Teaching in an Age of Ideology: Ellis Sandoz

In my previous essay about Eric Voegelin, I wrote how Voegelin became a model of thinking devoid of ideological rant in the student’s quest for the true, the beautiful, and the good. One of those students was Ellis Sandoz, who in turn became a master teacher himself in the mold of Eric Voegelin. In his chapter on Ellis Sandoz in Teaching in an Age of Ideology, Charles R. Embry writes about how Sandoz’s encounter with Voegelin not only shaped him as a scholar but also as a teacher of his own students.

For Sandoz, the two fundamental principles he learned from Voegelin was that the central human experience was one’s encounter with transcendence and that this experience is subject to the validation of human reflection. These two principles not only infuse Sandoz’s own teaching but also his scholarship. Whether it was the creation of the Eric Voegelin Institute or overseeing the 34-volume publication of Eric Voegelin’s Collected Works, Sandoz  realizes these principles in the concrete actions of a scholarship to endure for subsequent scholars and students. His works provides a touchstone to which people can return for reflection on how people reflect and realize in action their encounter with transcendence.

As a teacher, Sandoz invites students to examine whether the claims of the authors which they are studying comports with their own experiences of reality. Always respecting his students, even when students disagrees with him, Sandoz recognizes that the spiritual authority of the teacher resides not in his ability to impart truth but rather in his love of both transcendence and the student. The teacher cannot persuade the student of truth – for only the student can discover this for himself – but he can guide the student on the path towards truth in the hope that he will find it.

Sandoz employs a variety of techniques and approaches to persuade students to participate in the philosophical exploration for the true, the beautiful, and the good. In some cases, he may resemble a Baptist preacher’s hortatory style of lecture; at other times, he will gently encourage students to pursue their own line of thinking, even if this requires enrolling at another school to study with a different professor. But regardless of the style that Sandoz adopts, it is the substance of his teaching that attracts students, such that he is incarnation of his own teaching: he is what he says with no distance in between. To teach the truth thus is to seek it.

This understanding of teaching – to be the incarnation of what you seek – is one that anchored in the common human experience of the world where we decide what is worth preserving, discarding, and reforming. It is a continual task that is passed down from generation to generation as from Plato to Aristotle in antiquity to Voegelin to Sandoz for our own times. Rather than assessments and rubrics, to be what you say is a different way to understand and approach teaching, especially for the true, the beautiful, and the good. The promise of this understanding of teaching becoming accepted by the system of mass education is dubious at best, but, as Ellis Sandoz has shown, it can be preserved in certain pockets with the creation of institutions, the publication of scholarship, and, most importantly, the teaching in the classroom.