Werner Dannhauser, RIP

Dannhauser copyOne of the great teachers of politics from the perspective of the great tradition, Werner Dannhauser, has died.  A long time professor of political philosophy at Cornell University, Dannhauser was another of the long line of students of Leo Strauss, whom he called “the greatest teacher of politics I have ever known.”  Bill Kristol and John Podhoretz have offered their recollections, both mentioning a single Commentary magazine essay of Dannhauser’s from 1975 that I also treasure: “On Teaching Politics Today.”  I make a point of re-reading it before the start of every semester.  A couple of highlights:

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. . .

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.

There’s lots more in this rich and timeless article.

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