functions so that each staff member contributes by doing what he or she does best. Such dedication in a time of economic hardship is most appreciated,” she said.

“As your director has so eloquently set forth, this is also a school that bridges the humanities, the social sciences and the natural sciences, and conducts research in sustainability, the history and philosophy of science, political science through political philosophy, and ethics,” Losse said.

“It is a school that intersects with other schools as it is keenly attuned to issues in women and gender studies, African and African-American studies, transborder studies, South, Southeast and East Asian studies, Jewish studies and human rights,” she said.

Other events to celebrate the new school are planned throughout the year and include special lectures, research conferences, colloquia and an art exhibit. Information about those activities and the new School of Historical, Philosophical and Religious Studies is available online at or by calling (480) 965-5778.