The Professor Chronicles: Thomas Noble Howe
June 22, 2021
June 22, 2021
How long have you been working in higher education?
I came to Southwestern in 1985, straight from Harvard Square. It was a bit of a shock, like Elizabeth Taylor in Giant moving to Marfa, Texas! But it turned out well worth staying. I have close relations with numerous successful alumni and can conduct an international research career from here and through my travels, and I have contributed to building two really good departments (art and art history). I wouldn’t move to an R1 university now; these departments are better.
What inspired you to pursue a career in higher education?
I wanted to pursue a creative career in architecture in a revolutionary age and have, and in education, I have found the direct rewards of watching young people grow and be empowered by what I apparently teach. I now have a number of very successful alumni whom I have sent to some of the best architecture and graduate schools in the country and who occupy very prestigious positions in firms and museums and universities.
During your years at Southwestern, how has the university changed but also stayed the same?
After the von Humboldt model, faculty no longer convey fixed knowledge but are now current contributors to the dynamic knowledge in their fields. When I came here, few faculty were active researchers, and nobody had ever worked internationally. But the personal concern for accessibility for serious students has stayed the same.
What is something your students or colleagues would be surprised to know about you?
Probably nothing! They are used to being surprised.
When not working, you can find me …
Working. Work is play. I never stop.
If you could have a drink at the Cove with anyone in the world, living or dead, what would the beverage be, who would the person be, and why?
Oooh, that’s a good one. I have had some really good conversations with amazing people, often over drinks: Archibald Cox (Watergate special prosecutor), Charles Moore (most influential postmodern architect), Sherri Rowland (Nobel ’95). The drink: Brunello di Montalcino, Castello Banfi, with black truffle paste. No need to talk to dead people; they leave their legacy in writings, which come alive when you sit down and read them.
Describe your dream vacation.
Travel for work is more fun. I get to travel to really interesting locations and be an insider in the local professional culture. Often, I get picked up by car and driver; give a lecture, often in the local language (Italian often and, recently, French); get free time and enjoy a guided tour of Lisbon or the Golden Ring of Moscow, a stroll through the Hermitage with a badge, a lecture and birthday dinner at the Hong Kong Club, a lecture at the American Embassy in Rome or the Smithsonian in Washington, keynote lectures at Moscow State University and Siracusa Sicily; and make stuff really happen at my huge archaeological site at Stabiae, near Pompeii, Italy, coordinating to date 35 international universities and research institutions.
OK, and a stroll along the North San Gabriel hike and bike trail can be a pretty good quick change: turtles, field mice, gurgling spring, shady trees. And the wild birds in my backyard’s bird feeder: endless vitality. They never stop, either. I used to row. I miss it.
If you could choose one superpower, what would it be?
The United States is still humanity’s best bet, so long as we refresh our commitment to democratically determined government guaranteed by freedom of the press and insistence upon accurate, rational discourse and the critical identification of falsehoods and fallacy. Don’t vote for someone who blatantly lies or is evasive, even if he or she makes you feel better.
What advice would you give students today?
The liberal arts are only for the more ambitious. It prepares you for the changes in career your generation will inevitably face. If you are not prepared for an international career, you may have no career. The liberal arts prepare you for elite leadership and privilege (only 4% of degrees are in the liberal arts, but their influence far outweighs that), and you are going to be an elite (which means, literally, electi, “chosen”), which means you will have all the responsibilities to humanity that your privilege will entail.