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  • Sheldon Wolin: From Oberlin to Berkeley and Beyond
  • Harlan Wilson (bio)

It was during the fall of 1965 that I first encountered Professor Sheldon Wolin in Berkeley. Having graduated from a then-obscure liberal arts college in the Northwest in 1964, and then having spent a subsequent year as a caseworker for the San Diego County Welfare Department in my hometown, I had no idea what to expect at Berkeley. Although I had taken quite a bit of political theory as an undergraduate, in no way was I prepared for Mr. Wolin or his colleague Mr. Schaar, let alone for the behavioral revolution in other subfields rapidly gaining momentum. Wolin’s courses in European political theory, especially his seminar, along with Schaar’s courses in American political theory, became transformational experiences for me as for so many others.

Although I did not know it then, a main component of Sheldon Wolin’s development as a theorist had taken place at the same college, Oberlin, where I would later teach for more than four decades. Wolin, who came from Buffalo, graduated from Oberlin in 1946, two years later than intended, after serving as a bomber pilot during the war. After grad school at Harvard he returned to teach at Oberlin for two years before heading off to Berkeley in 1954. He published in 1960 that astonishing first book, Politics and Vision, which was not a monograph but a sweeping history of political thought that transformed not only the field but scholarship on specific topics such as the early Christian church, Machiavelli, and Hobbes. In 1970 he left Berkeley rather unhappily to teach at Santa Cruz, and not long after that settled in Princeton for the last years of his teaching career. He retired in the nineties [End Page 198] to a remote area in the northern California redwoods, where he built his own house and enjoyed the backwoods atmosphere while, characteristically, at the same time engaging with and participating in the small-town politics of the region and finishing the three great books he would publish in the 2000s.

At Berkeley Wolin had been one of the first faculty members to support the Free Speech Movement in 1964–1965. He had led an effort in the faculty senate to oppose administration efforts to silence or crush the student movement. As a teacher, however, he was anything but a radical in matters of pedagogy or appearance. Quiet, dignified, thoughtful, utterly articulate, authoritative even in his early forties, rather aloof until he trusted you (which took awhile), he had a dry ironic wit that took close listening to be fully appreciated. He often lectured even in graduate seminars, at least the one I took with him in something like the politics of knowledge and method—Bacon, Descartes, Weber, Durkheim, Paul Valery, Sartre—indeed, many of the texts that would become the basis of his 1969 article “Political Theory as a Vocation.” Though quiet, he spoke with an impressive sense of urgency.

He was not at all a radical democrat in matters of teaching style or pedagogy: certainly no Paolo Freire or Paul Goodman. He was, nonetheless, a spellbinding, extraordinary teacher. Like Schaar, Hanna Pitkin, and Norman Jacobson, and unlike many of his behaviorally oriented colleagues, Wolin clearly loved teaching, undergraduate as well as graduate. And he thought it really mattered. The weekly meetings he led with teaching assistants, going over the theory texts to be lectured on and discussed that week, taught me more political theory than any other activity, even reading Politics and Vision. Wolin prized the classroom not only because he cared deeply about political theory in itself, but also because he saw teaching as a possible means to political transformation—not directly through ideological preaching but simply by showing how political theory can provide models of thoughtful inquiry into the political condition. And like most of my graduate student colleagues, I took that part of the theoretical vocation with utter seriousness.

When I left Berkeley for Oberlin in 1972, Wolin had already gone to Princeton, leaving Schaar at Santa Cruz and his other theory colleagues, [End Page 199] Jacobson, Michael Rogin, and Wolin’s student Hanna Fenichel Pitkin, still at...


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