With professors like former Secretary of State Madeline Albright and journalist E. J. Dionne teaching undergraduates every semester, Georgetown students are no strangers to sharpening their minds in the midst of prominent intellectuals.
Many Georgetown professors, too, were inspired and educated by world-renowned academics and icons of the 20th century.
Thirty years ago, Jan Karski (GRD ’52), an active member of the Polish World War II resistance movement, was on the search committee that hired Eusebio Mujal-Leon, a professor in the government department. Karski earned his doctorate from Georgetown in 1952 and began his 40-year-long teaching career in the government department in 1954. Before coming to Georgetown, however, Karski was held in German and Soviet captivity, enduring intense torture during his efforts to enlighten the world about the Holocaust.
“I didn’t know him well, but I certainly admired him,” Mujal-Leon said. “Just knowing about him affects you. It was clear that he was an exceptional person. He was really a fixture at this university. To me the most powerful way of describing him is as an honorable man.”
Posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2012, Karski is commemorated on campus with a statue outside of White-Gravenor Hall. According to Mujal-Leon, Karski was a very popular professor who told captivating stories during class.
“The stories were not just of the normal, ordinary kind, but reflected his life experiences. That type of learning is very valuable,” Mujal-Leon said. “There are different types of knowledge and lived knowledge of a tragedy is something extraordinary.”
Philosophy professor Nancy Sherman recalls her own experience learning from celebrated philosophy professor John Rawls at Harvard University. Referred to by some as the greatest political philosopher of the 20th century, Rawls is known for his revision of the traditional social contract theory as well as his historical understanding of moral and political philosophy. While a graduate student at Harvard, Sherman was enrolled in a handful of his courses on subjects including the theory of justice and moral philosophy.
“Rawls was famously modest and self-effacing,” she said. “That certainly characterized my picture of him as well. He was very humble and also an extremely demanding scholar.”
Sherman says she remembers that he lectured entirely from handwritten notes, at times up to 24 pages long. Rawls also served as one of Sherman’s advisers for her thesis on Aristotle.
“He said to me ‘I’m happy to mentor you, but I don’t know much about Aristotle’s ethics.’ Of course, he certainly did, but didn’t want to present himself as an Aristotle ethics scholar,” she said.
In his graduate years at the University of Chicago, government professor Keir Lieber studied under renowned political scientist John Mearsheimer, who is known for his contributions to the theory of offensive realism.
“People have good ideas but a lot of people are ‘complexifiers.’ He’s a simplifier,” Lieber said. “He is able to articulate his views and arguments in a way that almost anyone can understand. His view is that … professors shouldn’t hide behind needlessly complex jargon.”
Lieber worked as Mearsheimer’s teaching assistant for the course “War and the Nation State.”
“Students loved him. He was very funny. He makes provocative arguments,” Lieber said. “He used to be called the dark prince because of his views … [but] in reality he is one of the kindest, most generous, most open people in the profession.”
E.J. Dionne, columnist for The Washington Post and professor in the government department and Georgetown Public Policy Institute, has studied under several high-profile individuals. He said that these figures enriched his interest in the relationship between politics and religion, topics he teaches as a professor.
As an undergraduate at Harvard, Dionne learned from leading philosophers Michael Walzer and Robert Nozick — whose office was down the hall from Rawls’.
“All these years later I am still a student of Michael Walzer. There are a lot of things in those courses that stayed with me,” Dionne said.
According to Dionne, the most relevant course he ever took was called Eschatology and Politics taught by famous liberal theologian Harvey Cox. Years later as a reporter for The New York Times in the mid-1980s, Dionne was assigned to be the Rome Bureau Chief covering the Vatican, Pope John Paul II, and then Pope Benedict XVI.
Dionne’s experience learning from Walzer stayed with him as he covered the pope, just as his experience in the Vatican stays with him as a Georgetown professor.
“Thirteen years later I find myself covering the Vatican when folks from our class readings were at the center of the news,” Dionne said.
Dionne is not alone in having drawn on the teaching and academic practices of esteemed professors.
Lieber said he seeks to emulate a similar clarity and straightforward approach with his students.
“One of [Mearsheimer’s] teachings is that we are fortunate to be professors,” Lieber said. “As part of that opportunity, we have a social obligation to try and say something about important real world problems. I think that’s a good guide to one’s career.”
Sherman, too, said her approach to philosophy resembles that of Rawls in her commitment to the history of moral philosophy and fidelity to text. But perhaps above all, she remembers Rawls for his venerable classroom presence.
“We all knew we were at the foot of a great master,” she recalled.