History in the making
Revered scholar Robert Brentano celebrates 50 years at Berkeley

By Marguerite Rigoglioso

10 July 2002 | Professor Robert Brentano marks his 50th anniversary on the Berkeley campus this year, but you’d hardly know it. Still going strong and teaching a full load of history courses, he’s as full of zest as he was when he started his career in 1952.

“I like teaching undergraduates,” the affable 76-year-old explains. “It keeps me alive.”

Brentano is one of those people others are sincerely happy to congratulate on the achievement of such a milestone. He’s a widely revered figure on campus, with four major books to his credit on topics in British and Italian medieval history, several teaching honors, and a reputation for treating everyone — from staff to students to faculty and colleagues — with notable consideration and respect.

“What I admire most about Bob is his humanity,” says Victor Rotenberg, an undergraduate adviser in the history department who has worked closely with Brentano over the years. “He’s very human, while at the same time being among the cleverest, most published, and most celebrated faculty in the department. In the classroom, this translates into really wanting to reach the students. After 50 years, he’s still constantly tinkering with his courses, trying to figure out how to bridge that gap between teacher and student.”

Brentano modestly brushes away all such accolades, insisting, “It’s important not to think of good and bad teachers, just different teachers. My teaching has been successful with some students and unsuccessful with others, because I don’t believe in highly structured lectures about history. Over-structured history tells lies.”

An ethic of equality
What Brentano will admit to is a particular skill in nurturing intellectual curiosity among his students. “I treat them as equals in approaching the subject with me, and I let them know that their opinions and perceptions are valuable,” he explains. “Doing so excites their interest in topics in which they wouldn’t be interested if I were just lecturing.”

Brentano has regularly taught both introductory history courses and more specialized upper division courses in British history.

Michael Eidelson, a junior at Cal, is just one of many students for whom taking a class with Brentano has been nothing less than life-changing. “Professor Brentano has influenced me in incredibly positive ways,” Eidelson says. “I’ve never had a professor who is so wise and knowledgeable, yet so approachable, kind, caring and friendly. He truly supports independent thinking and believes he has as much to learn from students as they do from him. And even in a large lecture hall, he knows people by name, which is remarkable in a large public institution.”

Brentano’s democratic approach in the classroom emerges from a deeply rooted belief in equality and social justice, values that were instilled in him growing up in Depression-era Newburgh, Indiana. That was a small town in which, he says, “blacks and whites, northerners and southerners, were constantly before me.” Catholicism and the Quaker influence he experienced as an undergraduate at Swarthmore College, he notes, further encouraged these attitudes, which he retained through his years as a Rhodes Scholar earning a Ph.D. in medieval history at Oxford.

“I don’t support hierarchy in society,” Brentano says, with the reticent tones of someone who doesn’t feel comfortable proselytizing about his opinions. Over the years at Cal, he has consequently worked to support equal access for ethnic minorities, students with disabilities, re-entry students and those from disadvantaged backgrounds. He has also been a champion of the university’s administrative and clerical staff. “Staff are hardly given credit around here, and yet I have absolutely depended on the advice of people such as Victor Rotenberg in planning courses,” he says.

Gondolas around the corner?
As to his future, Brentano says, “I used to think I would teach until I died.” A stroke two years ago has slowed him down a bit physically, however, and has prompted him to consider living long-term in Italy, particularly Venice, where he, his three children, and his wife Carroll, the editor of the Chronicle of the University of California, have regularly lived part of the year for the past three decades. “I’d like to read all the books and poetry I haven’t had time for over the years,” he says.

But he isn’t off to Italy yet. Instead, he plans to keep teaching, at least through 2003. “Our students have become increasingly sophisticated over the years, and their interest in arts and letters is stronger than ever,” he says happily. “The classroom is still very much an exciting place to be, and the study of history continues to be relevant to students’ lives. That definitely keeps me coming back.”


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