Professor Ruth Bevan holds the David W. Petegorsky Chair in Political Science and is Co-Chair of YU’s Department of Political Science. Bevan specializes in European politics and modern political theory, and teaches courses focusing on the European Union and Western political theory, including Israeli political thought. She has received a German Academic Exchange Service Fellowship, Fulbright Faculty Fellowship, IREX (State Department) Short Term Grant, an Earhart Fellowship, and a National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowship, and has been a fellow of the Schusterman Center for Israel Studies at Brandeis University and an Oxford University Round Table Participant.
1. What did you do before you joined YU as a faculty member?
I was in Germany doing PhD studies at the University of Freiburg. The supervisor of my dissertation (Doktorvater) suddenly passed away, leaving me in the lurch. Prof. Sidney Hook at NYU agreed to mentor my doctoral dissertation, a comparison of Karl Marx and the English Conservative Edmund Burke. That was a wonderful stroke of luck for me, as Hook was a renowned philosopher specializing in Hegel, Marx and John Dewey. Hook became like a grandfather to me and provided marvelous experiences. For example, he once called me, saying he was too busy to attend a Socialist Party meeting down in Greenwich Village. Would I substitute for him? I did that. In a run-down store front in the Village a group of aging men, including Bayard Rustin, came together to talk about issues of social justice. Rustin arrived in a fine vested suit, a bowler hat and an ebony walking cane. Memorable!
As I settled into NYU, a part-time teaching position at YU became available in the coming fall of 1965. I became full-time at YU in1969.
2. What is your favorite aspect of your job at YU?
Without a moment’s hesitation I can say that the favorite part of my work at YU has always been the classroom. The quality of the students is what has kept me at YU.
3. What profession other than your own would you like to attempt?
If I were to stay in academics and research, I would be most interested today in the neuro sciences. I read with avid interest now whatever new discoveries and claims about the brain are published. Neuroscience incorporates my interests in medicine and philosophy, and I am interested in this from a social scientist’s perspective primarily.
If I were to leave the world of academics, then I would probably choose to study architecture. The architect “concretizes” our self concept as well as how we relate to others in public space. Again I think one sees the social scientist peeking out here in this interest.
4. What is your goal as a political scientist, and what is your goal as a teacher?
I grew up in the generation shaped by World War II. My father volunteered in the war – I really did not know him until he returned after the war. He was missing in action for a year. His transport ship in the Pacific was hit by a kamikaze. The war became the filter of my reality. I was motivated by questions of the Holocaust and these questions eventually led me into Political Science. I studied in Germany for this reason, and was encouraged by my husband, a German Jew. I have done rather extensive work on Germany’s Holocaust memorials. I also got a State Department grant to take a sabbatical in Bulgaria to interview Jewish survivors of the war. The Nazis ordered the deportation of Bulgaria’s Jews in 1943 but Bulgarians refused to comply. All 50,000 Jews in Bulgaria survived. The story was different in Macedonia under Bulgarian supervision. About five years ago when doing archival work on the Berlin Holocaust Memorial by the Brandenburg gate, I had a very strange experience. As I came to the end of my research, I said to myself, “This is it. I have finished my quest. And I most likely will never return here unless to attend a conference.”I felt a sense of closure with the “German issue,” though not with the Holocaust. Can there ever be closure there?
I am now translating this Holocaust concern into a concern about education. I am keeping very much abreast of the “crisis in the humanities.” Op-eds about this appear in the Wall Street Journal and New York Times periodically. Student enrollment in humanities courses continues to drop at the top tier universities. The fear is that without vibrant humanities studies we shall be in danger of losing our humanity. Is this empirically true? Intellectually, I want to agree. However, as a social scientist I am moved to play devil’s advocate by asserting that the top Nazis loved classical music, art, literature. Why did they not absorb the humanistic values of these creative endeavors? Right now I am at the stage of my thinking where I’m assuming there is a missing psychological variable. Current work on empathy interests me. Perhaps therein lies the key. Nazis lacked the capacity for empathy. But all this means for me that we still need to have greater clarity on the relationship between education and ethical behavior. If education only equips us for professions and employment without simultaneously nurturing the ethical personality, then we’ll have to lower our expectations about education institutions and the educational process and search for other ways to achieve ethical responsibility in individuals and in society generally.
A second interest of mine has always been the impact of technology on social relations and on human beings as biological creatures. The two interests overlap. Horkheimer of
the Frankfurt School of Social Research in his Dialectics of Enlightenment talks about the
Nazis introducing to history “industrial genocide.” I am now caught up in the questions
raised and problems formed by the advent of Information Technology (IT). Always
interested in philosophical approaches, I am particularly anxious about the preservation of our democratic liberties, including that of privacy, and the enforcement of integrity in government.
I would say that my goal as a political scientist, as well as that of a teacher, is to apply my experiences and knowledge to helping analyze the course of social currents, to helping understand what is going on around us, and to helping empower the individual through knowledge. Fear immobilizes and encourages flights into fantasy – which ultimately is what the ostrich does when it buries its head in the sand. Knowledge is power.
5. What would your current and former Students be surprised to hear about you?
I don’t think that there is much that would come as a surprise, since we have a pretty open dialogue. In times when reality presses too hard against my personal walls, I escape into paints and adult coloring books. I have a special place in my study where I store all that. My father was a photographer and I have inherited his interest. Animals have a special niche in my psyche, and I am a borderline vegetarian. Travel has always been a passion – that, too, is inherited. None of this is shocking, though, and what perhaps would really surprise my students is that, after all these years, I still get nervous before the first class and before a public lecture. I have had to come to grips with the fact that I have a measure of stage fright. At my core, I’m actually quite shy.