Judith Shklar has a provocative little essay called “Why Teach Political Theory?” Crafting the response she might give to “some imaginary dean,” Shklar emphasizes that a liberal education is about familiarizing the young with their literary heritage, and it’s hard to deny that the classics of political theory are at the center of that heritage. Sending the autodidact into the library isn’t enough. We need the personal exchange of the classroom to prevent ourselves from becoming “the prisoner[s] of a single vocabulary”—particularly since “our accumulated political notions constitute a veritable Tower of Babel.”
Shklar’s essay first appeared in 1988 in a small collected volume, but I recently discovered the piece in the appendix to On Political Obligation (ed. Samantha Ashenden and Andreas Hess, Yale University Press, 2019). The editors are right to bookend their collection of Shklar’s undergraduate lectures on “political obligation” with “Why Teach Political Theory?”, since Shklar speaks of teaching itself as an obligation that professors have to their students. As Shklar states, “A teacher must be visibly there,” standing as a testimony “that a sane and intelligent adult can really care deeply about such things as the history of political thought.”
For Shklar, a professor’s appearance and availability to her students is
an Emersonian act of representation, in which the teacher gets the young to recognize and become part of a wide intellectual world, but also accepts that the questions and demands of individual students require respectful answers, and even occasionally a rethinking of received wisdom, especially one’s own.
Her metaphor between teacherly responsibility and Emersonian representativeness is intriguing because, two years later, Shklar would publish an article titled, “Emerson and the Inhibitions of Democracy.” This piece, printed in Political Theory, highlighted how Emerson’s sense of his own intellectual exceptionalism in a work like Self-Reliance (1841) threatened to undermine the liberal ideals that Emerson elsewhere claimed to champion. Self-Reliance celebrated the “great men” of history, who become “great’ not through democratic participation or reform but by communing with the best intellects of the past, in something of a many-centuried Mensa Club. Emerson suggested that society inevitably misunderstands these noble minds, so the great man seeks a bookish solitude to confirm his true potential. This is the credo of the professor who finds undergrads a chore and yearns for a perpetual sabbatical.
Shklar argues that Emerson comprehended the undemocratic consequences of such hero-worship, and he regulated the excesses of his own literary romanticism out of what Shklar calls a democratic “inhibition.”
“Why Teach Political Theory” calls for a related inhibition. The professor, Shklar says, must resist the “demand for the guru-teacher.” Political theory is vulnerable to these self-appointed “masters” because theory can so easily slip into ideology. Guru-professors, Shklar warns, hinder the maturation of their students and betray their vocation for a personal interest “in themselves, in their message, in their followers, and in their renown.” We can surmise that Shklar would not have loved academic Twitter.
A related threat comes from the professor who ceases to love her subject. The indifferent teacher is a dishonest one, since so much of the vocation requires modeling what it is that the political theorist does—and that means demonstrating a life of active conversation, reading, and writing.
Shklar’s analogy with the Emersonian representative is instructive because, in her Emerson essay, she notes that Emerson’s solution to intellectual elitism was to present history’s greatest minds as our “representatives.” This explains Emerson’s language of “rotation” in Representative Men (1850). As Emerson put it, “society is a Pestalozzian school; all are teachers and pupils in turn. We are equally served by receiving and imparting.” Scholars must share their knowledge with the rest of the polity, and average citizens tolerate such scholars because they see them as spokesmen for their society. Plus, democrats take comfort in knowing the tables will soon turn.
Shklar stresses that the professor is not her students’ equal. If we apply the old delegate/trustee distinction in political representation, Shklar’s vision of the professor-as-representative is very much one of the trustee. Still, the professor who is active in the civic life of the university, and who hasn’t succumbed to either indifference or self-seeking, respects her students as her constituents—and as the inheritors of the field.
Photo Credit: Nathan Dumlao, via Unsplash.