Drekmeier was a social theorist known for work with students

Drekmeier made an impact on students through his long-lasting Social Thought and Institutions seminar.

Charles Drekmeier, professor emeritus of political science in the School of Humanities and Sciences, died in his Palo Alto home on Aug. 25. He was 92.

Charles Drekmeier (Image credit: Courtesy of the family)

A social theorist, Drekmeier was known on campus for being an active voice during both the Civil Rights and anti-Vietnam War movements of the 1960s.

In 1965, Drekmeier co-founded the Stanford Committee on Peace in Vietnam, which sponsored a 24-hour campus teach-in, only the second teach-in in the nation. For 23 years, Drekmeier and his wife Margot, a professor in Stanford’s Department of History, taught an honors seminar titled Social Thought and Institutions.

For the interdisciplinary seminar, the Drekmeiers often hosted students in their home, all sitting together on their living room floor. The course syllabus included many great works of literature and focused on a single topic such as “community” or “myth and symbol” for an entire year. Other themes included violence, social change and the problem of individuality and its social basis.

“He was Socrates for a lot of people,” said Peter Sly, ’68, a retired natural resources lawyer, and former Social Thought and Institutions student. “A really good teacher will ask his students questions that don’t have an easy answer. He was really great at doing that. The other part of the Socrates image is that he would perfectly summarize a wandering discussion, which had lasted several hours, with a couple of sentences, so we were ready for the next discussion.”

For Sly, who was the same age as many of the young men being drafted to serve in Vietnam, the seminar was less about politics and more about shared values, rooted in works by authors like Max Weber and including professors from sociology, history and other departments.

“The students were fascinated by the experience of four or five faculty members concerned about such issues, coming from different perspectives and sometimes in disagreement,” Drekmeier said during an interview he did with the Stanford Historical Society.

Drekmeier, a native of Beloit, Wisconsin, joined Stanford’s sociology department in 1958. He moved to the political science department in 1964, after completing a Carnegie Fellowship at Harvard Law School.

“For many years he was a popular teacher of undergraduates and also had a substantial graduate student following,” said Robert Packenham, an emeritus colleague in the political science department.

Drekmeier’s book, Kingship and Community in Early India (Stanford University Press, 1962), was awarded the Watumull Prize by the American Historical Association, which recognized the best book on the history of India originally published in the U.S. Drekmeier had been a Fulbright Scholar in India from 1953 to 1954. He served on the executive committee of Stanford’s academic council from 1966 to 1968 and retired from Stanford in 1993.

“From freshman political science class to Social Thought and Institutions, Charlie was a seminal influence in my intellectual and political development,” said Marjorie Cohn ’70, a former student and professor emerita at Thomas Jefferson School of Law and former president of the National Lawyers Guild. “He was brilliant, compassionate, funny and had an uncommon facility to challenge students to think critically. Charlie made history and political theory come alive in the current context and frequently focused on the tension between law and morality.”

Charles Drekmeier and his wife Margot Drekmeier, a professor of history at Stanford. (Image credit: Courtesy of the family)

In May of this year, Drekmeier, his son Peter and eight former students began meeting in a modified, virtual version of his Social Thought and Institutions seminar – a testament to the scholar’s lasting influence.

“The discussions we’ve had since May touch on the pandemic and on politics but we would always go to the bigger picture questions like, ‘Are capitalism and democracy consistent with each other,’ ” Sly said. “Those questions are not easily answerable, but that’s what you want a teacher to do – raise hard problems.”

Drekmeier was preceded in death by his wife, Margot, and his daughter, Nadja May. He is survived by two sons, Peter and Kai, and three grandchildren. An online memorial service was held on Saturday, Sept. 19. Drekmeier’s memoir, oral history and other information can be found on a site created by his family: https://drekmeier.org.