Education Is an Act of Faith

Education Is an Act of Faith

By SCU Staff

Remembering Eric O. Hanson: teacher, scholar, and soccer fan extraordinaire

For decades Eric O. Hanson selected these words as an epigraph for the syllabus of every course he taught: “Everything is connected in life. The point is to know it and to understand it.” He took the words from a postcard sent to him by a student who graduated years ago. Because teaching, and what students did with what they learned, meant the world to him.

Eric Hanson devoted more than 41 years to teaching at Santa Clara, earning respect and affection from colleagues and students as a distinguished scholar, beloved professor of political science, and an avid fan of SCU women’s soccer. In the pages of this magazine he wrote a little over a decade ago: “An education for the 21st century must foster both intelligence and spirituality, both global and local visions, both technological and traditional forms of expression, and lifelong learning for service and for its own sake. And all these dichotomies find their unity in the person’s discovery of self.” And in conclusion he surmised: “Education—like life, love, and politics—is always an act of faith.”

We lost him on July 7 after a five-month struggle with illness. “He served the University superbly in so many roles,” said SCU President Michael Engh, S.J. His wife, Kathleen Hanson, daughters Erin Katharine Collins ’97 and Kara Hanson, and three grandchildren mourn his loss, as does his brother, Kirk O. Hanson, executive director of SCU’s Markkula Center for Applied Ethics.

So here is some of the arc of Eric Hanson’s life and work, as shared by President Engh, followed by tributes shared by two longtime colleagues.

Teacher, Scholar, Fan

Eric came to Santa Clara directly from his Ph.D. program at Stanford University in 1976. He taught comparative politics, Chinese politics, and religion and politics, winning the University’s Brutocao Award for Teaching Excellence in 1992, and the College of Arts and Sciences’ award for teaching excellence in 2003. He loved to dress in appropriate historical costumes for some lectures, and had props for many others. He chaired the committee that revised the core curriculum in 1992 and then headed the core from 1992 to 1997. He served as chair of the Department of Political Science and then for 13 years was a member of rank and tenure committees. Besides the faculty he mentored and the hundreds of students he advised, he was also the alumni liaison for the department, publishing an alumni newsletter known as Political Asylum. Eric’s books include Catholic Politics in China and Korea (1980), The Catholic Church in World Politics (1987), and Religion and Politics in the International System Today (2006). He has been the Patrick A. Donohoe, S.J., Professor in political science since 1993.

Eric was perhaps the most faithful faculty fan SCU women’s soccer has ever had, missing only a very few home games in the history of the team. And in 1987, he and current California Gov. Jerry Brown ’59 teamed to provide many hours of KGO-ABC televised commentary on Pope John Paul II’s three-day visit to the Bay Area. 

The family held a private burial in July. There will be a memorial service on the Santa Clara campus in September.

Genuine, Honest, Down-to-Earth

In a culture where self-promotion, one-upsmanship, oversharing, and cynicism are so prevalent, Eric Hanson was a steady countercultural force. In fact, over the years, whenever I’ve thought of Eric, the term that comes to mind the most is not an English word but one in the Taiwanese language: kó-ì. This describes a person who is genuine, honest, considerate, and down-to-earth. Considering Eric’s background in Taiwan, and his deep understanding of Chinese politics and language, it’s so appropriate that there’s a Taiwanese word that fits him so well.

The first time I met Eric was at the San Jose airport when I arrived for my job interview at SCU over 17 years ago. He met me at the gate with a welcoming smile on his face and a Santa Clara women’s soccer baseball cap on his head. We went to dinner in Japantown, and his warmth and sincerity made me feel at home immediately. The next day, as I walked across campus with him, I was struck by how many times we had to pause as he was greeted with affection and enthusiasm by student after student. Eric cheerfully greeted them each in return, by name, with fondness and respect. His love for our students was so genuine and infectious. 

Eric was an outstanding mentor and role model. He didn’t offer unsolicited advice, but whenever he was consulted, he generously shared his undivided attention, valuable insights, and excellent judgement. He was always eager to help junior colleagues from all departments navigate the rank and tenure process, along with other challenges. Eric was a keen analyst of the political landscape and a skilled and effective tactician, but always in the most diplomatic way. More than once, he shared an observation so politely and tactfully that it took me a few moments to realize that it was a criticism of a difficult colleague or a warning about a potential landmine. But when I finally caught on, he would confirm my understanding with a bemused, mischievous smile and a sparkle in his eye. 

He headed to class, full of energy, with a Mao hat on, or a rolled-up laminated map under one arm and a well-worn plastic pitchfork in his other hand.

I doubt there’s anyone humbler than Eric. He was a well-regarded scholar of religion and politics who published books with the prestigious Cambridge and Princeton university presses. He was also an award-winning, incredibly devoted teacher. I enjoyed running into him as he headed to class, full of energy, with a Mao hat on, or a rolled-up laminated map under one arm and a well-worn plastic pitchfork in his other hand. In addition, Eric was a respected and trusted leader. 

Eric never talked about any of his abundant achievements as a scholar, teacher, or leader. He did express pride—and often—but always pride in others. He was always excited to share news about the accomplishments of wife Kathy, daughters Erin Katharine and Kara and their families, his brother, Kirk, his students, and the women’s soccer team.

All of us who had the privilege of knowing Eric will dearly miss his uniquely selfless, gentle, and kind presence. I’ll miss knocking on his office door, hearing him respond, “Come in, please!” and receiving his wisdom and guidance. But Eric’s influence will endure. A master teacher, he led by example. In the future, in situations when I wish I could turn to Eric, I hope I’ll remember to ask myself, “How would Eric do this?” and let his beautiful spirit guide me to act with humility, compassion, and integrity.

—Elsa Chen, Professor of Political Science and Vice Provost for Academic Affairs

Be Present to the World.

Eric Hanson has been, for many years, a wonderful and dynamic presence for all of us—as family members, as members of the Santa Clara University community, and as his dear friends. We first met when we were both participating in new faculty orientation, before either of us had ever taught a class here. And, for the past 41 years, I have been blessed to call him my friend.

For all those years, Eric was present in so many classrooms. During that time there were a large number of students who double majored in political science and history, or who majored in one and minored in the other. When I would ask students during advising sessions what other classes they were taking, if they were in his class, they would always mention that first. Their eyes would light up, their voices would become more cheery, and they would spontaneously tell me a story of how enjoyable and illuminating his classes always were.

In those classes, Eric always encouraged the students to be present to the entire world. He tried to teach them that the world was filled with other people who were, in important ways, unlike Americans, people who thought and acted differently, people who looked at the world in significantly divergent ways. In class, Eric would use poetry, fiction, and role-playing—like dressing up as a communist officer during the Long March—to help the students understand the centrality of that event to China in the second half of the 20th century. He wanted students to get inside different perspectives, to try to understand them empathetically, and to learn to appreciate the tremendous and creative diversity of our planet.

Eric’s scholarship was in the same vein. It was present to and encompassed the entire world. It reflected upon the fundamental ways in which people across the globe engaged in religion and politics. His first book looked at this in two Asian countries, Korea and China. His second book examined religion and politics from a global focus. And his third book offered a sophisticated theoretical framework to understand these relationships as they continue to manifest themselves in the contemporary world.

But Eric was not only present to the academic side of campus. Indeed, he may have spent more time in Buck Shaw (later Stevens) Stadium than any other faculty member! Whenever I would tell him that I had a member of the women’s soccer team in one of my classes, he would immediately respond by telling me where she went to high school, why the coaches recruited her, how many minutes she had played, how many goals and assists she had had in each of her seasons here, and what her strong points as an offensive and defensive player were. (Only strong points, for in Eric’s view no Santa Clara woman soccer player ever had any weak points!)

Eric deeply appreciated the sense of camaraderie and community that the women’s soccer team displayed as they built their program into one of national prominence. He always regarded the team’s coaches as collaborators and partners in the overall educational process, and he enjoyed interacting with them as a colleague. 

He tried to teach them that that world was filled with other people who were, in important ways, unlike Americans, people who thought and acted differently.

When he was a scholar in a library, he had to be quiet, but he was hardly a quiet soccer fan! In the late 1990s we sat together in Spartan Stadium and grieved loudly at every Santa Clara opportunity that never quite came to fruition during a heartbreaking national semifinal loss. But a couple of years later we watched the victorious national championship game at the house of two colleagues in the law school. On that occasion, Patty and Gary Neustadter practically had to “Eric-proof” their house to protect the furniture from his more enthusiastic and extravagant rooting gestures!

Eric was present to the educational process in its broadest context. That was precisely the reason he was asked, in the early 1990s, to head up the committee that devised a new core curriculum. We regularly met at his house, where Kathy and he would always welcome us with pastries from Aki’s Bakery and loads of coffee to get us through seemingly interminable meetings. Eric spent an enormous amount of time on this project, and the result was a curriculum that reflected a consistent international and multicultural focus. That focus has since become an integral part of Santa Clara. Eric had constant meetings with deans, department chairs, faculty, alumni, and many others. When it was all over, he would joke that, after trying to get humanities faculty, business faculty, and engineering faculty to agree on a single curriculum, understanding the Byzantine intricacies of Chinese politics was a piece of cake.

But that was about as far as he would go in describing his indispensable leadership role in that process. Eric never really liked to talk about himself all that much. In fact, over the last couple of years, questions about his Parkinson’s disease would usually be answered in a sentence or two, to the effect that the medicine was working. Having said that, he wanted to change the subject. And he often changed it to the part of his life that was dearest to him, his family. 

He was so proud and happy that his daughter, Erin Katherine, was finding a home in the teaching profession that was so central a part of her parents’ lives. He would gleefully recount her active learning strategies to engage her students in the classroom. He was immensely proud of the architectural projects that his daughter, Kara, was designing. At times he would ruefully admit that he could probably never afford to live in or stay at any of the venues she was developing! He was tremendously proud of the way in which his brother, Kirk, had journeyed far and wide to help make the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics into an institution of international importance. But he was most proud of Kathy and the work that she did at San Jose City College: the language lab she directed, the creative and imaginative website she developed, and the unwavering commitment she gave her students. One Santa Clara alumnus once told me how much Eric’s classes had meant to him, and I made sure to pass that along to Eric. Eric responded, “If I could have half the impact on my students that Kathy has on hers, I would be more than happy.”

Well, he certainly did have that impact, and more. Eric was present to all of us in so many different ways—as a teacher, a colleague, and, most of all, a friend. He very much wanted that presence to continue. During my last visit with him, he told Kathy and me that he was looking forward to getting back into the classroom. Being present to others was, in a word, his life. 

Now he is present to us in a different way, and God’s healing love is fully and completely present to him. I don’t know how the equivalent of cable TV works up there, but I have no doubt that Eric has already collected a large group of souls who will from now on be avidly rooting for Santa Clara during every women’s soccer game. 

—Robert M. Senkewicz, Professor of History 

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