30 October 2012

In appreciation: Edward Goerner

Some of Edward Goerner's students, including yours truly, have signed onto an expression of appreciation published in Notre Dame Magazine: In Appreciation: Edward Goerner (1929-2012). This brings back many wonderful memories of my time at Notre Dame in the 1980s. Only now do I see how much my own paedagogical manner and even sense of style were influenced by his.

Goerner’s undergraduate political theory course made him something of a legend on campus. It is perhaps impossible to know when he established the contours of his remarkable class, but it soon became finely tuned. Students read Hobbes’ Leviathan, Rousseau’s Social Contract and Plato’s Republic in that order. On Fridays, teaching assistants would lead students in conversations about case studies that Goerner had devised and refined over the years. These required students and teaching assistants alike to apply what they had learned.

Goerner’s introductory course may have been conducted for undergraduates, but graduate students were perhaps even more its beneficiaries. Comprehensive examinations seemed somehow possible after listening to Goerner dissect three of the greatest texts in the history of political thought. As he awoke in undergraduates the excitement of political theory, he allowed graduate students to glimpse what it meant to master a text — to understand the author’s goals, the era in which it had been written, and to shed accumulated interpretations to confront the text and its philosophical import directly.

If serving as a teaching assistant for Goerner’s introductory class was integral to the preparations and training of so many political theory graduate students, it was also so much more. Mostly, it was an opportunity to see a master at his craft. In appearance and demeanor, Goerner was always orderly, gracious and eloquent with more than a hint of the aristocrat. He dressed impeccably in tweed suits, usually with an ascot. His voice retained the Brooklyn accent of his youth. His manner was all Notre Dame but also part Oxford. Those who judged from his appearance that he was aloof were sorely mistaken. He laughed easily and robustly, had a streak of rascality in him and was open to any idea from any quarter that merited consideration. . . .

A storyteller with a keen sense of history, a vast knowledge of comparative systems and cultures, and a deep, resonant voice, Goerner developed lectures that tugged at the minds and souls of his students. In them, historical detail danced in service of theoretical insight, fact informed value, theater conspired with philosophy. He embodied the intellectual and ethical virtues that he taught, a Christian who lived a life in service of others.

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