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“He is a Harvard star but not a prima donna”

“He is a Harvard star but not a prima donna”

Photographer:Fotograaf: Joey Roberts/Simone Golob

Kiran Klaus Patel inspired by Akira Iriye

It’s a bit silly, the format of this series, says Prof. Kiran Klaus Patel with a smile. He holds the Jean Monnet chair of European and Global History and from January 2016, he will be vice dean of Research at the faculty of Arts and Social Sciences. “I grew up in an academic tradition - in Germany - where we say: ‘When you see a monument, look around it.’ We study the past and know that people have strengths and weaknesses. As a scientist, you always have to be critical, and not blindly copy someone’s approach or thoughts. You have to find your own way. Besides that, we often have more than one scientific ‘hero’.”

Having said that, Patel starts to talk about one of the people he admires most: Akira Iriye, the Charles Warren Professor of American History, emeritus, at Harvard University. This American professor with Japanese roots is 80 now, but still working hard. Laughing: “I only take an elderly person, I’m a historian.” Then serious: “He embodies key qualities I admire in academia. He reinvented himself and his field several times. He started as a traditional historian on Japanese-American diplomatic relations and turned into a pioneer of transnational history. Transnational history, as new perspective, allows scholars to study all kinds of links between societies. They ask themselves: what’s at stake? A whole range of issues are now in the picture of historians. Think about commodity flows, lobby groups, media, or international organizations like the United Nations and the European Union. This has not been taken seriously for a long time. Iriye, among others, put it on the agenda, he is a leader in this respect. Another example is migration, a very big issue today. Immigrants don’t start in our country, as if they came from nowhere. First and foremost, they left their homes: rather than coming to us, they have left their own land. They will always be linked to their origins and influence the society they fled to.”

Some of Patel’s work is in the same field as Iriye’s research. In his latest book, The New Deal: A Global History, which will be published in January 2016 with Princeton University Press, he writes about the history of the United States in a global perspective. “Republican candidate Donald Trump says, for example, that the US is so special, so different from the rest of the world. Transnational history research shows us that he is wrong.”

Last but not least, Patel mentions Iriye’s personality. Although an emeritus professor, he’s immensely active, travelling around the United States, Europe and Asia. “He is a Harvard star but not a prima donna. He is modest, always curious about what others do, and really interested in the people he meets. He is charismatic and has clear ideas. We exchange emails and once in a while we have dinner together.”  



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