Beloved Religion Professor Howard Miller Retires After 40 Years

Dr. G. Howard Miller didn’t plan on being a teacher. But on Dec. 3, after 40 years of touching countless lives at The University of Texas, the associate professor and Distinguished Teacher taught his last class to a packed auditorium.

As he wrapped up the lecture, a jazz band played him out with “When the Saints Go Marching In” — a fitting end for an acclaimed professor who helped build the University’s religious studies department from the ground up and charmed students with his mix of religion and American culture. 

He first came to the University in 1971 when the history department was shifting to large lecture classes for the required American history courses. The department had to hire several new faculty members to teach the courses, and professor emeritus Clarence Lasby suggested that one should teach a course on American religion. Miller fit the bill and ended up teaching a two-semester survey of American religion, a class he believes was one of the first survey classes on religion at any secular school.  

Many teachers would have been scared off by the hundreds of faces staring down at them, but not Miller. No, it was in that big auditorium, he says, that he knew teaching was his calling. “I thought, ‘Oh, this is me,'” he says. “This is what I want to do.” And teach, he did, growing up with the religious studies field.

Then in the early 2000s, Miller says he noticed “the beginning of a Jesus moment — maybe a Jesus hour — in American history.” George Bush had brought Jesus into the White House. Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ had brought Jesus to box offices, along with a lesser-seen Canadian film, The Gospel According to John. And vampire-fiction queen Anne Rice returned to her Roman-Catholic roots with a trilogy of books on Jesus’ life. 

And Howard Miller brought it all to the classroom. A grant from the Liberal Arts Instructional Technology Services helped him develop what became one of his most popular courses, “Jesus in American Culture.” In 2006, a film crew attended each of his lectures, and they are now all available for viewing online.

Though still engaging at 69, Miller says the years have caught up with him. He suffers from arthritis and recognizes that he can’t relate to his students in the ways he once could. Whether it’s the ever-expanding age gap or Mother Nature, Miller believes teachers can’t teach forever.

“Whatever it is that has made me the great teacher that everyone tells me I am,” he says, “whatever that is — it is not a renewable resource. You finally just run out of whatever that human dimension is that makes a person a really great teacher who can really affect human lives in vast numbers.”

And, Miller says, he was not going to stand by for the day when students would tell him that their grandparents had taken his class.

So what does Miller hope his legacy with generations of students will have been?

First: a dedication to protecting The University of Texas. He ended his last class appealing to his students to do all they can for UT. “Love your state. Love your university,” he said. “In your lifetime, it is going to be increasingly vulnerable, even endangered. Support it in any way you can.”

And also: an appreciation for the liberal arts.

He told Statesman reporter Joshunda Sanders, “If I do have a calling, it’s to teach the gospel of liberal arts, not the Gospel of Jesus.” 

It’s a liberal arts education, he says, that will be worthwhile to 44-year-olds who wake up without a clue as to what they want to do with their lives. Because, he says, it’s a liberal arts education that teaches people to “understand the variety and complexity of the human experience.” 

Now, Miller admits, he’ll have to see what his liberal arts education has done for him. “I have to see if I can be anything other than Dr. Miller,” he says. “Can I practice what I preach? We are going to see.”

Photo courtesy UT College of Liberal Arts


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