|April 21, 2004||
Press Contact: William Harms|
Karl Joachim Weintraub
The following was broadcast on 98.7WFMT and posted at wfmt.com from April 21 to April 27, 2004
Critic's Choice with Andrew Patner
Karl Joachim Weintraub -- Teacher of Culture and Cultural Historian -- 1924-2004
"It is safer," the political philosopher Leo Strauss wrote in 1965, "to try to understand the low in the light of the high than the high in the light of the low. In doing the latter one necessarily distorts the high, whereas in doing the former one does not deprive the low of the freedom to reveal itself fully as what it is."
I never had the chance to discuss this observation with the late Karl Joachim Weintraub, the legendary teacher of the Western Civilization course at The University of Chicago who died last month at 79 after a prolonged struggle with a brain tumor. But it's my guess that he would have concurred with Strauss's prescription. Or rather he would have concurred with it after mulling it over, picking it apart a bit, and asking a number of perceptive and even unexpected questions about it.
For Weintraub was a great believer in making distinctions between high and low, but also, like Strauss, in giving each thing - and each person - its or his due. Born in Darmstadt, Germany to a Jewish father and a gentile mother, Weintraub was nine when the Nazis came to power. Eventually his parents were able to send him to boarding school in The Netherlands and when that country was overrun by the Germans he had the great good fortune to be hidden by a Dutch family until the end of the War. It was during this period that he developed many of his habits of mind including his enviable discipline and his love of reading and languages.
Through the Quakers he was able to come to the United States and through people he met in New York he was steered to The University of Chicago, an institution that would become his home for nearly 60 years. He earned his undergraduate, master's and doctoral degrees at the U of C and began teaching in Chicago's College in 1954 while still a graduate student. One of his great influences at Chicago was his own teacher and fellow refugee, Christian W. Mackauer, whose selfless devotion to the Western Civilization course that Weintraub went on to embody became a model for the younger man.
Like Mackauer, and unlike many other scholars and colleagues at The University, Weintraub made the teaching of undergraduates the center of his activities, although he also took on important administrative tasks including chairing the Committee on the History of Culture and long service as the influential Dean of the University's Division of the Humanities. And unlike Mackauer, he found time to publish two important studies of his field -- Visions of Culture in 1966, on such great historians of culture as Jacob Burckhardt and Johan Huizinga, and The Value of the Individual: Self and Circumstance in Autobiography which includes his masterful treatment of Goethe's Autobiography. As a devoted student, he also edited a posthumous collection of Mackauer's unpublished lectures, appropriately titling it "A teacher at his best . . . " (1973).
Aside from the time and sacrifice that went into developing himself into a great teacher as well, I emphasize Mr. Weintraub's devotion to the teaching of undergraduates because his style, manner, and focus would not necessarily have caused most observers to see him as a college teacher, particularly at an institution where he could have devoted himself to research and graduate students alone. Jock Weintraub was no dispenser of feel-good nostrums and his course involved a great deal of work, even by U of C standards. That he became so immensely popular when one of his strongest goals was to remind students that they were just that -- students, beginners, connoisseurs only in the making, young people in need of a sense of proportion, and of the often limited possibilities of human action - was one of his great accomplishment and surely must have seemed to him an unlikely one. "The special reward and satisfaction has always been to work with live students in the classroom," he said a few years ago, "trying, as best I could, and albeit only by small degrees, to bring them face to face with fascinating human realities, to improve their skills, to sharpen their judgment, to refine their taste, and to develop a sense of proportion in them."
When, for a complex number of reasons, younger faculty members lost interest in teaching his beloved course, Mr. Weintraub uncharacteristically became something of a fighter. Recalling his time as a hidden child and adolescent, he told several people, "I had enough of life without civilization." Illness took him from his own teaching soon after. Those who had the privilege of knowing him or studying with him, and those who did not, might commemorate him by looking into the works of Burckhardt and Huizinga he loved (the latter's The Autumn of the Middle Ages was translated by Weintraub's former student Rodney J. Payton along with Ulrich Mammitzsch and published by the U of C Press), paying a visit to the extraordinary Rembrandt show at The Art Institute of Chicago - which he served as a trustee -- and the Dutch humanism that it embodies and that played such an important role in shaping and literally in saving Jock Weintraub's life, and in attending a service in his memory to be held on Friday, April 30 at Rockefeller Memorial Chapel. His life was one filled with the search for understanding and his death is surely the end of an era.
I'm Andrew Patner.
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