UC Berkeley News
Press Release

UC Berkeley Press Release

Professor known for his inspirational teaching has died

– Norman Jacobson, a University of California, Berkeley, political science professor whose outstanding skills as a teacher drew national recognition and inspired many students to delve into political theory and political action, died on Tuesday (Sept. 4). He was 84.

The cause of death was complications associated with chronic respiratory disease and pancreatic cancer, according to his family. He died at Alta Bates Summit Medical Center in Berkeley.

Norman jacobson
Norman Jacobson

Jacobson joined the UC Berkeley faculty in 1951 and was especially renowned for his courses on American political theory and the history of political thought - dealing with such thinkers as Fyodor Dostoevsky, Sigmund Freud and George Orwell - until he retired in 1989.

Following retirement, however, he continued to teach including, most recently, a freshman-sophomore seminar called "Truth, Lies, and Politics" that he taught this past spring until he became ill and was unable complete the course.

In the mid-1960s, Jacobson was one of four U.S. college professors chosen by National Educational Television, the predecessor of PBS, to be the subject of an hour-long documentary in its series "Men Who Teach."

In 1988 he was honored by the Council for the Advancement and Support of Education (CASE) as both its state of California Professor of the Year and one of 10 National Gold Medal Winners.

The professor's most influential published work consisted of several articles that appeared in professional journals in the early 1960s and that, according to his son, Ken Jacobson, were believed to have inspired some of the young thinkers who became intellectual leaders of the decade's student movement. His only book was a 1978 collection of essays on political theory titled "Pride and Solace: The Functions and Limits of Political Theory."

Ken Jacobson said his father's true love was teaching.

"Tales of his pedagogic gifts were said to draw to Berkeley's political science department graduate students who had scarcely read a word he had written," said Jacobson. "Even during his final few years of declining health, he taught at Berkeley year round, receiving words of praise on his class evaluations echoing those penned by students who had taken courses from him 40 years before."

Mi Lee, a graduate student instructor who worked with Jacobson, said, "His students loved him because he seemed to know everything on historical record (and some things off it), and in lecture he would tell them stories - not just about George Washington or John Adams, but as often as not about Babe Ruth. But it wasn't all ease and fun. Professor Jacobson invited them to explore hard questions - about race, war, science, and religion.

"As his GSI for his undergraduate course on American political thought, I got to see countless students discover, when they meditated seriously on some of American society's tensions and contradictions, that they possessed real political imaginations, even, again to their astonishment, rich ones. For many students, his courses were life-changing experiences. He awoke in them the same insatiable curiosity he had, largely through his entrancing lectures. Truly each one was a performance."

Paul Pierson, chair of UC Berkeley's Charles and Louise Travers Department of Political Science, said, "Norman Jacobson wore so many hats, so well, over such a long period that it is impossible to do justice to his contributions to the political science department and the university. His good humor, boundless curiosity and commitment will be greatly missed by faculty and staff - as they will by the generations of students who profited so much from working with him."

Jacobson was born in the Bronx, New York on Oct. 15, 1922. As a young adult he packed dresses in Manhattan's garment district to help the family overcome financial hardship. At night, he attended St. John's College (now known as St. John's University) in Brooklyn, graduating in 1946.

He enlisted in the U.S. Navy during the 1940s and served three years in World War II, much of it on small ships patrolling waters of the North Atlantic. Discharged as a lieutenant junior grade, he married for the first time and went on to graduate school, ultimately obtaining master's and doctorate degrees in political science from the University of Wisconsin in Madison, in 1948 and 1951 respectively.

Though Jacobson was a member of the UC Berkeley faculty for decades he also served teaching stints at Stanford University, the University of South Carolina and Columbia University. On every campus that he taught, said graduate student Lee, who first met Jacobson when she was a Stanford undergraduate, friendships formed among students enthralled by the professor's teaching.

Jacobson's interests in political theory, at times led to political action. During the 1960s he delivered a noted address in support of student demonstrators who had been arrested during the Free Speech Movement in 1964. He was an early public opponent of the Vietnam War. During the early 1980s, said Ken Jacobson, his father participated in demonstrations held to protest UC investments in companies with interests tied to South Africa, which then was living under apartheid.

His intellectual interests also led to unusual and diverse work projects. During the 1960s, for example, he taught a UC Berkeley course on music and politics with composer Seymour Shifrin; In the late 1960s he produced an hour-long feature film titled "Report," which chronicled his attempt to conduct an experimental class called "Toward the Expression of the Idea of Freedom;" and in 1995 he served as a consultant for the Learning Channel's November 1995 television miniseries "The Revolutionary War."

Jacobson's UC Berkeley affiliated appointments includes serving during the 1954-55 school year as a delegate of then UC Berkeley Chancellor Clark Kerr to the U.S. Presidential Commission on Intergovernmental Relations, which was deeply involved in planning the nation's interstate highway system. He also trained as a psychotherapist and during the 1960s served in that role for five years at UC Berkeley's student clinic. During the mid-1970s he served as vice chair, then chair, of the political science department.

Jacobson is survived by two ex-wives, Jean Pines Jacobson of Berkeley, and Jennifer Ring of Reno, Nev.; five children, Ken Jacobson of Silver Spring, Md., Ellie Jacobson of Richmond, Calif., Matt Jacobson of Richmond, Calif., JoJo Ring Jacobson of Seoul, South Korea, and Lilly Ring Jacobson of Poughkeepsie, N.Y.; four grandchildren; one great-grandchild; and his brother, Jerry Jacobson of Boulder, Colo.

A graveside service will take place at 1:30 p.m. this Friday at Tel Shalom, which is part of Rolling Hills Memorial Park, 4100 Hilltop Drive., El Sobrante, Calif.

The political science department and the Jacobson family are seeking to establish a fellowship in his name.