PACIFIC PERSPECTIVES: The Death of a Great American Professor: A Story of Scholars and Journalists

Scholars and journalists don’t always get along (right, call this Dept. of Understatement). But their need for each other is endless and often deep, even when each side bull-headedly refuses to admit it.

Let’s put the matter this way: Journalists are generally scavenger birds of the moment, tweeting their view of contemporary history breathlessly and sometimes (alas) carelessly. By contrast the true academic is the whale of the knowledge kingdom, diving deep and displacing much when on the hunt for knowledge.

I admit my view of great scholars can trend toward the bucolic and completely ignore the large raft of professorial deadheads, footnote trawlers and tenured mediocrities that populate many universities. In part this positive blindness is because I pointedly avoid the loathsome academic bureaucrats who make you want to tear your hair out and instead invest my time with the greats who inspire you to do better and think more grandly.

This brings me to one professor who by universal acclaim belonged in this special latter category. That was Robert A. Scalapino. Indeed, now that he is no longer with us – he died recently after a long and great life – I can tell you what I really thought of him. I thought he was exceptional.

Professor Scalapino worked out of the thrilling fields of the University of California at Berkeley. That alone should tell you something. Okay, so not every professor there is terrific and maybe it’s not inarguable that it deserves to be called the greatest American university, as I believe it may well be (I know there’s Harvard, and my alma mater Princeton  and Stanford and so on). But at the very least it’s a very special world with special people. And, until Nov. 1, Scalapino was one of them.

His expertise as a scholar of Japan politics was widely acclaimed and even attracted the attention of a handful of advice-hungry US presidents who had found his views helpful indeed. His energies were those of legend. And his reputation for scholarly quality was of the highest order. Most importantly of all, Scalapino cared deeply about Asia – and about helping Americans understand it well enough to be able to relate to it intelligently.

Scalapino’s radar went beyond Japan, of course. All of East Asia came within his ken. He had so much to say about the Korean Peninsula. And he was saying it long before America realized that China was rising and had all but shed Communist economics. Well before, Bob was running up the frequent-flier mileage to Beijing. His balanced views of what was happening on the mainland often stood in embarrassing contrast to either the blind Cold War hawks who could see only evil or blindfolded romantic leftists who couldn’t see any.

Alas, I did not know Bob nearly as well as I would have liked.

He had special stature because he was an inspirational figure. Instead of filling an audience with fatigue (personally, I never once saw him use narcolepsy-inducing PowerPoint), he invariably left it wanting more. Instead of inspiring students to take the safe road, he taught them to reach high.

Mentoring students, at which Scalapino excelled, often comes as a second thought in academic circles and is rarely a formal part of the professorial evaluation procedure at major research universities. But if you think of Socrates and his student Plato, or of Plato and his greatest student Aristotle, and etcetera, etcetera – you might imagine that mentoring the next generation of great scholars and thinkers could prove a scholar’s greatest possible legacy.

To be sure, it’s silly to believe that only the wise and deserving get to live a long rich life. But that, at the age of 92, was to be Scalapino’s fate, and so I will think it the case in this particular circumstance. I will also insist on my view that about Berkeley a certain reverence of appreciation needs to be paid. Scalapino’s life of distinction is an obvious data point. May this giant of American academe indeed rest in peace.

Tom Plate is a distinguished scholar of Asian and Pacific Studies at Loyola Marymount University

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