Antoinette Burton discusses the career of humanist, academic administrator, and Academy member Ruth Simmons, who delivered the 2023 Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities. As a scholar, Simmons studied French as a poetic language, taking particular interest in the works of sixteenth-century French author Joachim du Bellay and his 1549 treatise, Defense and Illustration of the French Language. The author's case "for French as a poetic language, against those who disdained it because it wasn’t Latin or Greek, helped [Simmons] to appreciate 'the value of minority cultural expression,'" writes Burton.
Burton also discusses the broad value of a humanities education, citing a recent Humanities Indicators report, the first of its kind to examine career outcomes of humanities majors in every state and the District of Columbia. Burton argues that Simmons' early approach to French literature formed the basis of a humanities-informed approach — a "theory of change" — that would inform the rest of her career.
The career of Ruth Simmons is a lesson in humanities methodology
At a moment when state auditors are scrutinizing higher education budgets with an eye to trimming humanities majors and offerings out of existence, we’d do well to pause and reflect on the career of the distinguished educator Ruth Simmons.
In her 2023 Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities, sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities, Simmons addressed the impact of her training as a scholar of romance languages and literatures on her career path. Recalling her years as a PhD student in the 1970s, Simmons recounted the influence of the sixteenth-century French author Joachim du Bellay and his 1549 treatise, Defense and Illustration of the French Language, on her thinking about historical change.
The case he made for French as a poetic language, against those who disdained it because it wasn’t Latin or Greek, helped her to appreciate “the value of minority cultural expression.” Simmons saw continuities between du Bellay and later Francophone writers like Aimé Césaire, which fortified her arguments for African American literature as a legitimate scholarly field in those early days.
Simmons went on to an illustrious career as a scholar-administrator. Among her most notable accomplishments was her appointment as president of Brown University—the first Black woman to lead an Ivy League institution—where in 2003 she established a committee to study the relationship of Brown to the transatlantic slave trade.
Five years into her retirement, she returned to the role of president, this time at Prairie View A&M, one of the nation’s historically Black colleges and universities. There, she raised money for scholarships and has helped to guarantee the fiscal soundness of the institution as it heads toward its 150th anniversary.
Simmons’s lecture landed as news broke that language instruction is being slashed in connection with budget shortfalls at the University of West Virginia—making Morgantown the most spectacular example to date of the vulnerability of the humanities to top-down crisis-management.