Commentary Magazine

On Teaching Politics Today

My relatives and other worthy people who still maintain a certain awe, tempered with skepticism, about higher education, are given to asking me what one can do with an advanced degree in political science. It’s a good question. Most government jobs go to lawyers, not to those with Ph.D.’s in government. There’s the foreign service, of course, but the glamor of “going into” government is over for the moment—perhaps never to return. Mostly what we in the political-science faculty do, of course, is to teach people to teach people to teach—which was all very well until it was discovered that there were very few openings left for teachers. What then is the point of perpetuating the study of political science altogether?

The radicals of the 60′s came up with a simple answer to this hard question when they invoked—and perhaps forever discredited—the term “relevance.” The point of teaching political science was the same as that of teaching anything else—to rectify injustice. They wanted to help the poor, not to understand poverty; they wanted history to be of the ruled, not of the rulers; they wanted philosophy not to interpret the world, but to change it. Ancient disciplines were suddenly exposed as mere fronts and shams—the study of English grammar, for example, was denounced as tyranny, if not actually genocide. That wave is now receding—and boring teachers are back to teaching boring courses. It is forgotten now that the radicals gave the wrong answers to the right questions, and that education should be relevant, but relevant to the right things.

Some time ago, I attended a lecture, very long, given by a philosopher of ordinary language. It dealt with the problem of whether or not the past could be brought about, and if not, why not. At the end an aging gentleman asked, “Could you tell me some human problem to which your speculations are relevant?” The speaker, taken aback, stammered a bit, then changed the subject. Yet all around us students are asking the very same question. Their veneers of cool indifference are touching because they are so transparent. Beneath them one senses anxiety bordering on dread, and a consuming desire to know. I am having breakfast in the student cafeteria one morning and an unprepossessing lad sits down next to me. Undeterred by my grunts and other signals that I wish to be left alone, he asks about next semester’s courses and next year’s requirements. He’s warming up for the questions that somehow struck him during the night: What’s going to happen? Will there be another war? Are things as bad as they seem? I have no answer to these questions, so I put up a barrier between us, failing him. Pity, for really he doesn’t even know what he’s asking. What he is really asking of us who teach is that we help him complete the building of his soul. Education should be relevant to the soul, but some professors deny the existence of the soul and others are poor architects.

I talk about “some professors” but I mean a certain man I loathe; I talk about “poor architects” but I refer to a colleague I detest. Teaching is very personal, full of petty squabbles and gossip that would be petty if it were not most people’s closest approach to philosophy. Teaching is not only very personal, it is also very physical. That teacher there, walking from the library to his office, dispensing smiles and warm greetings to fresh-faced undergraduates, is me. I talk a lot about souls—perhaps too much—but no soul have I ever seen that did not come in a body, and when I teach somebody I teach some body.

The physical aspects of teaching are not talked about much except in malicious comic novels, usually by faculty wives who are not quite funny enough, but those physical aspects are there. I lecture to hundreds, and my practiced eye roams freely and fiercely over bosom after bosom. I fix my tie, briskly enter a seminar room, seem to be all business. And in a way I am, as I scan the room, rejoicing at beauty, regretting homeliness—in both sexes—because teaching is a profoundly erotic activity. (The wisest thing Raquel Welch’s press agent ever said was that the mind is an erogenous zone; eros is a teacher’s business.) Rules must be observed, and one must never sleep with undergraduates, but rules make eros more erotic. All this is the least-discussed aspect of teaching, yet only those who take joy in bodies can know about the soul. Eros, as Plato well knew, and we no longer know, is the arrow pointing upward.

Now what, the discerning reader may ask, does all this have to do with teaching politics, except possibly that the name of Plato was mentioned? The answer is that it has a great deal to do with the way politics ought to be taught, and one of the reasons political science is in trouble at the moment is that it does not have enough to do with the way politics is taught. To begin with, let me make the obvious distinction between the practical and theoretical aspects of political science.

The greatest teacher of politics I have ever known, Leo Strauss, used to teach us that politics concerns political action and that political action is undertaken to make things better or to keep them from getting worse. Something must be done—but what? A vital political science ought to be able to answer that question most of the time, and indeed, though much maligned, political science does in fact occasionally come up with some answers. I actually have colleagues who in Yeats’s phrase have the “gift to set the statesman right.” I am thinking of area specialists, experts in international relations, and the like. These men are graced by vast erudition and common sense. They know whereof they speak, which, today, is rare indeed. They collect solid information and they dispense it on demand.

I admire such men but, unlike them, I myself, as somebody involved in what the profession likes to label “normative political theory”—never use a short term like political philosophy when you can find a longer one—am relegated to the realm of values, which is to say that I am not supposed to talk about facts. In vain do I preach that the very distinction between facts and values is ultimately untenable, and in vain do I protest that one can be against empiricism and still be empirical. The greatest slander against the “old” political thinkers is that they sat in small windowless rooms and dreamed up worlds. But that is not true at all. In fact they used their common sense and talked about the real world, far more so than do their latter-day descendants. Open a typical book by the ancients about politics and you will find that it begins with talk of practical matters; open a book of modern “scientific” political science and you will find that it begins with interminable, abstruse reflections on methodology. (That is why the young, reared on modern books, must be taught to read slowly: they know how to read fast.)

In any event, I admire those of my colleagues who know all about, say, the Soviet Union, and at times I envy them. Their talk fascinates me and is fascinating, whereas my own talk bores me and is boring. It is hard to talk interestingly about the best political order and the right way to live unless one is Socrates. I am not Socrates, nor was I meant to be, but my colleagues in the practical sphere have advice to give. I, by contrast, have a recurring nightmare. I am sitting at my desk, peacefully pondering a Great Book, when I am interrupted by a phone call. It is the President of the United States, with a pressing problem. The fate of the Republic hangs in the balance—“What do we do, Professor Dannhauser?” he asks. And all I can reply is, “How should I know?”



But there is a second part to the teaching of politics, too. Granted that the nation needs experts on the politics of China, the balance of terror, the restraint of bureaucracies, the improvement of representation, and many kindred matters. Their training is good not only for the nation but for the trainees themselves, for such men take legitimate pride in their craft, and men who take pride in their craft are likely to be relatively happy men. But such training has been, is, and must for the most part remain, a matter of graduate education, and I am more concerned with undergraduate education. All over the United States one finds colleges in trouble. From reading the papers one would think these troubles are purely financial; they are that too, of course, but at times the financial troubles get undue attention simply because they are easier to discuss than that sickness of soul which afflicts what used to be called “higher education” in America today.

That sickness in the case of the colleges consists of not knowing what they are doing. To be slightly less imprecise: colleges are supposed to make their students liberally educated, but the rationale for liberal education has been lost, or at least misplaced. I once taught at a college whose president would address the incoming freshmen at the beginning of each academic year. Year after year he would tell the students that one was not liberally educated unless one had read Pericles’s funeral oration. Frankly, I doubt that he even knew it was written by Thucydides, but that is beside the point, I suppose. On one such occasion one of the younger professors asked “Why?” and the president had no answer. A riddle: who was worse, the college president who knew there were reasons but could not give any, or that young professor, soon, I imagine, to become a radical activist, who thought there were no reasons?

To repeat: liberal education ought to be concerned with the architecture of a student’s soul. They call the soul the self these days, which is most likely a mistake, but never mind. Students are forever charging out into the world to “give themselves” to this cause or that party, forgetting that for the time being at least they hardly have a self to give. A liberal education ought to go some way toward remedying the deficiency. It should provide students not with the right answers but with the right questions, and those questions concern three matters basically: God, love, and death. Yet on at least two of these subjects, discussion has long since been foreclosed.

God is dead, according to the reigning piety, and most of one’s contemporaries would head for the nearest psychiatrist were God to appear to them, as He was wont to do in earlier days. Yet curiously enough I have discovered, to my intense surprise, that the current generation of students is more interested in God than in sex, possibly because they have more than they need of the second, and almost nothing of the first. (My own generation, of course, had all it needed of the first, and not nearly enough of the second.) So I assign Pascal—violating all current political-science curricula—and students who are bored by Hobbes and whose eyeballs glaze over at the very thought of Aristotle, suddenly pay attention. But though a spark or two is struck in a soul or two, most students remain under the sway of current orthodoxy, with the better ones intrigued but skeptical at my attempts to raise the question, and the best inclined to dismiss my “God-bit” as the mildly amusing put-on of a fairly amusing professor. So God goes undiscussed in the study of politics these days, despite the fact that the hunger to meditate on Him is perhaps the single profoundest hunger in the human soul.

So far as love and politics go, the connection seems to me equally self-evident. Love is sub-political, if only because the birds and bees do it (one must learn to learn from popular songs), apolitical, because nobody cares about a foreign crisis during a domestic crisis, trans-political, because people betray the fatherland all the time for a great love, and finally deeply political, because love brings men and women together into the having of families who together make up a nation. So one might think that politics and the study of politics ought really to have a great deal to say about love, but at the moment at least they do not. Our students sit there with their natures budding, their glands churning, their arrows yearning, and what they hear is so devoid of passion that even those lectures which do not give intentional support to zero population growth are, so to speak, infertile by inadvertence. As for the explicit discussion of relations between men and women, it is these days so highly charged as to be virtually impossible. To raise the question, for example, of the difference between the sexes, and the difference that difference might make, is to risk being hissed off the platform. So much for the philosophic enterprise; so much for a subject whose splendors and miseries have occupied human beings for millennia.



Death as a subject has fared better on the face of it. Though the young do not really think they will die (and, indeed, looking at them, watching them run across the campus, one finds it hard to believe that they will), the question of death has suddenly become “interesting,” the theme of a number of recent books, magazine articles, television programs, and the like. But one fad does not a confrontation make, and the reality of death is still easy enough to avoid, unless we are soldiers on the battlefield or doctors in a hospital. Otherwise we hardly ever actually see anybody dead or dying, for civilization is, among other things, a conspiracy to hide the dead. I was twenty-two before I saw a man die—my father—and now I teach young men and women many of whom have never seen a human being die. As modern medicine marches from triumph to triumph, they feel themselves growing stronger instead of weaker. So they know about death without really believing it. What shall we say, we teachers, to the young about all this, and what shall we tell them in political-science classes?

Socrates taught us that to philosophize is to learn how to die. That statement has been debased to mean that anybody who dies well is a philosopher, or perverted to suggest that some philosophers are less majestic than they seem, or corrupted to imply that the philosopher is a tragic figure, whereas he is really a comic figure. Be that as it may, Socrates must have meant a weighty thing by so weighty a statement, and he certainly seemed to indicate that political philosophy, dealing with the way man lives on earth, is the discipline that ought to instruct men in how to die on earth. To ignore death is to be condemned to a life of evasion; to confront death on the other hand can tend to the most various political possibilities. The dying Socrates, for example, founded an empire in speech that not even Nietzsche could wreck; Hobbes thought to build a good political order on the solid foundation of man’s fear of violent death; Descartes and others began, incredibly enough, to think that death itself might die; Rousseau, if I am right, brought the gospel of the noble death to the common man; Nietzsche’s eternal return came close to abolishing the difference between life and death.

The moral of these fatuously stated formulas is simple: political philosophy has a good deal to say about death that is important. By contrast, modern political science trivializes, abstracts. It deadens death. It speaks of hospital administration but not of the possible reasons a man might have for giving up his life. Only Fourth of July orators talk of such things nowadays, not professors of political science. Instead, we try to distinguish as sharply as possible between the way we live our lives and the way we die our deaths. And then we wonder that our wit is off-center, our lectures beside the point, our admonitions askew. The young are full of hidden fear and we, afraid, have nothing of value to say to them. We lack courage, or rather we have only the courage to become known as cowards. Yet if we meditated on death, perhaps we could teach them something useful about it.

So politics, to recapitulate, is the arena in which we live together as men, doing the best we can. In that arena, love, God, and death dance their dance, perform their strange spectacle. They define the shape of the arena: only by understanding them do we understand what is political and what is beyond politics. And today, when two camps seem to be forming, one of which thinks that everything is political and one of which holds that nothing is, is it not worthwhile to discover the scope, the limits, and thereby the dignity of politics? A rhetorical question.



The area specialist, cool, competent, perhaps even of finer moral fiber than those who deal in theory, protests. “You are trying to erase the line between poetry and political science, though the really good poets never claimed they had ‘the gift to set the statesman right.’ When one is sick one needs a doctor and when the sink is clogged one needs a plumber, but when does one ever need a student or teacher of political philosophy? There may be missile gaps but we are not falling behind anybody in the study of Plato. Now, uselessness may have a certain charm but it just can’t be afforded now. And you are worse than useless; you are dangerous. You pander to the inchoate yearnings of students, making them softer when they are already soft enough. Meanwhile the world does need men to ‘set the statesman right’ and, believe me, the job can’t be left to the poets.”

What shall we say to such stern talk, except perhaps, “You may be right.” And yet—on the other hand—we could say also that the old political science had a thing or two to teach even the area specialists, and even about their own areas of specialty: how to tell the good guys from the bad, for one thing, and how to go about discerning from the gods to which a given people prays, or the kind of man it cherishes, what sort of people it is—things which might even prove useful in the “real” world.

At this point the voice of a sensible man is heard, perhaps even that of a colleague in my own department. His objection is more persuasive. “God knows, I am for your ends, but who is to attain them? You are asking that political science cease to be political. You seek for a unified education of the kind given—badly—by Great Books colleges. I, too, would like to teach of love and death and God, but other departments than political science exist. You ask us to venture into philosophy and religion and psychology, but what such an education would gain in breadth, it would lose in depth. You envision seminars with a teacher asking probing questions and students wrestling beautifully with the eternal things. But the success of such seminars depends on the presence of men like Socrates to lead them, and men like Socrates are hard to find, so I stick to my limited field, doing my best.”

That sensible man does not claim to be Socrates, at least, which is to his credit. But as a sensible teacher of politics he should know that the founder of his science and mine was Socrates. Now Socrates met an untimely end, the charge being impiety. Plato’s dialogues abound with reflections about gods and men, and while it is true that the gods are not God, there also happens to be a text called City of God, honored—if not read—in political science’s Hall of Fame. Spinoza inaugurated modern biblical criticism in the Theologico-Political Treatise and the last man to be a great political philosopher shouted “God is dead” from the rooftops. It may be true that political philosophy speaks more about the utility of religion than its truth, but while that is fascinating, it is hardly conclusive. What is conclusive is that to speak of God we do not have to leave political science but to get into it deeper.

When Socrates was not in trouble, one is tempted to say, he was in love. It is a temptation one ought to resist, but the fact remains that the man who kept pleading ignorance was also the man who claimed to understand eros. In The Republic, the city founded in speech is austere and unerotic, which is why I have heard a distinguished political scientist declare that, all things considered, he would rather live in Bulgaria. But the very depreciation of eros points to its centrality. When reading Plato one simply is unable to think or talk about politics without talking or thinking about eros. Much the same might be said about Rousseau, it being no accident (as some of his descendants might put it) that the author of the Social Contract is also the author of The Confessions. Granted that between Plato and Rousseau some of the giants of our field are a little weak on love—John Locke, for example. But, on the whole, the point is clear and worth repeating: to speak of love we do not have to leave political science but penetrate to its core.

Always start with Socrates; aim high. He prayed—he loved—he died. Not like other men—better than other men. Even Nietzsche, certainly his most vehement antagonist and perhaps his greatest enemy, admired the dying Socrates. Now everything connected with Socrates is either orthodox political science or else permitted in the curriculum, albeit grudgingly and contemptuously, by orthodox political scientists. And no political philosopher worthy of the name since Socrates has failed to reflect deeply, comprehensively—that is to say philosophically—on man’s mortality. One might even say that modern political philosophy is preoccupied to the point of obsession with death, taken as nature’s final haughty assertion of power over man (which may be one reason why “nature” has seen better days in political science). Even today, “everybody dies,” as John Garfield so wisely observes in Body and Soul. Everybody dies, so all the great political thinkers meditate on the meaning of death for human life. Show me an exception and I’ll show you a political thinker not worthy of the name. And what does all this prove? Once again, that to speak meaningfully of death we do not have to leave political science but enter it.



By way of conclusion, a personal note: Like everybody else around me I learned Shaw’s not-so-bon mot early: Those who can, do, those who can’t, teach. I wanted to be the third baseman for the Cleveland Indians when I grew up, or a jazz trumpeter, or a movie star, but never a teacher. I drifted into teaching just as I drifted into everything else, both wonderful and dreadful, in my life. Graduate students need money—a student, according to Balzac, is somebody who can afford only luxuries—so I began to do a little teaching on the side. It became more than a sideline because it was a stage of sorts and I was not too bad as an actor on it. To watch a classroom full of people taking down what I said was heady, especially when there were admiring girls among them. So I kept teaching.

Then came a time when I began to realize I had grown too old to be a third baseman and I suddenly got the dreadful feeling that real life was somewhere else. So I left teaching and looked for real life as a social worker, a truck dispatcher, an editor, a researcher for a labor union. In the ivory tower the university struck me as, well, an ivory tower; but out of it, it seemed to be the place where the action was. In I went and out I went, and now I’m back in, having learned, as Milton Friedman puts it, that there is no such thing as a free lunch. One pays a price for being a teacher. One’s wit becomes donnish; one’s arguments pedantic; one grows slower without growing calmer. Continued association with those younger than oneself may hasten the coming of senility. Faculty parties are immeasurably more boring than Village parties or family parties. But real life is not out there either. It’s inside somewhere, hard to find, and teachers have a better chance of finding it than most. One has to learn to trust oneself, to trust the great stupidity one is (Nietzsche). I have not learned much about who I am, but I have learned I am a teacher.

Every once in a while the pettiness of teaching can grow suffocating. Classes start too early or they end too late, and it is nonsensical to be expected to produce wisdom on command every Monday and Wednesday at 9:05 A.M. Lectures present the consistent temptation to pontificate about what one no longer believes or has not yet come around to believing. One is forever aiming at effects, and missing, too often planting the wrong saplings in the wrong soils. Most teaching produces nothing but sound trailing off into a menacing silence, for too many students are not worthy of the name. They do not know how to read, being short on reverence for the word and its magic; they do not know how to write, having learned that grunts and sighs will almost always do the job. That boy there wants to be a lawyer and does not wish to have his ambitions interrupted by scruples; that girl there already knows what justice is and takes my course only to catch me in a compromising intellectual stance. Here is a lad whose slumbers (at times accompanied by snores) are not even dogmatic; here is a lass who wants to be loved for herself alone but would not think to cut her yellow hair. “I’m interested only in learning,” says young Mr. X, shortly before using my name as reference on twelve different applications. “Could I have an extension?” they all seem to ask, and one learns not to listen to their reasons.

Students lie too much, tend either to dismiss themselves too easily or to take themselves too seriously, and can be amazingly churlish. Above all, they are unfinished, which is part of their charm, of course, though once a month or so it begins to pall, and one yearns to be surrounded by grown-ups. For weeks at a time teaching can be a nightmare, vacillating between the boring and the exasperating, amounting to a race between one’s own lack of interest and that of the students—they always win. But then will come a lecture during which I manage to say something that is right and catch the reflection of that rightness in an eager eye. Or a young man will come into my office, saying “I don’t know if you remember me. . . .” I do, and it will turn out that in some small but lasting way, I have changed his life for the better. Or a question will come up during a seminar and gradually the class will understand something and understand that it understands. And then it is clear that one could do worse than teach politics, even today.


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