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Unconventional Classics Scholar Appointed Dean of Humanities

By Patricia McBroom, Public Affairs
posted September 2, 1998

Ralph J. Hexter, an innovative scholar of classical and medieval literature, has been appointed Dean of Humanities.

He assumed his new role July 1, taking over from Anthony Newcomb, professor of music, who has been the humanities dean since 1990.

Hexter brings an unusual combination of classical knowledge and modern sensibilities to the position, which oversees 18 departments in the arts, languages and humanities. At 45, he is ten years younger than most deans and has experienced a meteoric rise at Berkeley -- serving as chair of the Department of Comparative Literature, and now Dean of humanities within three years of his arrival on campus in 1996.

"I am particularly pleased that Ralph Hexter has agreed to become the next Dean of Humanities," said Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost Carol T. Christ. "The breadth of his intellectual vision and the creative energy with which he addresses problems will bring the humanities great strength in the years ahead."

Educated at Harvard, Oxford and Yale universities, Hexter earned his doctorate in 1982 from Yale and was assistant and associate professor of classics there for 10 years. From 1991-95, he was professor of classics at the University of Colorado at Boulder, where he also served as director of comparative literature.

Schooled in six European languages including Latin and ancient Greek, Hexter is well grounded in the Western literary tradition. His most recent book, "A Guide to the Odyssey," provides general readers with commentary on Fitzgerald's translation of Homer's classic and relates the ancient poem to enduring themes of returning war veterans.

"I wrote that out of my love of teaching and my love of the Odyssey," said Hexter. "Many people who teach Homer want a bit more depth. This is a reader's guide."

At the same time, Hexter does not defend the notion of a "Western canon," the idea that classic texts from western culture should dominate a list of so-called great books and be read by every well-educated American.

"I believe there are many canons," said Hexter. "Of course, the European tradition forms one center, but our goal is to have many centers."

"The problem with the idea of 'the canon' is that it's singular," said Hexter, who believes that the idea of having one reading list arises from a poverty of imagination.

"It's like visiting a beautiful city, but you only want to see the sights in the guidebook, rather than making your own personal journey of discovery.

"More people need to be bold and follow their own hearts, not read books just because they've been put on somebody's 'best books' list."

In other ways, as well, Hexter is an unconventional classicist. He frequently teaches medieval Latin -- often considered "degraded," or "dog Latin" by classical scholars in his field -- and he is currently editing and translating two 15th-century Latin plays from Pavia, Italy, about the entrapment of a homosexual priest.

Among other classes, Hexter has taught a seminar on the history of sexuality in pre-modern Europe. In 1992, he co-edited the book, "Innovations of Antiquity: New Paradigms for Classical Studies."

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