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  • Teaching Political Theory as a Vocation
  • Susan McWilliams (bio)

My father studied political science at Berkeley during the 1950s, first as an undergraduate and then, after a brief stint in the Army, as a graduate student. To hear Dad tell it, to have been in Berkeley in the 1950s was to have been in an intellectually and politically transformative place—a place far more intellectually and politically transformative than even the Berkeley of the ’60s, feted though that decade at that university has been.1

For my father, perhaps no single person was more responsible for that atmosphere of intellectual and political transformation than Sheldon Wolin. When Dad came back to campus to pursue his PhD, he was sure that he was going to study international relations, and he was unsure whether he would follow up his doctoral degree by returning to the military or remaining in the academy. It took very little time for the recently arrived Wolin, along with Norman Jacobson and Jack Schaar, to unsettle and resettle all my father’s plans. In short order, my father changed scholarly tracks, switching his focus from the study of international relations to the study of political theory. And he became convinced that he needed to become, like these dynamic young professors of his, a teacher.

In an interview many decades later, Dad would explain that life-determining transition this way: “I just was essentially charmed by Wolin.”2

Keep in mind that Wolin, in the mid-1950s, had yet to be known for most of the things he would become known. He had not yet published Politics and Vision, or any book at all.3 He was a decade and a half from penning [End Page 191] “Political Theory as a Vocation.”4 Perhaps most interestingly, Wolin in the 1950s was not engaged—or at least not engaged publicly—in public debate or political activity. The Wolin of that moment had “this really austere” idea, Dad said, that “you shouldn’t involve yourself in politics.”5 Wolin was, in so many ways, not the Wolin he would be.

In that sense, I’m not sure that my father studied with the same scholar with whom later generations of Wolinites would study. If Wolin and my father grew apart intellectually, as I’ve heard some people say they did, the growth was not one-sided. (For his part, I should say, my father had no truck with that story. Just a few weeks before his own death in 2005, Dad wrote what would be his final essay. It was an essay about Wolin, about whom Dad said, “Sheldon Wolin was my first teacher of political theory, and there is no way to disentangle my thinking from his. At every reading of Wolin’s work, I am shocked to discover how many of my best ideas have made their way into his writing.”6) Later students of Wolin’s would sign up for classes with a man known for his academic publications and political interventions; such was not the young man with whom my younger father studied.

Having said all that, I do not think that in the end those shifts and ascensions in Wolin’s career matter all that much. For those shifts and ascensions do not really matter to the one sure constant in the vocation of Sheldon Wolin. Before my father and after him, all those students of Wolin’s, from one to the last, studied with the same man in that they studied with a great teacher, in that he was a teacher whose thoughts turned relentlessly toward teaching. My own read of Wolin, as someone who has spent her entire life being taught by his students, is that he was at his core a teacher of teachers, a teacher of teachers of political theory. To be somewhat cute in how I say it: if we want to study the continuity and innovation in Sheldon Wolin’s political thought, thinking about teaching is the key. Thinking about teaching is the key to the continuity in Wolin’s political thought because teaching is the act to which Wolin most constantly and consistently dedicated his life energy. And thinking...


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pp. 191-197
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