John Schaar, 1928-2011

For political theorists like me, Jack Schaar is one of the vital presences of the last half-century. He and his wife Hanna Pitkin—along with Sheldon Wolin, Norman Jacobson, and Michael Rogin—helped define the “Berkeley School” of political theory, which not only introduced generations of students to the western canon but also made it relevant to contemporary politics. Though I seem to know more people than I count—including my wife—who were touched by his teaching and writing, it’s a shame still more don’t know about Schaar and his work. Schaar recently died. Joshua Miller, a political theorist at Lafayette College, wrote this brief obituary, which he has not been able to place in the press. I am reprinting it here with his permission.

John Homer Schaar, 83, died of cancer in Ben Lomond, California, on December 26, 2011. Jack was born on July 7, 1928, in Montoursville, PA, where he was raised on a farm in a Lutheran family. He was a political theorist and a legendary teacher at the University of California, Berkeley; U.C., Santa Cruz; and Deep Springs College. He received his B.A., M.A., and Ph.D. from UCLA. In 1958 he came to Berkeley where he won two teaching awards and played a significant role in the Free Speech Movement of the 1960s. In 1970 he joined the faculty at UCSC. His publications included Loyalty in America, Escape from Authority: The Perspectives of Erich Fromm, and Legitimacy in the Modern State (collected essays), and many articles. He was co-author, with Sheldon S. Wolin, of The Berkeley Rebellion and Beyond. An authority on American political thought, he advocated community, radically democratic political participation, and the decentralization of political and economic power. His survivors include his wife, Hanna Fenichel Pitkin, his son, John Homer Schaar IV, and scores of former students who were deeply influenced by his teaching. Details of a memorial at U.C., Santa Cruz, will be announced shortly.


  1. Brahmsky January 10, 2012 at 2:20 pm | #

    Jack was a teacher.

    • Jen June 19, 2012 at 2:29 pm | #


  2. Warren January 10, 2012 at 6:17 pm | #

    Thanks for posting this. Jack was a legend at Deep Springs College, where I was a student in the ’80s. His preoccupation with the nature of work and community was not only a perfect fit for the institution: it shaped the intellectual contours of the college for decades. Even students who never laid eyes on him and never read a word that he wrote (he didn’t write much anyway) were influenced by him. Jack posed tough, amazing and tough questions, the kinds of questions that could obsess you for weeks and that you passed on to others.

    I’ll have to go and dig up my notes now….and start mulling all over again.

  3. Jerry Doolittle January 19, 2012 at 8:01 pm | #

    In 1956 Jack and I were privates in the First Radio Broadcasting and Leaflet Battalion, an absurd and useless poor relation of the Special Warfare Center at Ft. Bragg. He was one of a number of Ph.Ds in the outfit, which served as a dumping ground for draftees the army couldn’t figure what else to do with. One of them was the battalion fireman, who spent his nights stoking the coal furnaces in the battalion’s old wooden barracks. Jack and I were spared that, being married men living off post.

    One day Jack asked me if I had ever heard of a writer named Agatha Christie. He had just finished a curious book by her which revolved around a murder. Evidently the idea with books of this type, he told me, was to figure out who the murderer was. It was so damned complicated and ingenious, though, that he had been baffled right up till the last page. He bet me a large sum for a private in 1956 — five dollars, maybe — if I could figure out whodunit by page so-and-so. I had never been able to figure out a whodunit before, but this was real money. So I dog-eared pages and underlined and made out charts, and finally won the bet.

    Shortly afterward I was transferred out and we went our separate ways (I to write murder mysteries, among other things.) Several weeks ago I was thinking about doing a piece on the sad and willful destruction of California’s public school system, once the finest in the history of the world, and thought of Jack again. Back at Fort Bragg he had told me the story of how he graduated from a small Pennsylvania high school and headed penniless for California, where he had understood it was possible to go to college for little or no tuition. My memory was that he found an abandoned trailer in a canyon somewhere, enrolled as a freshman, and came out many years later with his doctorate. I found Jack on the web and telephoned to refresh my memory but nobody answered. Now I know why.

    A wonderful, funny, brilliant guy. I wish there hadn’t been 3,000 miles between us all these years.

    • Joshua I. Miller January 19, 2012 at 10:37 pm | #

      Those are a number of great stories packed into three paragraphs. Schaar’s naive discovery of mystery novels is wonderful. Any analogy I would make is politically incorrect. He told me that he was sent out to California for “shooting down a plane.” I inferred that the gun and the plane were pretty small, but took the story to be true in some sense.

      • Walter J Smith March 10, 2014 at 2:20 am | #

        Josh, I remember several stories about why he went to California.
        He was such a great story-teller it was difficult for me and took a long while before I could carve that thin line between the ones that were more fact-oriented and the others. I admit, though, even up until his last weeks, he was so good at fudging the fact-orientations that I could still find myself in over my head before I discovered I had been taken for a joy ride.

        I do not remember more than once hearing but one of the stories about why he went to California. This one was about him having found too much fondness for the drink and related matters and having to find a different place to live where he would pay more attention to books and try to make something of himself. This one included several versions of an older sister giving him both encouragement and offers he didn’t want to refuse.

        If I remember correctly, she lived in or near LA (thus his reason for going there to live). She was married to a WWII fighter pilot who drove a Model A or a Model T (I forget which) but who taught him basic investment theory. He walked with a limp earned when shot down over Italy and discovering the power of peasants with pitchforks who weren’t fond of fighter bombers.

        Seems the fellow had a janitorial services business and put Jack to work mopping floors and such – to earn his keep. And when they pulled up to a gas station, he would only put a dollar’s worth of gas in. When Jack asked him why he didn’t just get a tank full so they could avoid stopping for gas every day, the uncle replied that he couldn’t risk tying up all that capital. Jack couldn’t tell that one without bursting into his wonderful belly laugh – and he remembered very well that gasoline then cost 15 cents a gallon.

        Jack loved telling stories. When he could get me to telling stories with him, he had a knack for getting me to work with him, helping him cut firewood or repair some broken plumbing or some such. He could always use a hand patching together something on a house that anyone else would have abandoned decades earlier, but Jack had a thing about dilapidated houses.

        The work almost always ended with a smoke and a drink. Jack made the world’s very best double martinis. Once I remarked to him I had tired of living in dumps as a child, and he said, while handing me that fine martini in it’s properly chilled martini glass, something like, “but they are so comfortable, and easy to live in, and familiar, how can you not love them?!” Since then I have been uncomfortable spending much time in any house but old ones.

        He saved me from getting into lots of trouble just being who I was. I was often short-tempered. He once told me that I had more sharp edges than anyone else he knew. I learned after having lived near Jack for several years that I had brought back from Vietnam what the VA called a severe, chronic case of PTSD. When I told Jack, he says something like, “Well, Walter, I am happy to learn they have finally figured that one out!”

        I was a bit puzzled by that, having just learned it myself, and knowing there was some serious knowing in his response. I snapped back, “What in hell are you talking about, Jack?” He says without hesitation, “I only hope you soon learn what it means, Walter. I know what it means because I read. I have know this about you for years. I know it from your stories.” For a moment, I felt naked. Then it came over me that I was both respected and loved. Everything else paled by comparison. I had never known another teacher and friend who could love so strongly and carefully and wisely as did Jack.

  4. William Ray January 31, 2012 at 7:24 am | #

    In a nearly random effort to pay tribute to Schaar (pronounce that slow and sonorous children), I happened on this website and join in with affectionate and respectful memory of a cross-cut section of the American grain, personified in a wry seemingly mild-mannered soul, who was more an artist than an academic. “I’m content to be merely clever,” he confided during the interminable office hours at either South Hall or Barrows, I forget which. Was he legend more because of his chopped forefinger, motorcycle, and army-issue back-pack than the best prose style in political science? Hard to say. I know I loved and trusted him. There weren’t many followers of C. Wright Mills and Randolph Bourne in the hyper-educating employment dynamo that was UC Berkeley in the early 1960’s. His amused observances reminds me of Gary Snyder, still living, a year younger than Jack, both from rural settings, who could climb a mountain and smell bullshit a long way off. Everybody knew he was one of the best. The Slate Supplement to the class catalogue said so, and it was prescient.

  5. pinverarity February 15, 2012 at 4:15 am | #

    I just today learned of Jack’s death; I’m struggling to find the words to express my profound gratitude for having had him as my teacher and my sorrow at learning of his death.

    It is not hyperbole for me to say that Jack Schaar changed my life, by opening up a constellation of thought and a way of talking about it that were unique. I was lucky enough to be in one of his graduate seminars at Santa Cruz in the ’80s and the experience divides my philosophical and political life: Before Jack’s seminar/after Jack’s seminar.

    I went on to take another couple of seminars and a lecture course with him, and the trajectory of my life was forever altered – instead of being in law school or a foreign service grad program, I found myself some years later at Berkeley, studying with Hanna Pitkin & Mike Rogin.

    He set an example that I have tried (and largely failed) to emulate in the way that he combined both deep learning and that rarest of qualities, genuine wisdom. I will think of him, with gratitude, for the rest of my life.

  6. William Ray February 15, 2012 at 9:34 am | #

    I received notice that there will be a ‘Remembrance of Teaching and Scholarship For Jack Schaar’ on Friday, March 16, 2012, 4-7 PM, in the La Feliz Room at the Seymour Center, UC Santa Cruz. For those who feel moved to attend, perhaps contact, 831-459-3437, and inquire. I do not think it was meant to be exclusionary.

    Thanks to Corey Robin for providing this forum about him.

    William Ray

  7. Mark Graham March 23, 2012 at 4:34 pm | #

    I happened to be telling a colleague of mine about the wonderful teacher I had as a Politics student at UC Santa Cruz. I went to look up some Schaarian quotes and read he had died the day after Christmas.
    My record as a student of political theory was less than stellar but I nevertheless count the time I spent at Santa Cruz studying under Jack Schaar as the most exciting and formative educational experience of my life.
    Though I have had several great teachers and have admired a number of thinkers and writers, I never met a person who could talk and think about politics in the deeply felt , inspiring, illuminatng and poetic way that Jack Schaar did.
    He will missed but never forgotten.
    Mark Graham

    • William Ray March 23, 2012 at 9:48 pm | #

      Agreed. Now that he is in the spiritual ocean, he reaches here there and everywhere in between as part of our selves and thoughts, a good man with brilliant gifts, to which he was true and relentlessly honorable.

  8. Bruce Spear July 13, 2012 at 10:34 am | #

    Like many, I feel terribly indebted to Jack for his generosity, advice, and support, and I would add only a bit of humor that I trust those who knew him might enjoy, as told to me here in Berlin by a colleague of Jack’s finding him in the parking lot of Kresge College at the end of the last day of the semester, having fired up a cigarette and enjoyed a first puff, looking at Peter with that sparkle in his eye, saying, “Fooled ’em again!”

    • Walter J Smith March 10, 2014 at 1:27 am | #

      Bruce, you brat! You made that sound ominous. He was merely bragging about having made it through another day with nary a “roll-your-own-bugler” cigarette since breakfast.

      I write with the authority of having bummed many of those from him and rolled them myself & puffed them to a short butt.

  9. Jani Mothibi January 15, 2013 at 6:19 am | #

    I will remember him with his famous quote “The future is not some place we are going, but one we are creating. The paths are not to be found, but made. And the activity of making them changes both the maker and the destination.”

    • Walter J Smith March 10, 2014 at 1:29 am | #

      I heard that one several times from him, and thank you for recalling & posting it here. It captures his sainly sense of humor and his devilish gravitas.

  10. Walter J Smith March 10, 2014 at 1:44 am | #

    Jack was simply the very best teacher I ever had, and for several excellent reasons. To mention only a very few: he keenly understood his own authority and its limits; he knew me better than I knew myself; he was unique in his ability to point out to me (and any other precocious one in his presence) things like this jewel that has stuck with me since that day he said it in a HistCon seminar: “Walter, you have one of the hardest heads, one of the thinnist skins, and are among the very most irascible people I have ever met.” It has stuck with me because of how very true it was on all three counts. It helped me evolve a little every time I’ve remembered it.

    Of course, he had many virtues. He was generous to a flaw. He was patient enough to make anyone with any self-respect ashamed of taking advantage of him. And he could speak diplomatically of anyone at any time.

    He taught me many things that helped me discover the mediocre in those teachers from whom I had been expecting far too much & learning far too little, and to muster enough courage to promptly abandon my ideas about learning anything more from them.

    And he welcomed every respectable intellectual challenge that came his way. Fortunately or unfortunately, depending upon the inquirer’s capacity for learning, Jack was very learned.

    He also once remarked of a very near and dear friend of his, “She is much smarter than I am, so I have to be very careful what I say; and I know more than she does, so, as she knows, she has to be careful what she says. It makes us both better off.”

  11. Steve April 15, 2014 at 10:09 pm | #

    It’s hard to top that first comment here – “Jack was a teacher”- which so perfectly cuts to the essence of the man. And it is wonderful to read all of your comments and know that his influence and teaching held true and firm for so many.

    I was fortunate enough to take his class, “Politics through American Literature,” in 2009, one of the last classes he ever taught. He had left his drinking and smoking days behind him by then, but his adventurous spirit was still abundant, and inevitably I was brought around to sharing my own adventures and misadventures in class, openly and honestly.

    Simply put, he brought each and every story and book to life. The books he assigned came alive as he read from his copious amounts of hand-written notes, that I suspect he had worked and developed for years, each time teaching the seminar re-reading the stories and diving deeper into them.

    He struck me as one of the most brilliant and full of life people I have ever met- and it makes so much sense to me that his lasting impact would be on the innumerable students who sat in classes just as I did, mesmerized by his stories, and drawn in to the most wonderful conversations imaginable. The class was reading books, and nominally applying political analysis, but at the end of the day he was teaching us about life, about what it means to be truly alive.

    I feel blessed to have learned under him, and to have had his presence guide my thoughts and ideas towards new worlds and frontiers in ways that, while perhaps imaginable before, were given substance and life by his vivacity, thoroughly deep intelligence, and most of all, joy.

    This site makes me incredibly happy, to know that so many of his students have shared in what he offered to this world, and that so many carry a little bit of his spirit with them still.

  12. robert diamond November 30, 2014 at 7:34 pm | #

    I entered Berkeley PolSci graduate program in the fall of 1960, the year that Politics and Vision was published. The same year my fiancee and I took John’s American Political Theory course. My wife (Manuelle) became Wolin’s research assistant in the fall of 1962.
    Our careers in government and international organizations have taken us far away from theory, but we remember them well. In 1990 when our son Paul a PolSci undergraduate at UCSC, we attended one of John’s thrilling lectures.

  13. William Ray January 18, 2023 at 5:24 pm | #

    Reading these comments brings a smile to my seventy-nine year old face, remembering Schaar’s orotund rhetoric, masking an impish mind so aware of the absurdity of things. That he was a genius of understanding, even to the point of intuiting the true Shakespeare as a high nobleman at court, made his unassuming humility the more admirable. Gentles, feel free to write here with further tales of one of America’s last fraternal patriots.,

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