“He completely stole the show,” said government professor Stanley Hoffmann, a former student of Beer’s. “[The current professors] were all preempted by the master, who spoke without notes, remembering everyone and everything. No one believed the man was 96 years old at the time.”
Beer, a noted scholar of British and American politics, passed away on April 7, at the age of 97.
“He was a spectacularly good teacher because his classes were all in the form of questions he addressed to himself and his students, for which he had all sorts of arguments before coming to his own conclusion,” said Hoffman. “It was very different from the typical top-down sort of lecturing. It was as if he was struggling with his own opinions.”
Beer, the chair of the Harvard government department from 1954 to 1958, served as the Eaton Professor of the Science of Government for years before moving to Boston College in 1982 to be a professor of American politics.
Receiving his B.A. from the University of Michigan, Beer went to England on a Rhodes Scholarship before receiving his Ph.D. in political science from Harvard in 1943. He was later granted an honorary doctorate from the University in 1997 in recognition of “his scholarship and [the] enormous impact his teaching had on undergraduates for over three decades,” said Peter A. Hall, Beer’s former student, who is currently a European studies professor at Harvard.
Beer was most famous for his self-designed course Social Studies 2: “Western Thought and Institutions,” which he taught for 30 years. Students studied six key moments in the development of Western Civilization, and “used theoretical lenses to understand the historical process,” said former teaching fellow Judith E. Vichniac, the current director of the fellowship program at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study.
“Everywhere he went he was stopped on the streets by people who have taken that course,” Hall said. “It was one that inspired thousands of Harvard students.”
The teaching fellows who worked with Beer often went on to careers as academics or public service officials. Some of his famous students included Henry A. Kissinger ’50, Michael Walzer, and Charles H. Tilly ’50.
Before studying at Harvard, Beer was a staff member of the Democratic National Committee, and occasionally wrote speeches for former President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1935 and 1936.
Active in American politics, Beer was chairman of Americans for Democratic Action during his tenure at Harvard from 1959 to 1962. He also actively opposed student rebellions at Harvard during the late sixties.
Beer was elected president of the American Political Science Association in 1977, and was also appointed as a fellow of the British Academy in 2000.
After earning his Ph.D., Beer earned a Bronze Star fighting with the U.S. Army in Normandy. During his time at Oxford in the 1930s, he travelled to Germany, where he saw Hitlerism first hand, according to Government professor Harvey C. Mansfield ’53, another of Beer’s former students.
“He wanted to know how Germany could have fallen so far to embrace these vicious totalitarian ideas,” Mansfield said. “His courses were often directed to that subject.” Beer described the influence of these travels on his graduate work at Harvard in the Oxford Handbook of Political Institutions.
“By the time I came to Harvard in the fall of 1938, I was a fierce anti-communist, a fervent New Dealer, a devotee of Emerson, and ready to try to put it all together….[in] a defense of liberalism against the totalitarian threat,” Beer wrote. Many of his former students praised Beer’s engaging personality and dedication to teaching.
“He had a very good eye for the most important questions in politics and was intensely engaged with the thinkers over the ages who had worked with those questions,” Hall said. “When you talked to Sam Beer you were engaging in a dialogue with Marx, Weber, or Augustine. He had read an enormous amount, and he thought deeply about the big social and political questions throughout his life.”
“He would come to class wearing his military outfit and pump his fist, and tell us what to think about,” Mansfield said.