Tuesday, August 13th, 2013
Renowned political philosopher, ethicist, and professor Jean Bethke Elshtain passed away on Sunday at the age of 72. Elshtain was known for her deep commitment to civil society and advocacy of civic education.
Elshtain was born in 1941 in Colorado, earning her bachelor’s degree in history from Colorado State University, before going on to earn her master’s and Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Brandeis University, respectively. Elshtain was an academic trailblazer, becoming the first woman to hold an endowed professorship at Vanderbilt University before teaching at the University of Chicago. For her work exploring the relationship between politics and ethics, Elshtain was selected as a Guggenheim Fellow and honored with the Frank J. Goodnow Award, the highest distinction awarded by the American Political Science Association, for which she served on its Task Force on Civic Education.
R. R. Reno, writing for First Things, describes the impact Elshtain has had on the field:
Jean was one of the indispensable voices of cultural and political sanity in the post-sixties. She cared deeply about the common good, and she recognized that faith, family, and patriotic solidarity ennobled the lives of ordinary people. So she found herself defending those loves, often setting herself against the academic establishment and its dissolving ideologies. It required determination and courage, both of which Jean had in large, very large, measures.
Elshtain’s work included research on the role of gender in society, the need for improved civic education in public schools, and renewing American civil society. Writing in America the Philosophical, Carlin Romano explained that Elshtain’s goal as an academic, “was not so much to lobby for specific policies as to push for good civic-minded ‘individualism’ over the egoism of ‘bad individualism.’” Reflecting on the future of American democracy, Elshtain opined, “We don’t have to be heroes to be a bit kinder, a bit more forgiving of one another, and at the same time, more demanding in what we expect of those in authority and from ourselves.”
Listen to her lecture on “The Future and Fate on American Democracy,” given at the Maxwell School of Syracuse University.