The Denisonian

Retiring historian Keenan: world, D.U. “in good hands for future”

In many ways, Professor of History Barry Keenan is the definition of the liberal arts. Straddling the divide between East and West, his studies have focused on Sino-American relations, Chinese history, and the ancient philosophy of Confucianism. Keenan has taught at Denison for 37 years and will retire in June. Friday, The Denisonian sat down with him to gain an insight into his life and scholarship.

The early years: “Studying human nature through the past”

Keenan was born in Cleveland, Ohio, although he grew up in the Washington, D.C. area as the younger of two sons of a civil servant. He attended McLean High School in McLean, Va. just outside of the capital, where he played three sports (including varsity football) and was president of the student body. His older brother attended Swarthmore College just outside Philadelphia, Pa., although Keenan himself would eventually choose Yale University over Swarthmore to pursue a double-major in physics and philosophy.

But the spectre of this decision, and of the liberal arts education, haunted Keenan in those early days. “In retrospect,” he says, “I would have gone to Swarthmore because I believe in small colleges. There were very few professors, for example, who knew my name when I [graduated from] Yale, and that’s never true at [a place like] Denison.” He describes the liberal arts environment “as better, [and] more intimate.”

Nonetheless, Keenan says the opportunity to attend Yale was “a privilege,” and, indeed, it afforded him important opportunities. The most defining of these was his interaction with Georges May, Dean of Yale College at the time and an important scholar of French literature. It was May who urged Keenan to pursue an extra year of study, called Les Cours de Civilisation Française, at the Sorbonne in Paris halfway through his undergraduate work. Because Keenan’s brother, pursuing his own graduate studies in French at the time, also wished to study on the Continent, Keenan’s parents agreed to fund this extraordinary course of action.

The experience would end up defining Keenan’s passion for other cultures. He describes his year at the Sorbonne as “probably the single best year of education I had, including graduate school,” filled with “just spectacular multicultural courses” ranging from the history of ideas to art history to political theory. Keenan also picked up French during his study abroad. “Once I did that,” he says, “I realized I could master a foreign language,” which he would later do with Chinese. “My own career was boosted by that full year.”

Upon his return to New Haven Keenan dropped physics and focused “intensely” on his philosophy major, but, despite his newfound focus and the excellence of Yale’s philosophy department, he was frustrated by the department’s emphasis on semantics. “We worked on the verb ‘is for half the semester,” he jokingly recalls. “The idea of doing ethics was lost on grammar… so I found it sterile.”

“Want[ing] something less abstract and something more concrete,” Keenan first envisioned becoming a psychologist, although, uneager at the prospect of medical school, eventually decided on history. Therefore, after earning a B.A. in philosophy in 1963, Keenan traveled to Claremont, Calif. to study at the Claremont Graduate School (today Claremont Graduate University), one of the seven schools within the Claremont Colleges.

“When I chose history for grad school,” Keenan says, “it really was a choice of studying human nature through the past, and the fact that you don’t just study sick people or disturbed people, but that you study very healthy people and very powerful people — I loved the idea!”

He went to Claremont on a three-year grant in what was called American Studies, although the program required a comparative element as well. Here, Keenan’s choice to study China over France in its relation to the U.S. grew to define his career. “Once I chose China and started studying Chinese language in California,” he says, “I became dedicated as a China specialist.”

He even spent a year studying Chinese culture in Taiwan, since the People’s Republic was closed to American students at the time. “I came back committed to a career in Chinese history,” he says, “and I’ve never left that interest.”

Keenan completed his dissertation after his return from Taiwan at the Library of Congress. During this time, Keenan’s advisor at Claremont had interested scholars nationwide in Keenan’s research. One such scholar, a professor at the Teachers College, Columbia University, offered Keenan a lucrative position as a research associate, which included teaching duties. Keenan therefore began his career at Columbia teaching at the graduate level. In 1970, he assumed a professorial post at Mount Holyoke College, an all-female school in South Hadley, Mass.

Denison: “From the prep-school elite to high school students”

Keenan taught at Mount Holyoke for six years, then traveled out west to Granville to pursue a tenure-track position. Like many longtime faculty, he agrees that the Denison of today is vastly different from the Denison of yore.

For approximately the “first three-quarters” of his time on the Hill, Keenan says that student culture was heavily influenced by prep school students. “They came from New England prep schools and were not necessarily in the upper half of their class,” he says, “and they liked to party a lot. So our ‘social school’ image was pretty heavy.”

Many students, he said, “went on to dad’s business back on the East Coast or to law school.” Keenan remembers “a lot of history majors from that crew, but they didn’t work very hard.” He recalls that “fraternities would keep files of all exams,” forcing professors to invent new questions each time they taught the same material. “We were on the defensive,” he says. “Kids were trying to not learn, and padding their vitas” with poorly-executed triple-majors and other excesses. “You had these advisees,” he said, “who tried to make it look like they’d done a lot of work at Denison, and they hadn’t, and you became, as a faculty member, skeptical of the learning process.”

Like many, he identifies the presidency of Michelle T. Myers and her decision to revoke residentiality from Greek-letter fraternities as the turning point. “Once the fraternities were forced into the dorms,” he says, “[Denison’s image] changed. Really, almost overnight, we were getting many more high school kids who were better scholars and would work harder… It was almost like a social revolution, from the prep-school elite to the high school students who were better academically.”

Intellectually motivated scholars, often from public high schools, are now “dominant,” Keenan says, “along with a real diversity, not only in the student body… but also in the faculty.” He cites diversity and academic excellence as hallmarks of the post-Myers Denison.

China is back together” in a changing world

Keenan’s research interests have covered a broad range of Chinese topics, and his success in the field started very early on. His dissertation at Claremont on Sino-American relations, The Dewey Experiment in China, was picked up by Harvard University as a book in its China series in 1977. The book “helped [Keenan] tremendously in getting tenure” at Denison and drew heavily on his background in philosophy. The argument examined the Chinese followers of American pragmatist philosopher John Dewey, who were “very important in the 1920s… [and] had failed terribly in achieving their political and social goals.”

“I kind of built my career on that acceptance of the book,” Keenan says, “and then I decided to work on classical Chinese language more, and did a book on the last classical [Confucian] academies of the 19th century.”

Keenan says he “loved” visiting mainland China once the People’s Republic (PRC) had opened itself to the West. He has traveled to the East about once every two years since his first visit in 1979. “[I] loved to keep up with the language and the resources there,” he says, “to collaborate with scholars, talk a lot with Chinese counterparts, reason through what were the cutting-edge issues in Chinese history.” Although arthritis has limited Keenan’s ability to travel frequently, he still makes the trek across the pond. His most recent foray was in September 2012 to present a paper in Shanghai.

“I used to envy those old professors, particularly around Columbia, who’d actually been to China” before the Maoist revolution, he says. “And then, we all got to go… I’ve got an attachment to China that’s pretty deep, and by living, working, having colleagues that I really respect who are in China, that’s been a lifelong piece of my career.”

From a historical standpoint, Keenan sees the emergence of China as a global power as positive, and as more of a return to its traditional position than a novelty. “China went through about 100 years of shame,” Keenan says, starting with the “unequal treaties it began in 1842…This has been a real shock to the Chinese psyche.” But in 1976, when Deng Xiaoping assumed leadership of the PRC, “the opening to the West really demarcated a radical change.” Keenan sees the 2008 Olympics in Beijing as an important moment, signifying that “the era of shame is over, and that we aren’t the ‘sick boy of Asia’… [F]inally, China is back together.”

Keenan calls it a “very healthy development that China has risen to the economic status it has and it’s very significant in the world.” He does not fear an aggressive China, however. “[Y]ou don’t see China acquiring client countries or dominating [its] neighbors, and my own sense is that it’s a very healthy piece of shifting world power that China is going to be a big player again.

“I’m proud of the Chinese themselves,” says Keenan, “for having achieved…this entry into the world stage as a culture we all need to learn from.”

Keenan understands, however, the important philosophical differences between East and West. “The big change is so important,” he says, “that I would call it individualism versus family-oriented values, and it is so big that actual friendships have a slightly different dimension to them.” Keenan uses the example of parents moving in with their children when the children are adults; Westerners often see this as an affront or an invasion of the children’s own family, while Asians see it as a natural expectation of filial piety.

“It reflects a difference in how you define your connection to others,” he says, “and I think there’s a social self in the Chinese world… [B]ut we [Westerners] tend to repress it or make it minor compared to the ego or the individual self. It isn’t an unbridgeable gap. You can bridge that gap all the time.

“There’s an alternative way of being modern,” Keenan says, “and of doing moral things than in what we’re used to [as Westerners] in our sacred texts, our Biblical texts, our traditions, and even in American politics, which tend[s] to rest on interest group differences and accept[s] that interest groups are legitimate. Chinese and Japanese political theory is often more idealistic; it’ll talk about harmony and communal values.”

Keenan is optimistic about cooperation between East and West. “Most East Asians — educated people — won’t take a stereotypical look… at the West… and the social morality of Western religions is regarded as terrific.” Keenan emphasizes that it is important for both cultures to avoid extremist ideological positions and not denounce the other. “The way to avoid that is education,” he says. “We’re in good hands for the future.”

After Denison

Keenan plans to retire in June to work with American veterans. He cites a statistic that 22  U.S. veterans commit suicide each day, at the rate of almost one person an hour. “It’s a waste of human beings that is so shocking,” he says. He plans on dedicating himself to provide informal counseling for these veterans, who often suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). “I can’t stand it,” he says, “it seems to me a national disgrace when you see the figure.”

Keenan plans on continuing to live in Worthington, Ohio, a suburb of Columbus, with his second wife. He has two children by way of his first, 17-year-long marriage to a Chinese woman. Both are bi-cultural and fluent in Chinese. His daughter, a Mount Holyoke graduate in architectural studies, lives in Taiwan with her mother and plans to pursue a career in hospitality management. His son earned a B.A. from Skidmore College in East Asian studies and went on to earn an M.B.A. from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania; he currently holds an executive position with Vanguard Investments in Phoenix, Ariz.

In terms of advice to undergraduates, Keenan says, “The single best thing is to search in these four years for a piece of your own passion that moves you strongly. It’s more important than any major, it’s more important than thinking about a career, so when you see something that really motivates you… that’s the piece you actually want to center on. Within a couple years, something you love like that… you’ll be excellent at…[and] when you get to mid-life, you’ll be so satisfied with your career because you’re doing what you love.”

Interested in exploring East Asian culture and history with Dr. Keenan? For his last semester teaching at Denison, he is offering “Traditional East Asian Civilization,” an introductory course cross-listed in history and East Asian studies; and “The Cold War in East Asia,” an upper-level seminar course in those same departments.

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