INSIDE Chico State
0 October 14, 1999
Volume 30 Number 5
  A publication for the faculty, staff, administrators, and friends of California State University, Chico
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Cliff Minor Presents First Millennium Lecture
The Resonance of the Roman Empire

Cliff Minor, History, discussed what Romans  considered decandent in the first lecture in the Friends of History Series. (photo KM)
Cliff Minor, History, discussed what Romans considered decandent in the first lecture in the Friends of History Series. (photo KM)

 

Some names on campus become famous over time -- especially those of teachers, no matter their field, who give students an education they take with them for life. Cliff Minor, Department of History, is one of those teachers. I've heard his name for decades now -- and always in reference to wonderful teaching -- but I met the man just last month. I expected some sort of charismatic charmer or tortured intellect. Minor couldn't be farther from those types. He is soft-spoken and humble, has a shy smile and looks at least ten years younger than he must be (he got his Ph.D. from the University of Washington in 1971 and started teaching here that same year).

The secret to his successful reputation, I imagine, is his absolute dedication to reaching students and his love of classical history. At the time he arrived in Chico, just after "relevance" had achieved reverence in the topsy-turvy '60s, the classics were an endangered species on many college campuses. At the Department of History at CSU, Chico, however, Minor -- much to his delight -- found a faculty willing to commit to ancient history and later to support Minor's creation of a minor in classical civilizations. He teaches about twelve different courses now, including the ancient Greeks, Romans, and Egyptians, as well as the medieval Byzantine Empire. He also developed a course in the '70s, which remains popular wherein he critically addresses notions of extra-terrestrials having had some role in creating the ancient mysteries.

Minor said, "While I love science fiction -- such as 2001 -- there isn't adequate evidence to substantiate these E. T. theories. What television's Learning Channel sometimes offers as 'documentaries' is shocking. They're full of bad information. In my courses, I focus on the method of critical inquiry so that students won't be manipulated, so that they'll require evidence for a position rather than uncritically accepting a belief."

One of Minor's particular historical passions is the Roman Empire in the fourth and fifth centuries C.E. (formerly A.D.), the time of its notorious decline. To kick off this year's Friends of History Lecture Series, whose theme is the millennium, Minor presented "Decadence, Decline, and Fall: Rome, A Case Study" on the evening of October 7, 1999 to a literally standing-room-only PAC 134. "People have noticed," Minor quietly explained before his talk, "certain parallels between the decline of ancient Rome and this era. My lecture explores which similarities have substance and which are ill-founded."

Minor described a sampling of significant differences: Roman emperors had lots more power than do American presidents; but the power of American weapons to destroy is much more powerful than that of the Roman army. However, one important aspect fifth-century Romans share with many twentieth-century westerners is a feeling of overall decline. Minor put less importance on what current historians say about the end of the Roman Empire -- partly because they tend to view the past through current constructs -- and more, rather, on what the Romans themselves said at the time about what they perceived as decadence. He went directly to the sources: Sallust, Tacitus, et al. At the end of his lecture, quoting Carl Sandburg, he gave a nearly moral imperative: "The only way to prevent the decline of a culture is to remember where we came from, to keep in sight what has brought us to the present."

In the summers, when all his grades have been turned in, Cliff Minor does his research. Much writing from the antiquities didn't survive; but some did and much of that has not been translated. Using his knowledge of Greek and Latin, Minor pours through these original texts, and finds their valuable nuggets. By a reverse kind of alchemy he transforms them into English, which he employs as evidence for the interpretations argued in journal articles.

But each year when August approaches its end, Minor said softly, "I wave goodbye to the work and say, 'See you next year.'" Because that is when the good teacher takes over and starts in on his first responsibility -- "lighting the fires" in his students. He said, "There's no guarantee I've ignited anything. But I do hear from them -- sometimes years later -- that the teaching worked. That's the reward. In the great stream of time, I'm grateful for anything. If there's one pinpoint of light, I will rest content." -- Thomasin Saxe, Humanities and Fine Arts

 

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