Jean Bethke Elshtain: In Memoriam

Essays

I don’t know precisely when I first met Jean Elshtain. I think it was in the summer of 1995, in Swift Hall, home of the University of Chicago Divinity School. I must have been told of her arrival by one of the faculty. I know I talked to her in the corridor, that most important of places to ambush your teachers, and decided after that chat, that I would sit in on her class that Fall term—entitled, as I remember it, “Beginnings.”

ElshtainI don’t know precisely when I first met Jean Elshtain.  I think it was in the summer of 1995, in Swift Hall, home of the University of Chicago Divinity School.  I must have been told of her arrival by one of the faculty.  I know I talked to her in the corridor, that most important of places to ambush your teachers, and decided after that chat, that I would sit in on her class that Fall term—entitled, as I remember it, “Beginnings.”  It was an apt title for the course, though the sort of title that gives registrars heartaches: What, after all, was it about?  Well, beginnings, of course: how everything began, or more specifically how different social and political thinkers imagined the origins of human sociality (and the world, in several cases) as a way into asking some of the fundamental questions of social and political thought.

What was impressive, from the syllabus forward, was what you have to call the radical catholicity of her thinking.  If it was important to the topic at hand, we discussed it.  That didn’t mean we rejected canonical texts wholesale; rather, we made our own decisions.  We read some Hobbes and Rousseau, probably some Augustine, Bonhoeffer’s Creation and Fall, some homilies of John Paul II, and if memory serves me right one or two novels.  We definitely talked about television shows, ones currently running and older ones as well; and bits of movie criticism and mentions of pop culture appeared too.  There was no respect—or even attention, really—given to disciplinary boundaries or coherence. Not disciplined, not interdisciplinary, not counter-disciplinary: something more like supra-disciplinary.

We students found all this a bit disorienting, untidy, and utterly delightful.  It was certainly fascinating, and exhilarating, to this student, perhaps over-eager to discipline himself into academia as a career.  In the previous years I had taken classes in political thought on Habermas, on Rawls and Gewirth, on Hobbes, Harrington, and Locke; but never on “beginnings.”  That thematic orientation let us lift our eyes to the horizon, as it were, away from the pin-assembly tables to which we had been chained.  It let us know the difference between the bureaucracy of the disciplines and the vocation of thought.  It was a reminder that thinking should never be wholly disciplined: that it had to be, in some important ways, free, beyond received patterns.

The class was also an excellent introduction to Jean’s mind, to the way it worked.  She was never one to respect factitious intellectual boundaries merely because they predated her arrival at some border.  Everything had to give an account of itself; if it was of use, well and good; if not, then it did not merit retention.

This carried over into her office.  I remember one of the first times I was in her office.  She had these pictures—giant, as I remember them—of her with Vaclav Havel, and other Great Minds.  But she also had stacks of books, some academic and some not, and magazines and newspapers.  She was just settling in to Swift, in those days.  But I don’t think the alarming and vertigo-inducing (to a well-mannered grad student) non-disciplinarity, almost anti-disciplinarity, of the place, or of her, ever went away.

She was this way with students, as well.  Most faculty had sign-up sheets in fifteen minute slots; when I was there, Jean was just around, and you knocked on her door, and said, “can I talk to you?”  If she was talking to a colleague, or a friend in the White House, or Michael Walzer, or some Central European intellectual, or an editor from the New York Review of Books or The New Republic or NPR or PBS, you waited.  When she was done and turned to you, the tone didn’t change, the attention didn’t relax, the eyes did not wander to other things.  She was interested in you.  It was a bracing and invigorating attention: it communicated respect to you, and implied that you were not wasting her time.  So you better not be, buster.  You would chat for ten or so minutes on what you wanted to ask her, and then she would take charge of the conversation, which would expand to include Quentin Skinner, Bill Clinton, Adam Michnik, Jane Addams, and John Ford westerns.  Maybe as she got busier in later years, the opportunities for such chats with her became fewer.  But run across her at a conference, and it was clear she was the same.

 

In my experience, universities center their rhetoric around what they wish they did, not what they in fact do, and in this Chicago was no exception: while we talked a lot about public intellectuals at the University of Chicago, all our professors, as wonderful as they were, were fundamentally academical creatures, brilliant but hothouse flowers.  Jean’s arrival at Chicago was the first time in the Div School that a true public intellectual appeared there.  It was not that she lacked for scholarly acumen, but that the scholarly acumen was always fundamentally instrumentalized for ends we had not been habituated into considering.  So our encounters with her gave us a taste for talking to someone who was no less acute, no less astute than our other professors, but someone who relentlessly asked a further, fundamentally distinct question: so what?  What’s the point?  What is at stake?  We live at a crucial point in human history, an especially fraught era, a time of wars and rumors of wars; how does what you are doing help us understand where we are, where we are from, and where we are going?  To be asked that question by Jean was to be confronted with a challenge we had not faced before.  It was to be told, implicitly, that what we were doing could matter, could help the world—and threatened that no matter what it indeed would matter, even if its mattering turned out to be in its insignificance, its triviality, a triviality we would have to live with for the rest of our lives.

After my first class with her, I was hooked.  I was done with coursework at this point, but I knew I had to have her on my dissertation.   Her book Democracy on Trial had received a lot of attention, but what I knew was that she had finished her Augustine and the Limits of Politics, and I was writing on Augustine, and Arendt and Niebuhr as interpreters of Augustine, on evil; it would be insane not to have her participate.  So I got her on board, and she was more than willing, and more than contributed.  I still remember the long fax she sent me, having gone to Virginia to start teaching, on the near-final draft of my entire dissertation.  (Hell, I still have the fax.)  She had a few comments on my exegesis of various thinkers, and some challenges to some of my arguments; but the meat of her assessment was a careful and well-evidenced urging of me to loosen my prose, to let the grad-student anxieties retreat a bit more into the background, and bring to the fore my actual argument—that the aim of the text was not to show that I had read everything (or rather, though she was too nice to put it this way, not to show that I had read everything that I had read), but rather to make an argument, an argument that Arendt, Niebuhr, and Augustine would recognize as continuous with their own—if not directly developing one of their own, then at least contesting the space that they operated in as well, recognizing that for them what we were about was not simply academic prestige, but realities in the world, truths and mysteries about our lives that often determined, for better or for ill, the prospects for happiness or tragedy that our lives possessed.

Once I graduated, my contact with her inevitably decreased in frequency.  But it didn’t decline in intensity, or in warmth.  I recall seeing her and Errol pushing their grandson around at an AAR in a stroller, and stopping for a five minute discussion of something of Kit Lasch’s.  We hosted her several times at UVA events, and it was always a special delight to have her see my students, and for my students to meet her.  But nothing was anywhere near as intense as simply going to her office, sitting down, and being carried away by the conversation that she was always having.

 

Now, those years—the mid 1990s—seem impossibly distant to me.  The world looked very different.  The memory of the USSR was still palpable; the idea of al Qaeda, or a powerful rising China, were still in the future.  It felt like a time when we might try to learn from the mistakes of the recent past—that we might learn to inject a bit more decency, if not rectitude, in the conduct of international affairs.  Yugoslavia and Rwanda taught us that we would not.  Domestic American politics was no better.  In a way, it felt like an enormous squander; which of course much of it was.  Jean knew, in some way knew, that this was what was happening.  I remember her saying to me, “we won’t get these years back,” and in context it was clear what she was saying.

She made judgments.  She was outspoken on various things.  They were the sorts of things about which public intellectuals make judgments.  Academics don’t—we are prudential, we care too much about being careful.  To be honest, we simply don’t have the muscles to do it—and the muscles we do have inadvertently hinder, if not stymie, the exercise of such judgment.

That wasn’t Jean’s style.  She was always more than a professor, and always subtly pressing her students to be more too, more than cogs in the great accreditation machine of American higher education.  She was a thinker, and a citizen—of several communities, actually—and she knew she had gifts and training that could make those roles come alive.  Whatever the nation, whatever the world would do, she wouldn’t squander those gifts, that training.

Sometimes that got her into trouble.  Sometimes she spoke out—on the war on terror, on torture, on other things.  She certainly wasn’t afraid of articulating her opinion, however unpopular it might be in the academy.  She wasn’t afraid to, as she put it in Democracy on Trial, “reach disagreement.”  (And she was right that reaching disagreement—clear, articulate disagreement—is an important and all too rare achievement.)  She wasn’t afraid to revise arguments, either, when she was convinced she was wrong; but you had to convince her of that, not just suggest you demurred, or found her views abhorrent.

In 2002, Alfonso Soriano the Dominican who played baseball for the New York Yankees, became the first Yankee in history to hit 30 home runs and make 30 stolen bases in a single season.  That year he also was the first Yankee to strike out more than 150 times in a season (157, almost one per game).  When pressed on the strikeouts, he defended himself by saying, “You don’t get out of the Dominica by taking pitches.”  Jean would agree.  You don’t get out of Tinmath, Colorado by taking pitches.  I don’t think she ever took a pitch in her life.

Mostly, the rest of us act as if we’re afraid to get our uniforms dirty, but not her.  She’d line up and swing hard.  Sometimes she’d whiff it, but when she connected, and that was more than most, you could kiss that ball goodbye.

 

When I think back to when we met and do the math, Jean wasn’t that much older then than I am now; and yet it will be no surprise to you, that as she was then, she still seems unreachably more mature, and infinitely wiser, than I will ever be.

I have been immeasurably blessed, in my life, to have been taken in hand by a series of remarkable teachers.  It was providence that led me to them, and providence that gave them to me, at just the right times.  In that line of teachers, Jean is in the first rank.  Grief there is at her passing, but I feel a deeper, and more permanent, gratitude for her presence in my life, as a guide, and an example.

One thought on “Jean Bethke Elshtain: In Memoriam

  1. A warm and generous reflection on a terrific teacher. I had a similar experience with her at a conference. Jean spent an intense five minutes speaking just to me with her full attention as you describe. Having said that, I notice that many comments about her passing include reference to he becoming Catholic near the end of her life. I have trouble fitting that together with her position on the Iraqi war which was the subject of my encounter with her. At the time, Jean was fervently in favor of American exceptionalism and fully supported the Bush-Cheney adventure in bringing American democracy to the Arab world. Our meeting was at a conference under Catholic auspices and she did not agree with me that her position then was inconsistent with Catholic tradition.

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