What does it mean to teach in an age of ideology?

At first glance, especially for conservatives, the answer appears to be obvious: to advocate for conservative ideas and principles against the prevailing ideologies of relativism, feminism, multiculturalism, and other “politically correct” dogmas that dominate the institutions of American higher education today. Alternatively, if you teach at an institution that is already conservative, or at least amendable to conservatism, then the ideological obstacles that plague most colleges and universities would seemed to be cleared, allowing professors to teach conservative ideasand principles without fear of retort or reprisal. Teaching therefore seems to be engaged in the “battle of ideas” with the hope that one set will prevail over another.

However, both of these approaches—whether teaching against certain ideologies or endorsing them—are flawed because they are fundamentally the same. Both types of teaching are ideological in nature, for genuine teaching is neither promoting nor denigrating certain predetermined perspectives but rather the attempt to cultivate wonder in students in the hope of turning their souls to the true, the beautiful, and the good. Plato’s Socrates called this activity periagoge, where one experiences a conversion in wonder to pursue truth. Teaching is not the student’s reception of doctrine, whether conservative or otherwise, but the attempt to pass the embodied experience of wonder, where the teacher’s presence becomes as important as the ideas that he or she is communicating.

For teaching transpires in a particular context of personalities and not, as the contemporary literature on pedagogy proclaims, the transfer of abstract “best practices” that supposedly can be implemented anywhere, anytime, and with any type of student. The Socratic approach is tailored to the particular person whom Socrates is addressing, trying to probe past their fears, desires, and passions to reach their underlying ontological core and prompt the experience of wonder. This is not to neglect the need to cultivate rudimentary skills, like good writing or clear thinking, but skills ultimately should be subordinate to the experience of periagoge.

Now conservative teachers are correct in that the true, the beautiful, and the good exist, or at least that we must have faith in their existence in order for periagoge to be possible. The danger they confront is when this postulate becomes ossified into dogma and doctrine, devoid of any experiential relevance to the student. In this sense, liberal teachers have a special role in the university by their constant scrutiny and questioning of accepted truths. But when they verge off the path of shared reason to the trails of nihilism, relativism, and solipsism, they do more harm than good. Teachers must avoid both the Scylla of dogmatic thinking and Charybdis of nihilism if they wish to do right by their students.

Teaching at its most fundamental is not to reject or endorse ideological thought but to illuminate how to live according to the true, the beautiful, and the good. Now what constitutes the true, the beautiful, and the good is a question that teachers have argued over since the time of Socrates. Here I will look at certain prominent teachers and thinkers from the twentieth century and their students. How they conceive of ideology, how should it be overcome, and how can we discover a sense of wonder are the questions that these teachers had explored in their own lifetimes and passed down to their students.

Eric Voegelin

Eric Voegelin (1901–85) was an Austrian-American political philosopher whose best known works are New Science of Politics (1952) and his five-volume study of civilizations, Order and History (1956–87). He spent his early career at the University of Vienna but had to immigrate to the United States for published works critical of Nazi race ideology. He taught at Louisiana State University (1942–58) and later spent his career in Munich and Stanford University.

In his chapter on Voegelin, John von Heyking writes that Voegelin’s understanding of teaching drew directly from Plato’s description of it as the “art of periagoge”: the turning of the person from focusing on transient and temporal goods to eternal and permanent ones. However, periagoge is not a religious or mystical conversion per se but rather a heightened awareness and openness to all reality that emanates from the true, the beautiful, and the good. The teacher’s role is to help turn the student’s soul to the true, the beautiful, and the good, although the teacher ultimately cannot do this for the student: the student must be able see these things for himself.

As a teacher Voegelin began the task of periagoge by starting with students’ common sense—their experiences of the common world and the ability to reflect upon them—in order to lead them to an explicit noesis, a theoretical reasoning that was clear of ideological thinking. Ideological thinkers, such as Marx, sought to fundamentally transform reality by claiming to master history and thereby deny our role as questioners. By contrast, the noetic thinker repudiates the possibility of a fundamental transformation of reality. Because we will always have an imperfect understanding of reality and consequently our place in it, we will never reach a point where we know the totality of reality and therefore cease to be questioners. We will always continue to ask the question why.

This underlying but continual existential disquiet of the why, the doubting and desiring for something more than oneself, is a form of erotic restlessness to which students find themselves drawn from the true, the beautiful, and the good. By his mastery of complex material that was communicated extemporaneously and clearly, Voegelin was able to invoke this erotic restlessness in his students. But for Voegelin, this erotic restlessness can never be satisfied: we live in a state of tension between transcendence and immanence and consequently will always remain searchers for the true, the beautiful, and the good. Inviting his students to think with him on his own exploration, Voegelin became a model of thinking devoid of ideological cant in the students’ own quests for these goods.

Teaching for Voegelin was thus not the insertion and playback of knowledge by students but rather the elicitation of eros within their souls. It was the cultivation of desire to see reality in all its dimensions for oneself. Of course, this entails risk, for students may mistake relativism for the true, nihilism for the beautiful, and ideology for the good; and the benefits of success are not apparent to either the modern mind that demands absolute certainty or a culture characterized by consumption and production. Yet this is the nature of our condition and what we aim to transpire between teacher and student. The student desires to step outside of his state of uncertainty and the teacher shows him that it is a condition not from which to escape but rather to embrace, for the true, the beautiful, and the good are what we long for—and what we hope for—in our life. To do otherwise is to engage in ideological thinking.

Ellis Sandoz

One of those students was Ellis Sandoz (1931–), who in turn became a master teacher himself in the mold of Eric Voegelin. In his chapter on Ellis Sandoz in Teaching in an Age of Ideology, Charles R. Embry writes about how Sandoz’s encounter with Voegelin not only shaped him as a scholar but also as a teacher of his own students. For Sandoz, the two fundamental principles he learned from Voegelin were that the central human experience was one’s encounter with transcendence and that this experience is subject to the validation of human reflection. These two principles not only infuse Sandoz’s own teaching but also his scholarship. Whether it was the creation of the Eric Voegelin Institute or overseeing the 34-volume publication of Eric Voegelin’s Collected Works, Sandoz realizes these principles in the concrete actions of a scholarship to endure for subsequent scholars and students. His works provides a touchstone to which people can return for reflection on how people reflect and realize in action their encounter with transcendence.

As a teacher, Sandoz invites students to examine whether the claims of the authors they are studying comport with their own experiences of reality. Always respecting his students, even when students disagree with him, Sandoz recognizes that the spiritual authority of the teacher resides not in the ability to impart truth but rather in the love of both transcendence and the student. The teacher cannot persuade the student of truth—only the student can discover this for himself—but he can guide students on the path towards truth in the hope that they will find it.

Sandoz employs a variety of techniques and approaches to persuade students to participate in the philosophical exploration for the true, the beautiful, and the good. In some cases, he may resemble a Baptist preacher’s hortatory style of lecture; at other times, he will gently encourage students to pursue their own line of thinking, even if this requires enrolling at another school to study with a different professor. But regardless of the style that Sandoz adopts, it is the substance of his teaching that attracts students, such that he is incarnation of his own teaching: he is what he says with no distance in between. To teach the truth thus is to seek it.

This understanding of teaching—to be the incarnation of what you seek—is one that anchored in the common human experience of the world where we decide what is worth preserving, discarding, and reforming. It is a continual task that is passed down from generation to generation as from Plato to Aristotle in antiquity to Voegelin to Sandoz for our own times. Rather than assessments and rubrics, to be what you say is a different way to understand and approach teaching, especially for the true, the beautiful, and the good. The promise of this understanding of teaching becoming accepted by the system of mass education is dubious at best, but, as Ellis Sandoz has shown, it can be preserved in certain pockets with the creation of institutions, the publication of scholarship, and, most importantly, the teaching in the classroom.

Gerhart Niemeyer

In his accessible lectures about complicated philosophical topics, Eric Voegelin elicited an erotic restlessness in his students in order to prompt them in their own search for the true, the beautiful, and the good, while Ellis Sandoz asked his students to reflect upon their own experiences to see whether the subjects they were studying comported with their commonsensical understanding of reality. For both professors, teaching was not the mere recitation of facts and figures to be quickly remembered, recalled, and forgotten but rather it was the incarnation of thinking itself. To teach was to be the incarnation of what one sought, and what they sought was the true, the beautiful, and the good.

Another professor who belongs to this class of teachers is Gerhart Niemeyer (1907–1997), as Michael Henry expounds in his chapter from Teaching in an Age of Ideology. Niemeyer was born in Germany, studied law, and fled to Spain, after Hitler came to power, and later to the United States, after the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War. He taught law and politics at Princeton University, where he directed the dissertation of his first doctoral student, John Hallowell. He left Princeton for various academic and governmental positions and eventually landed at the University of Notre Dame where he spent almost forty years of teaching and writing. Perhaps the biggest spiritual and intellectual moment in his life was his conversion to Christianity in the 1940s when he was trying to make sense of the breakdown of Europe with the rise of fascism and communism and from his intellectual encounter with Kierkegaard and Augustine and his personal conversations with Eric Voegelin.

As a teacher, Niemeyer was a combination of Old World formality and personal warmth andgenerosity of spirit. He was an exacting grader and sought clarity in thinking for both himself and his students, for he believed that it was the lack of clear thinking that led to the collapse of Europe to ideological movements. Like Voegelin and Sandoz, Niemeyer conceived of teaching as showing his students that the intellectual life was a quest for the true, the beautiful, and the good. He did not seek disciples but wanted intellectual progeny who, as teachers, would pass on the tradition of accumulated wisdom to the following generation. It was in these small circles of teaching and learning that Niemeyer believed that the ideological damage of the twentieth century could be alleviated and people led back to inquiry about the true nature of reality.

This circle of friendship and fellowship became the core of Niemeyer’s classes, allowing him to say what he believed with conviction and authority but without slipping into dogma and despotism. Niemeyer understood his role as a teacher as acting as an elder friend in the tradition of Socrates, to help the young grow into a spiritual maturity that will lead them into genuine questioning. For it is this genuine questioning about ourselves and the reality in which we live that inspires our desire to learn about the true, the beautiful, and the good. This type of “wondering questioning” was what Niemeyer instilled in his students, as they strove to become spiritually and intellectually mature teachers who sought clarity in thought, warmth in relations, and openness to reality.

Niemeyer therefore was a teacher in the same vein as Voegelin and Sandoz: someone who was the incarnation of what they believed, nudging students onto a path of genuine questioning and avoiding ideological indoctrination. Although he taught with authority and conviction, Niemeyer also was humble, curious, and compassionate in his search for the true, the beautiful, and the good. From the recollections of his students, it appears that these are the features of Niemeyer as a teacher that they remember—and cherish—the most. In some sense this is not surprising, for it would seem that these characteristics—humility, curiosity, and compassion—are necessary to avoid ideological teaching and thinking. More than anything else, perhaps, this is what we can learn from Niemeyer as a teacher.

John H. Hallowell

One of Niemeyer’s students, John H. Hallowell (1914–1991), was also a master teacher. Spending almost forty years teaching political philosophy at Duke University, Hallowell during that time published three books, The Decline of Liberalism as an Ideology (1943), Main Currents in Modern Political Thought (1950), The Moral Foundations of Democracy (1954), and numerous articles in political thought. He received several academic honors for his scholarship during his lifetime and his works have been translated into several languages in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East.

However, as Timothy Hoye writes in his chapter in Teaching in an Age of Ideology, Hallowell saw himself first and foremost as a teacher rather than a scholar or civic activist. In a letter to Dean Friedl on September 15, 1981, he wrote, “I entered this profession because I wanted to teach. In my opinion a university consists of teachers and students primarily. I have always considered teaching my first and most important responsibility.” Hoye points out that Hallowell wrote this letter in frustration with him not understanding how his department chair and colleagues have dismissed the importance of teaching in their profession. In an earlier letter, Hallowell wrote, “It does come to me as something of a surprise to learn that teaching is not considered by my department chairman to be all that important. I would have thought it was the most important activity in which a professor could be engaged.”

Teaching clearly was the most important professional priority for Hallowell, but what did this mean, especially teaching politics? For Hallowell, an education in politics was not participating in it but rather learning to think about it first. This educational process of learning how to think was a mutual search for truth with students, who respect their professors while encouraging to take issue with them and reject their arguments if students have sound reasons. By examining the classics and the examples of great statesmen, students would discover the practical knowledge of locating the best means to promote justice within a community. Contrary to those who advocated practical observation and participation in politics as the most effective means to learn about it, Hallowell recognized the prior need of students being able to think, evaluate, and explain their actions before actually doing them; and the best way to accomplish this was to study the tradition of the good, the beautiful, and the true.

But looking at tradition as the guide for the true, the beautiful, and the good did not make Hallowell a political conservative. In fact, he considered himself a life-long Democrat after Jimmy Carter’s election in 1976 and was outspoken against the proposal of establishing the Nixon Presidential Library at Duke. Yet later he supported Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980 and the policies of his administration and was cited along with Ludwig Von Mises, Richard Weaver, and others as influential in the formation of Reagan’s political vision. A cynic might interpret Hallowell’s behavior as one of mere opportunism, seeking advantage when it availed itself. Another, and probably more accurate, account would be that Hallowell understood that, although the principles of truth were permanent, its manifestations were not, and, consequently, one had to adapt to the contingencies of the time in order to realize as best as possible the true, the beautiful, and the good.

Just as in the classroom where every semester the teacher is confronted with a new and different set of students and must figure out the best path to teach them, the democratic citizen also must determine which choice at a particular moment would be best for his or her community. In some semesters, the Socratic method is the most effective way to elicit response from students; at other times, it might be better to employ the traditional lecture. Likewise, for the citizen in some cases, it might be better to support a Democratic candidate; in other cases, a Republican. Throughout his life, Hallowell both recognized and practiced this lesson of prudence as a teacher and as a citizen.

Tradition therefore is not to be turned into some set of dogma to be passed down memorized but not understood from one generation to the next. Tradition is to make us think about our current situation and how best to navigate it to achieve the true, the beautiful, and the good. This understanding of tradition and how to teach it is particularly relevant to schools which dedicate themselves to the Great Books or other such pedagogy but have often ossified the tradition so it can no longer breathe. The result is that students study and know Socrates, Aquinas, and Hobbes, but with no lasting impact on their souls.

However, the more typical problem in the modern university is the failure to recognize the importance of teaching the tradition itself. Usually the tradition is condemned on ideological grounds or dismissed for utilitarian ones. John H. Hallowell recognized that both paths were mistaken in the mutual search for truth. We need the tradition but not just for its own sake: we need the tradition for ourselves to guide us in our lives in the here and now. It would be useful and wise for those of us in education to recognize and practice this, too.

Concluding Thoughts

Although these thinkers disagreed with one another in their scholarship from time to time, they all were committed to teaching the true, the beautiful, and the good in their classroom. They sought to replace genuine thinking for ideological dogma and doctrine in the hope that students would be able to determine for themselves what the good life was.

In spite of their different styles of teaching, all these thinkers were the incarnation of their search for the true, the beautiful, and the good and conveyed this search in an accessible language to their students. Obscurity, ambiguity, equivocalness were shunned in favor of clarity, precision, and transparency. The lucidity of language not only revealed a luminous intelligibility in the examination of texts but also a thinking devoid of ideological cant that has come to characterize the contemporary university classroom. The clearing of ideological rubble required the clarity in both thought and speech that all these teachers exhibited.

If lucidity is required for good teaching, then trusting one’s student is even more critical, for without trusting students to be able to make decisions for themselves, the teacher is merely passing down ideological dogma and doctrine rather than pushing them onto a quest of wondering questioning for the true, the beautiful, and the good. All these teachers in their different ways trusted their students to be able to think and make decisions for themselves: whether questioning a professor’s claim, striving for excellence, or encouraging them to take responsibility for their own lives and in what those lives should mean. Recognizing that ideology does the opposite—infantilizing instead of asking the students to think for themselves—these teachers trusted that their students would eventually find the true, the beautiful, and the good, and learn how to incorporate these into their own lives.

Besides clarity and trust, appeals to the experiences of students as a starting point of their education was another common feature among these teachers. Instead of portraying themselves as masters of esoteric knowledge or gurus of enlightenment, these teachers asked students to reflect upon their own experiences as a reference point to validate the claims made by the thinkers they were studying. Students consequently became aware of why they were pursuing the true, the beautiful, and the good (and motivated to continue); and once this realization sank in, students became willing to be guided towards theoretical reasoning about these matters.

By contrast, today’s ideologues preach that the student’s experience of the world is one of false consciousness that requires liberation which only the ideologue can effect. The student’s experience of the world to this point has been distorted and is not to be trusted, including those experiences of the true, the beautiful, and the good. What the ideologue requires is to be instructed in the often obscure language of what truly matters rather than to be lucid, transparent, and trust students to discover these things for themselves.

Finally authenticity and humility were crucial for these teachers’ success in the classroom. While they deeply believed in what they were teaching, they balanced their beliefs against the absolute certainty that characterizes ideologues. They exhibited a balance between deeply held convictions and a vulnerability to be proven wrong, which their students both recognized and appreciated in a climate of ideological indoctrination. The ideologue is never wrong (or, equally important, never to be shown wrong). These teachers were willing to risk their convictions, to be proven wrong, semester after semester in the classroom. Their authenticity came from their humility in putting their beliefs to the test every time they entered the classroom.

Broadening and opening students’ souls rather than narrowing and constricting them was the goal of these teachers. These qualities of lucidity, trust, authenticity, humility, and appealing to students’ common experiences were some of the key features that these teachers shared in leading their students to the true, the beautiful, and the good in an age of ideology. Of course, how these qualities manifested themselves depended upon the peculiar personalities of these teachers and the particular students with whom they interacted.

For all teaching—all good teaching—is not the abstract activity that is typical of ideological thinking, but a particular act between teacher and students in a particular setting. It cannot be replicated in slogans and posturing; in fact, it cannot be replicated ever, for every act of teaching is a new act created and lost once transpired. If ideological thinking is based on the memorization and recitation of dogma and doctrine, then genuine teaching is rooted in wonder, trust, and hope that students will mature on their own. As these past teachers have shown, genuine teaching is a risk that rests on a prayer that the true, the beautiful, and the good will reveal itself, if ever so briefly, in the exchange between student and teacher.  

Lee Trepanier is a professor of political science at Saginaw Valley State University, Michigan. He is author and editor of numerous books, the latest being The Free Market and the Human Condition (Lexington Books, 2014); A Political Companion to Saul Bellow (University of Kentucky, 2013); Dostoevsky’s Political Thought (Lexington Books, 2013); and Teaching in an Age of Ideology (Lexington Books, 2012), from which this essay is excerpted.

Profiles of four twentieth-century teachers—Voegelin, Sandoz, Niemeyer, and Hallowell—whose lives offer insight in cultivating a desire for truth, goodness, and beauty in an ideological age.