This letter is responding to the article “Legendary” Professor Charles Hill dies at 84.
Charlie Hill taught me to write a letter to the editor when I was a senior in college. I remember chiefly the command that the letter be short and — like all letters — true rather than fawning. In introductions simplification, my notes read, is never a bad thing.
I have felt quite unable to write this letter, and I did not intend to make it public. But reading these notes — these transcriptions of what Professor Hill taught in the strange, warrened drama building between the Dramat and Pierson College — has helped me write. I make this letter public because I want to share what I think is the highest praise I will ever offer a teacher: that he has made me more able.
This is what Professor Hill wanted, I think. During that senior year, he worried that students were missing class to join protests. This was an indictment of our classes, he thought: what you are studying must have bearing on what you are worrying about in your life, on who you are becoming or what you want to become. In my notes, I wrote lines from Seamus Heaney about “that moment when the bird sings very close to the music of what happens.” I don’t know if Professor Hill gave us the Heaney or whether I was reading it by myself at the time. It describes what Professor Hill’s classes gave — what they give still.
In Aristotelian Statecraft —the genius of this class was that we didn’t read a word of Aristotle, just books on cultivating land or building canoes, books that had to do with statecraft as Aristotle saw it, as a practical art — Professor Hill spoke of the difference between landlubbers for whom the sea is just el mar and sailors who are so close to the sea that they call it, with tenderness, la mar. To know a place so well as to make it beloved, to pay such attention to a text or a person, to inhabit an idea — this is what Professor Hill taught, in word and by example. For papers, he asked us to write from the inside out, not the outside in.
When I heard of Professor Hill’s death, I went, crying, for a walk in the rain. I walked to the white clapboard house he shared with his wife, Professor Thompson, and to his office building, a yellowed clapboard house on Hillhouse. I stood a while below the window of the room in which he held office hours each Friday afternoon, where he sketched the relation between Chinese dynasties or the logic chain of Aristotle’s thought on friendship, where he would give an answer to any question — God, presidential elections, painting, I once heard him ask “what do you think is the meaning of life?” He would then sit back in his chair and spread his arms on the table and ask all comers — first years, graduate students, scientists, humanists — “but what do you think?”
Here’s what I think, Professor Hill. There can be little better compliment than a student returning to you and to your words to understand your death. And since my first year in college, when we read together from Machiavelli to Arendt, I have come to you and your words to better understand how to live. Arendt, F. S. C. Northrop, Maitland: you gave me authors who sit on my desk as I write this, who are my thinking companions as in the Letter to Vettori. You sit with me too.
In class, Professor Hill gave us the first chapters of Ecclesiastes. They tell us “he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow.” Surely this is true.
But there is joy too. What more can one say? I have had so much wonder — wonder in Socrates’ sense of the state that is the beginning of philosophy and also wonder in C. S. Lewis’ sense of deep joy — because of Professor Hill. He was so kind to me — it was such a joy, always, just to talk.
The first day in Aristotelian Statecraft, Professor Hill told us that his father said “fire will burn when it reaches its kindling point.” I didn’t know what this meant — Professor Hill told us he didn’t either, when he first heard it. As I remember, Professor Hill never let on what he came to think the maxim meant. Perhaps many things: that it is good to know how a fire starts and how to start a fire, that it is good to keep in mind the wisdom that has preceded you, that when you watch a fire curl up logs there is a point where the flame catches — when you know that the fire will be alright.
I’m so grateful, Professor Hill, for all that your life has kindled — for the way your ideas and your way of thinking and living has caught and swelled.
HANNAH CARRESSE (PC ‘16) is a second year student at Yale Law School. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dear Ms. Nam,
The Asian experience is not a monolith. Asians enjoy wealth and privilege. Asians get called chink by strangers. Asians come from a past without pain. Asians come from Japanese internment camps and countries devastated by Western powers. Asians study at Yale and write articles on racism. Asians die in Atlanta SPAs. Because they are Asian.
The above is not to belittle your own experience – on the contrary, dear Nam, it is necessary for all Asians to understand that the individual Asian experience can have vast differences. You may have enjoyed privilege, and others may not have. You may have not felt the impact of racial discrimination, and other may have.
Indeed, an important part of the Asian experience is those among us who did have the luxury of finding themselves enthroned as the model minority myth, and indeed such people are in dire need of recognizing that myth. Yet equally important, if not more so, is the experience of those Asian Americans who suffer at the hand of racism. Last year, when Uber drivers won’t even pick up Asians in fear of COVID, where was our privilege? Not two weeks ago, 6 Asian women were shot dead in Atlanta. Where was their privilege?
To say that, and I quote “we Asians internalize the model minority myth and believe that we are somehow closer to the white ideal” is in itself, a statement that comes only from your experience. The Asians I know struggle to keep a foothold in American society. The Asians I know understand that we not only do not have an advantage, but rather we are pushed down because of our skin color, our race, our face, our way of life.
To write an article warning Asians to stay away from white privilege is to reveal the same privilege in the author’s experience. Who most often brings up this myth? White people. It comes from a place of guilt – white guilt, even – to warn Asians of a myth that we do not believe in. In warning us, you have assumed that Asians have been brainwashed, and we need a white-savior-ish article to help them. “White” savior, if not in skin tone, in thought at least.
The message in your article is a worthy one: that different ethnicity groups should not tear each other down. But to degrade the Asian people as believing in our whiteness is unnecessary to your point. Not a day goes by where I am not proud of my skin, of my 5000 years of heritage, of my flavourful stir-fried vegetables, and of my 中国字.
Asians do not believe in being the model minority, dear Nam. There are over 4 billion Asians in the world, with cultural heritages that are varied and profound. We do not need warnings, nor do we need whiteness to justify why we are proud. We are proud because we are Asian. Whiteness has nothing to do with it.
I hope this finds you well, and I look forward to your reply.
From one Asian to another,
Ruoji (Roger) Guo
RUOJI (ROGER) GUO is a junior at Timothy Dwight College. Contact him at email@example.com.