Many years ago, as an undergraduate at Rice University, I took a course on political ideology. I wasn’t a political science major and I didn’t know anything about the professor, Fred Von der Mehden, before signing up. The class fit my schedule and completed a distribution requirement. My expectations were not high.
I remember getting the books for the course. Readings were all over the map, literally. There were articles and books from the US and western Europe, but we also were assigned readings about Africa, Central and South America, and Asia. No immediate pattern emerged from the syllabus. I was intrigued and I thought that it might turn out to be an interesting class after all.
It was super and my appreciation of it has only grown over the years. Von der Mehden was not a performative lecturer. He kept the class focused, steering discussions quickly and ably through his knowledge and smarts. He knew so much – and he radiated an experienced kind of wisdom. He established an unusual kind of calm in the classroom while pushing us with challenging questions. Underscoring it all was his patience and interest in student ideas. He was a very patient teacher. About halfway into the semester, I learned that he was an expert on Muslims in Southeast Asia. This broadened my understanding of the scope of our discussions, which looked at religion, ideas, and violence. Our classroom became engaged in something larger.
Toward the end of the semester, Von der Mehden asked us the class to argue with each other about the consequences and effectiveness of various ideologies. He challenged us to think through what ideologies really meant to nations and their citizens. And he was not satisfied with arguments that simply affirmed enhanced state power or leadership. He wanted us to think about how ideologies could shape ways of thinking and impact people’s lives.
My classmates picked a range of isms: fascism, communism, and a number of deisms and theisms. I opted to advance liberal democracy. It was damn hard to prove that the incoherence of democracy could lead to much more than more debate and more confusion, but I tried. Von der Mehden was kind to me with that assignment. Through the work and his teaching, I learned to think differently about what was “right” and why.
Von der Mehden’s course anticipated many of the key political conflicts of the past thirty years.
I read in an alumni magazine recently that he passed away at age 89. His academic career was long and distinguished. I should have sent him a note of appreciation and thanks. He deserved it.