Harvard political scientist Samuel H. Beer, one of the foremost American scholars of British politics, died last week at the age of 97. The author of many books, he was perhaps best known among students of Britain for his influential 1965 study of “British Politics in the Collectivist Age,” and his widely-read textbook “Modern British Politics.”
British political scientist Michael Moran described Beer in 2006 as “probably the most distinguished foreign scholar of our system of government in the 20th century.” I met Beer only once, when my painfully long and almost unreadable doctoral thesis — in what I presume was a very thin field — won a prize named after him from the British Politics Group of the American Political Science Association. But just to be associated with his name was an honor: his students included Stanley Hoffman, Harvey Mansfield, Henry Kissinger, Michael Walzer, and Charles Tilly.
Contrary to academic mythology, faculty advisers are not responsible — well, not directly, at least — for what their students get up to. But that collection of names says something about Beer. All of them are difficult to place politically: they range from philosophic conservatives (Mansfield) to Rockefeller Republicans (Kissinger, who, remember, started as a Nelson Rockefeller supporter) to philosophic liberals (Walzer).
Beer himself was a Democrat throughout his life, writing speeches for Roosevelt in 1935 and 1936, serving as chairman of Americans for Democratic Action from 1959 to 1962, and testifying as a supporter of President Clinton during the impeachment hearings. But, as the Harvard Crimson points out, he was also an opponent of the student rebellions at Harvard in the 1960s. That made him a representative — like many of his students — of an increasingly rare type in academia: the post-war liberal, definitely Democrat in inclination, but also an opponent of the New Left, which was violent in practice and uninterested in philosophy, history, and the possibility of knowledge by inclination.
And also unlike the New Left, which now dominates the academy, he was a tolerant man, genuinely devoted to teaching. An academy of Beers would be a liberal academy, but it would not be a propagandizing one. It would not make many conservatives out of the liberals, but it would also not go out of its way to convert the conservatives to liberalism. It would not be an academy that conservatives would admire, necessarily, but it would be one they could respect, for it would be true to the belief that universities exist to pass on the best that has been written and thought.
To die at 97, with health and mental vigor unimpaired until the very end, is not a tragedy. But Beer’s death is a loss nonetheless, not simply because of his own strengths as a scholar and teacher, but because there are so few of his kind left. He was a giant, and his greatness stands in sharper relief when viewed against the background of the contemporary academy.