A Tribute to Tony Bing, Academics | Earlham College
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A Tribute to Tony Bing, Former Director of PAGS

By Caroline Higgins and Howard Richards

Anthony (Tony) Bing, who passed away half a year after the fortieth reunion of the Peace and Global Studies Program (PAGS), to which he contributed so much, will be remembered by hundreds if not thousands of people whose lives he profoundly touched. As Caroline and Howard attempt to give tribute to their friend and colleague, they realize that the task is beyond them, and perhaps beyond anyone, except close family. Caroline and Howard knew Tony primarily as a peace intellectual and activist, and such was his energy and commitment that we could assume that his other interests and passions were secondary even if, at a deeper level, we must have known it wasn´t so. Occasionally he amused us or dazzled us with his wide-ranging abilities: He was a thespian and pianist, for instance, and a fine singer who knew the lyrics to countless songs. He coached Earlham´s golf team. He and a group of students he sponsored built a yurt on Earlham´s back campus.  He liked to entertain and did so frequently. He was a faithful member of Clear Creek Meeting, driving the sick and elderly to their appointments and comforting those in need. He read and spoke French. He knew Shakespeare backwards and forwards.

Tony came to Earlham from Kenyon College, where he held a tenured position as a professor of English. At Earlham he would be not only a professor English but also Dean of Students. As Dean he would inaugurate an innovative program integrating students´ academic pursuits and personal lives in a holistic framework. We have yet to mention Tony´s role in the Great Lakes Semester Program in Jerusalem which he founded and led for decades, and his tireless devotion to peace efforts in Israel-Palestine based on justice and equity for the two peoples. He knew dozens of people in Jerusalem and the West Bank and strived to learn from them. While in the United States he gave presentations based on his vast knowledge and personal experience, often putting himself in uncomfortable situations as he strove to speak truth to power. Simply listing these achievements (not to mention his loving devotion to his family) speaks to our difficulty as we attempt to show Tony’s intellectual and moral presence. He was a man of many parts and impressive accomplishments, and now that he is no longer with us, he seems larger than life. Aware of our limitations, we have resigned ourselves to focusing on the experiences and conversations the three of us shared in Earlham College´s Peace and Global Studies (PAGS) program. First we will offer some thoughts on his philosophy and values. Then we will weave the same themes into a brief account of his life.

The growth of Tony’s ideas and ideals was consistent and coherent. During his teens twenties and certainly before the age of 30 he had come to conclusions that did not vary in their broad outlines thereafter. He had the rest of his life to live out the consequences of his beliefs, honestly and persistently, often in the role of a person whose good intentions are understood by those around him dimly or not at all. Ideas, he often said, are to be lived, not thought. He walked his talk.

Like Paulo Freire and several other authors he read he found that meaning in life could be found in solidarity with the oppressed. He was, however, not an optimist about their emancipation. The twentieth century had seen several movements whose initial inspiration was grounded in the affirmation of human dignity sink into violence and hypocrisy, not mainly because of the human failings of its partisans, and not even mainly because of the lies and the cruelties of its enemies, but mainly because of forces des choses, forces that seem to be part of the human condition and to propel history toward tragedy independently of the moral qualities of its human protagonists.

If Tony’s nonviolence began as a growing realization in his early years of what it would really mean to walk faithfully in the footsteps of Jesus, it continued as an intellectually valid strategy for social change. Nonviolence was a strategy that accepted impotence in the face of those who win today’s battles by violence, relying on the considered conviction that a better tomorrow is best built by a greater strength that is softer and more patient.

Tony often found himself in the position of an activist without a plan. With respect to the Middle East, but not only with respect to the Middle East, he stood in solidarity with victims. He worked tirelessly to educate a public which was often uninformed or misinformed about even the most basic facts. But if you asked him what exactly was his formula or his road map he did not answer your question with a plan. This was not because he had not thought about the issues. It was not because he had not studied the formulae and the road maps others had proposed. It was not because he did not know that the transformation of the global economy and of the modern world-system are prerequisites to peace and to sustainability. It was not because he did not realize that sooner or later transformation must include establishing definite institutional forms constituted by definite legal and ethical norms.

It was because like his intellectual hero Malraux he understood man’s fate at a deeper level. It was because he knew that real solutions to problems require not only the ability to create clarity but also and more fundamentally the maturity to confront ambiguity. It was because early in his life he became convinced that the amelioration of the human lot depends not only on plans but also and more fundamentally on values. It depends less on the mind and more on the heart. It was such convictions — or at least we have come to believe that it was such convictions — that led him to become a teacher of literature. He could have devoted himself to research. He chose teaching. He could have chosen science. He chose art. He believed that in the understanding of human values and in the nurturing of human values literature and the teaching of literature have essential roles to play.

If we ask what were the “human values” which we have just identified as the lodestars guiding Tony on his path through life, we find in his many writings — almost all of which were written to address particular groups on particular occasions — many illuminations but no definitions. He chose his words carefully, considering not just their meanings but also their weights, not just the dictionary but also the audience, not just his supporters but also his detractors who could be expected — this is the sad truth — to take advantage of any opportunities he might carelessly allow them to paint his pacifism in strident colors of weakness and absurdity. That said, we select from his writing and speaking a few words he chose on one occasion or another to name his values: “community,” “reunion,” “responsibility,” “love, ““solidarity,” “dignity,” “compassion.” And, quoting from Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago, “You in others — this is your soul. This is what you are.”

To honor Tony upon his retirement from Earlham (in 2001), the PAGS community decided to present him with a Festschrift consisting of essays written by alumnae. The ceremony took place in 2004, on the thirtieth anniversary of the program. The contributions to the book illustrated the intersection of the professional and vocational lives of its authors with the educational formation they had received in the PAGS program. All except the youngest authors had studied with Tony, and many had participated in the Jerusalem program which he led right up to the time of his retirement. (Reframing the Issues:  Contemporary Essays in Peace Studies for Tony Bing, Earlham Press, 2004). Caroline wrote an introduction to the volume which briefly chronicled Tony´s academic trajectory. The introduction, as well as Tony´s autobiographical writings, can serve as a framework for weaving the development of his ideals into a brief account of his life.

Anthony Grayum Bing was born on August 24, 1935. He attended public grade schools in Youngstown and Columbus, Ohio, and, (from 1943) in Hudson, Ohio. He excelled at academics and also at music, singing in a boys’ choir and studying piano. His descriptions of his childhood suggest a happy boy in comfortable circumstances, little troubled by the problems of the wider world. As he was later to say, in his self-deprecating way, he was “clever but not deep.” In his senior year of high school, however, he was jolted out of complacency by a sermon delivered by a Rev. Jones from Oberlin who asserted that Christianity and violence are incompatible. “I believe that you cannot be a Christian without being a conscientious objector to all wars,” Rev. Jones said. The claim hit Tony like a thunderbolt. He was immediately persuaded by a teaching which had never entered his consciousness, although, as a member of a boys´ choir, he had sung many hymns, spent many hours in chapel and had heard many sermons. The rest of his life can be seen as a gradual working out of the implications of Rev. Jones´ position.

It is interesting to speculate on the factors which contributed to Tony´s initial turn toward a radical position at variance with the beliefs and practices he was brought up with. He himself seemed not to know. Few events in his youth were of a nature to provoke a prodigious reaching towards a more principled moral and intellectual foundation on which to stand. It is noteworthy and perhaps significant that in eighth grade he stopped growing. He was slow to enter puberty. In a few years he ceased being one of the bigger boys, becoming the second smallest one. He went from being on the first team in basketball in sixth grade to failing to make the team in eighth grade. Stuck in his maturation process, he was subjected to cruel teasing at his prep school (Western Reserve Academy) where he was a day student. At the very least, his slow physical maturation made him feel like “an outsider,” as he once put it, and starting at that lonely place, he could begin to appreciate exile and enmity, themes which all his life tethered his beliefs to action and formed the contours of his sensibilities.

We see one other circumstance from Tony´s youth which may have contributed to the enlargement of his moral vision as he finished high school. As he once confessed to Caroline, in spite of the fairly liberal religious environment in which he grew up, he was unaccountably prey to morbid religious doubts and fears. Perhaps he was more clever than truthful when he later described his youthful self as “clever but not deep.”

Whatever the twists and turns in his development, Tony´s moment of return to his prep school and former church, when he was in his early thirties, suggests something dark and troubling in his own assessment of his past. At each he read a lecture which he had delivered to a group of international students while serving as director of a study program at the American University of Beirut (l967-69). Inspired by his anger over the Vietnam War and the plight of the Palestinian refugees he had met in Lebanon, Tony found his voice as he parsed the great themes in Malraux´s Man´s Fate, a book to which he returned to time and again in the course of his teaching career: Justice, injustice, suffering, exile, redemption, meaning, and art. All found expression in Tony´s presentations first in Beirut and, shortly afterwards, in Ohio, at the places where, as he was later to observe, his past had in many ways let him down. He felt compelled to revisit just once the settings of his childhood and adolescence ¨to fill in the empty spaces (he) had experienced in his youth.¨ He never went to reunions thereafter because ¨there was never a union to begin with.¨

Tony´s four years at Haverford College were among the happiest of his life. He explored Quakerism, deepening his commitment to pacifism, and fell in love with English literature, to the teaching of which he decided to devote his career. Fifty years and more after graduation he was able to recall the numerous courses he took and the names of the professors who taught them. He even remembered the books he read in his beginning English and humanities courses. (We wonder how many of the rest of us can say the same.) Encouragement and approval came his way. One summer while taking a course in Shakespeare at Harvard his teacher, John Berryman, told the class that Tony´s composition was ¨the finest test¨ on Shakespeare that he had ever read written by an undergraduate. Years later as a graduate student at Oxford his tutor predicted that Tony would become the leading Shakespeare scholar of his generation.

After Haverford Tony, now married to June Woodward, whom he had met the summer between his junior and senior years, went to the University of Michigan for graduate study. His doctoral program lasted six years; the two middle years he spent at Oxford, where their daughter Jennifer was born. In the final years of his program his advisor persuaded Tony to put aside his intent to write his dissertation on Neoplatonist influences in Shakespeare´s plays. Instead he rather reluctantly agreed to research French Shakespearean criticism. Ironically, it was at this point, when he was superbly prepared to raise his flag as a preeminent Shakespeare scholar, that he lost interest in the project, having concluded that Shakespearean scholarship had become derivative and unoriginal. Throughout his academic career, however, he taught Shakespeare and, in connection with his classes, wrote a series of essays on the plays which were highly regarded by colleagues and students alike, and which he vaguely thought of publishing ¨some day.¨

By the time Tony finished his dissertation he was already teaching at Kenyon College, home to one of the most highly regarded English Departments in the United States. He loved his classes and for four years, at least, felt content with his job. By the late sixties, however, he was beginning to feel isolated and cut off from the momentous events of the decade. Perhaps for that reason he agreed to lead the Great Lakes Colleges Program to Lebanon, to which we have already alluded. His experiences there were life-changing. When he returned to the United States he was eager to expand his horizons. An opportunity presented itself when he was offered a position at Earlham College.

Tony sometimes described the major moves of his life as “spontaneous,” including his decision to leave Kenyon for Earlham, and, much later, his choice to go to Iraq in l990 as part of a delegation from the Fellowship of Reconciliation to work towards averting what is now called the First Iraq War.  Even in regard to his marriage, he claimed that there was “nothing rational” about the pace of his courtship with June, culminating in marriage in the summer after his senior year of college. He “felt good,” he said “following (his) heart.” He interpreted the significant disruptions of his life (including the decision to devote the last part of his teaching career to Peace Studies and to the Great Lakes Colleges´ Jerusalem Program, which he founded in l982) as “leavings” spelling his identity as an exile and pilgrim. Caroline and Howard, however, recalling his words, see something in Tony’s choices which his own commentary obscures: He was a man of immense courage, incapable of reckoning the weight of his decisions in terms of safety, comfort, or career advancement. What he described as “hasty” and many would describe as “rash” can be read as a stubborn imperative generated by the feelings of wandering and exile which he frequently alluded to, culminating in a commitment to a sort of postmodern pilgrimage, or a series of them. Quakers often speak in terms of “callings,” which, inspired by the divine, must be taken very seriously. Tony´s decisions, it seems to us, while amenable to disputation, are best described as promptings deeper than speech and more persuasive than argument.

Thus in l970 he gave up a tenured position as professor of English in one of the country´s preeminent English departments to begin anew at Earlham College as Dean of Students and professor of English. (Eventually Tony earned tenure at Earlham as a professor of English). It hardly bears mentioning that Tony had no experience whatever of college administration. We did not know Tony then — we arrived in l974 — but we are confident that we can describe the challenges he faced even if he enjoyed the backing of President Landrum Bolling, who had been inspired to hire Tony after meeting him in Lebanon, where both of them were heavily invested in peacemaking. Tony would be expected to devote half-time to English and half-time to administering an ambitious college-wide program. Half-time appointments have a way of growing into full time positions (in terms of workload rather than material advantages). Even under the best of circumstances there would likely be tensions surrounding the new position. Some colleagues in the 1970s and l980s were suspicious of interdepartmental programs, regarding the blurring of departmental lines as a threat to disciplinary rigor and excellence. Tony´s position was perhaps even more precarious, since some on the faculty were likely to see the reforms he advocated as Dean of Students as lamentable concessions to caring and nurturing attitudes (often associated with Quakers) inconsistent with the highest educational standards. In such circumstances Tony´s successes would be irritants to those who wanted Earlham to go in a different direction. (So far as we know, however, everyone was pleased that Tony chose to direct and sing in a number of Gilbert and Sullivan productions at Earlham, an activity, he later quipped, he gave up when he became too old to play the male lead).

Those wanting to revisit the years Tony served as Dean of Students (and later as Dean of Student Development) can do no better than read the addresses he prepared to welcome new students and parents each year, and perhaps especially the one he wrote in l977 on Community and Self. All of his presentations reveal a commitment to Earlham´s ideal of educating whole persons and to fostering individuality in the embrace of the wider community.  As he affirmed, quoting Martin Buber, “We exist only in relation to others.” He wrote as an administrator but also as a Quaker educator and a professor of literature, peppering his papers with references to Whitman, Dostoevsky, Malraux, and Camus. He revealed his trials as well as his aspirations. In l977, for instance, he acknowledged that “Quaker,” like “community,” had taken “an awful beating” during the previous academic year due to stressful tensions on campus. On a personal level, he reported that “Those of us in Student Development were accused of simply stroking students’ bruised egos last year” by a faculty member who, we suspect, wasn´t alone in his or her complaints.

Those of us in Peace Studies, however, are likely to respond most profoundly to a project that in one sense proved ephemeral but in a larger sense served as a prophetic statement on the potential of experiential education. We refer to the “planning of a yurt community on campus”, as Tony described it. By the time we met Tony only one yurt stood, by the entrance to Wilkinson Center, as silent witness to an ambitious dream, but Tony’s feelings of accomplishment lingered on as we can see from the assessment he wrote during his retirement years. What we find remarkable in it is Tony’s commitment to many of the ideals (like multiculturalism and experiential education) which still struggled to find expression at Earlham and elsewhere as the end of the twentieth century approached. We note especially the synthesis of theory and practice which informed the yurt project and, a bit later, the PAGS program. “Thinking our way into action and acting our way into thinking” is perhaps the best, and surely the most succinct description of the PAGS pedagogical mission, and it was clearly at the heart of the yurt project.

We quote from Tony´s memoirs:

“One great example of our work was the planning of a yurt community on campus, an enterprise that involved more than one hundred and fifty students who studied appropriate sites for a village, researched wind and solar patterns for alternative energy use, consulted with county officials on issues of health and safety, worked on designs, etc. We built a prototype yurt on campus, and I used it for teaching my Humanities classes. Unfortunately the Yurt Village was an idea ahead of its time and was not approved by the Board of Trustees.”

(In another place Tony mentions that he had the whole-hearted of Earlham’s president, Franklin Wallin).

Although Tony was totally dedicated to his work, he managed to put aside time to spend with family. With June and daughters Jennifer, Rebecca, and Alison he relaxed at their summer home on Lake Michigan, and they also travelled together in the Middle East and Europe. In 1987 he received a Lilly Fellowship to write a biography of the Israeli pacifist, Joseph Abileah. After a semester in Jerusalem spent with his family and twenty-two students, he was in residence at Woodbrooke, a Quaker educational center in Birmingham, England, where he completed his work on Abileah, published in l990 by the Syracuse University Press. The year was especially gratifying because his children were with him and June much of the time: Jennifer and her husband were teaching at the Friends School in Ramallah, Alison was enrolled at the Anglican School in Jerusalem, and Rebecca visited at Christmas time after completing a semester in Liberia.

When Tony returned to Earlham from England in 1988 he was asked to direct the PAGS program. By that time he had already created the GLCA Jerusalem Program which rapidly became a centerpiece for PAGS students (as well as other students at Earlham and the GLCA colleges). The many senior papers on the Middle East archived in the PAGS office bear testimony to the immense influence the Jerusalem Program exerted on generations of students, some of whom eventually chose careers working in conflicted areas of the Middle East.

Tony rapidly rose to prominence among peace educators on a national level. He served as Executive Director of the Peace Studies Association (1993-2000), a consortium of over two hundred colleges and universities offering peace studies which he had help to found. In l992 he was named Peace Educator of the Year by the Peace Studies Association. In l993 the British Government granted Tony an award for his peace work in Northern Ireland: He had established a GLCA semester program there modeled on the Jerusalem Program. It rapidly became one of the most popular off-campus semester options for Earlham and other GLCA schools.

Yet in his memoirs he wrote that the honors which meant most to him came from Earlham. In 1998 he was invited to give the Charles Lectures into which he poured his passions for literature, justice, and peace. He was given a standing ovation. (The Charles Lectures are available online at Earlham College Charles Lectures #1). Caroline and Howard were happy to learn that the other honor which most touched him was the Festschrift crafted in his honor. It was presented to him in a ceremony attended by many PAGS alumnae, colleagues, and students at the PAGS 30th Anniversary Reunion in 2004. “These essays,” he later observed, “were especially meaningful because they were all written by PAGS graduates. It was gratifying to see the results of our program, as well as to know that our work would be carried on and spread in years to come.”

As we reach towards an appropriate conclusion, we are aware that in drawing attention to the high points in Tony´s life, we have failed to convey a sense of the quality of the friendships he maintained with us and many other colleagues. It was in the hundreds of hours of committee meetings, one on one conferences, faculty meetings, and special assignments that Tony revealed his collegiality and loyalty to PAGS and the wider Earlham community. He was at the same time a conscientious advisor whose door was always open and a weighty member of the faculty who assumed more than his share of duties, including that of speaking out when others feared to do so. He was close to the center of institutional life throughout his Earlham years, and in all of his endeavors he left his mark.

After his retirement to North Carolina Tony continued to work hard, teaching courses on the Middle East and leading several delegations to the Middle East, among other things. He served on the Board of the American Friends Service Committee and clerked its National Peace Education Committee and its Middle East Peacebuilding Program Advisory Committee. In 2004 he co-authored a work, When the Rain Returns, a study of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict.

In 2006 Caroline was part of a group which went to Israel/Palestine with Tony. June, who had begun to suffer from dementia, was in the group, and Rebecca went along to help care for her. Although Tony kept up a brisk pace, Caroline had occasion to remember a secret she and Howard and stumbled across years before: Tony suffered from a rare disease which, his oncologist said, was sure to get worse.

During his final years Tony was the sole caregiver for June who suffered from a debilitating stroke before her demise in December of 2014, four months before Tony passed away. He was busy working and writing almost to the end. We close with a quotation from one of his essays:

“The most honest statement about the peacemaker´s self is that self is not the most important thing in the world. The world did not begin with us and it does not end with us, and our faith in the continuity of the human community is ironically the greatest means of insuring that our individual selves do make a difference.”

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