Colleagues, students and friends of the late Robert Wokler, senior lecturer in Political Science and Directed Studies, congregated at a memorial service at the Whitney Humanities Center on Saturday to honor his life and legacy.
A Jewish survivor of Nazi-occupied Europe, Wokler — who was born in Auch, France — died of cancer on July 30, 2006, at the age of 63. He was perhaps best known for his efforts to challenge the foundations and identity of the Enlightenment with postmodernism, his unique outlook on which was shaped by his firsthand experiences of the Holocaust. Wokler’s strong interest in the work of European philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, on whom he wrote his doctoral dissertation, two books, two collections of essays and numerous scholarly articles, inspired his later work on the origins of the social sciences and anthropology. Wokler leaves behind numerous books and scholarly articles, including his most ambitious book, “The Cambridge History of Eighteenth-Century Political Thought.”
His many interests, remarkable abilities and endearing qualities have earned Wokler — who taught at Yale from 2002 to 2004 — an enduring place in the hearts of the many he has touched, his friends and family said.
“It was a privilege to have him here teaching in Directed Studies, adding his knowledge, love of learning and passion to the students and faculty with whom he came into contact,” said Jane Levin, the director of undergraduate studies for Directed Studies. “He was representative of the Enlightenment in so many ways. The pathos in his life, the shadow that the Holocaust cast over him, exemplifies the very possibilities of the human spirit.”
Joshua Cherniss, director of the Program on Ethics in Foreign Policy, spoke at the memorial service about the many qualities that distinguished Wokler.
“I will remember Robert for his love of music, sensitivity, mix of sincerity, frankness and open-mindedness, his propensity for wandering, and his sense of humor,” Cherniss said. “I am thankful to have known Robert, to have been a part of his life and to have had him be a part of ours.”
Many of his colleagues fondly remembered Wokler’s profound love of the Directed Studies program and his great dedication to Yale and its students.
Some of Wokler’s last words were “I never had a place where I was more happy than in Directed Studies,” Ryan Hanley, assistant professor of Political Science, said in his tribute to Wokler.
Others who worked with Wokler said they believed the late professor found a sense of belonging within the Yale community.
“He was completely and utterly happy teaching Directed Studies,” said Norma Thompson, a senior lecturer in the Directed Studies Program. “He found his home here at Yale within the program.”
Steven Smith, professor of political science, said Wokler put teaching above almost everything else in his life. Smith said that Wokler once postponed a surgery so that he would not miss teaching his favorite Rousseau lecture in the spring.
Wokler’s love for teaching and the Directed Studies curriculum also gained him the favor and respect of his students.
“Professor Wokler had about him an urgency, which he imparted to us,” said Amia Srinivasan ’07, a student who took Directed Studies during her freshman year. “He taught us first with his heart and then with his mind. He touched his students in a way he knows not of.”
Wokler is survived by his mother and sister.