Resident Scholar at AEI and Georgetown University Professor Emeritus of Government, Walter Berns, passed away on January 10, 2015. Director of Istituto Acton, Kishore Jayabalan, recently reflected on his time in Bern’s classroom and how that greatly influenced him:
Simply put, I would not be where I am today if I hadn’t audited the last course he taught at Georgetown. Slogging away as an economist at the Bureau of Labor Statistics in Washington, I dreamt of graduate school while taking Latin and Greek courses at the Department of Agriculture night school (who knew such things existed at taxpayer expense?), but I didn’t know what I wanted to study. On the advice of my friend John J. Miller, I called Mr. Berns, who immediately told me he was about to retire from teaching and would be of little help to me for future studies. I replied that I only wanted to audit his course, which he very graciously let me do.
The course was on Tocqueville, one of his mainstays along with Lincoln and the American Founding. He told the class how he knew it was time to retire: His doctor had told him to take a day off and skip his Monday evening teaching appointment. Mr. Berns said it was the only class he’d had to cancel in his 40 years of teaching. Teaching was indeed his life and his vocation, not only because he knew Tocqueville so well but because of his love of students, needling and challenging them throughout the semester. To this day, I recall his witty remarks and virtually all of the references to films and books that confirmed some point in Tocqueville, from Ruggles of Red Gap to Rousseau’s Emile, and his getting home to watch Monday Night Football alongside a pitcher of martinis. It was equally edifying and entertaining to attend a Walter Berns class.
One day after class, I asked Mr. Berns where I should go if I wanted to continue along this path, and he suggested the University of Toronto, where two of his former students, Clifford Orwin and Thomas Pangle, were teaching. I applied and was accepted, not having the slightest idea what I was in for.