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Bertram Cohler, Sosc prof of 40 years, dies at 73

Two-time Quantrell winner, Bertram Cohler dedicated his career to teaching undergraduates.

Bertram Cohler (A.B. ’61), who helped guide students through Marx, Durkheim, and Freud for nearly half a century and dedicated himself to teaching in the College, died on Wednesday. He was 73.

Photo: Chris Salata
Comparative Human Development professor and practicing psychoanalyst Bertram Cohler (A.B. ’61) passed away on Wednesday. Cohler taught Self classes at the University for 40 years.

Cohler, the William Rainey Harper Professor in Comparative Human Development and the College, taught the Self, Culture, and Society social sciences sequence every year since 1972, in addition to five to seven other courses. During his 40-year tenure in higher education, Cohler was awarded the Quantrell Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching in 1972 and 1999 and the Norman Maclean Faculty Award for enriching student life in 2006.

In his classes, Cohler tried to link each text to the lives of his students. In 2009, Cohler brought his Self class to a live streaming of President Barack Obama’s inauguration, and connected the moment to the theories of Émile Durkheim, which his class was reading at the time.

“The inauguration is a perfect example of what Durkheim is talking about,” Cohler said during the event. “We’re connecting social theory to the reality of social life. Race, class, ethnicity in American life, all of these are brought together in one week.”

Cohler earned a Ph.D. from Harvard in 1967 before returning to the University as Director of the Orthogenic School in 1969. A graduate of the Institute for Psychoanalysis in Chicago, Cohler said that his psychoanalytic background helped him better understand the mindset of his students.

“I wear another hat as a psychoanalyst, and I’m sure that my psychoanalysis informs my teaching. I’m very much concerned about the climate of the classroom and students’ lives, because they have lives outside the classroom, and you can’t learn if you’re anxious,” Cohler said in a 2009 interview with the Maroon. “I try to reduce anxiety so they can really focus on the text.”

First-year Colette Robicheaux, a student in Cohler’s Self section this year until winter quarter when he stopped teaching due to illness, said that he wanted students to find meaning in the texts they studied.

“He was a very unique professor in that he really cared about us feeling connected to the class and feeling like the work we were doing is our own,” Robicheaux said. “He would bend over backwards so that you would get what you wanted to get out of the material.”

Cohler’s research in human development examined families and illuminated issues in the rehabilitation of individuals afflicted with mental illness.

Dean of the College John Boyer lauded Cohler’s longtime commitment to and passion for teaching and the College.

“Bert often insisted that the College’s ideal should be to recruit scholar-teachers for its faculty, by whom he meant faculty members who were distinguished scholars but who also had a profound love of teaching,” Boyer wrote in an e-mail. “Bert himself was such a scholar-teacher, and his impact on our history will be enduring.”

In 2009, Cohler said that the College should challenge students to reconcile the contemporary culture with their classical studies.

“You can’t just listen to classical opera, you’ve got to listen to Philip Glass, and participate in culture as it is and kind of make sense of it all. Each of us then kind of finds our own path to the College,” he said. “Then you have the rest of your life to put it all together again.”

—Additional reporting by Jennifer Standish

  • Amy Cohler

    Thank you for such a thoughtful and meaningful story to describe Bert. Him humility, kindness, and love of learning, which he never stopped, are only the “tip” of the layers of his brilliance. And yet to us, his cherished family with whom he strongly believed in making sure we were always lovingly cared for, he was “Dad, Grampa, Hero, and friend.”

  • Olivia Boyd

    Bert was a very special person to me, along with so very many other students, present and past. He did everything one can to become eternal in the minds of those he illuminated life for. His own research, work ethic, application of human history to the collective being we’ve become as well as his strategies of psychoanalysis and personal behavior modification will continue to influence me forever.

    I think it is very important that the writers of this obituary edit it as soon as possible to include part of the quote Bert once made that they used to depict his character and essence. The quote of his at the end of the article is omitting a very carefully selected element that Bert included not on a whim, but as part of the enormously crucial point he was trying to remind us of. He originally discussed hip-hop music in line with Philip glass and classical music. For you to omit that defeats a large part of Bert’s entire philosophy and would be personally disappointing and offensive to him.

    It worries me that the only mention of anything derived from African history is the sole thing that was cut out of his selected quotes for his obituary. The way that Bert spoke was critical. The reason he mentioned those cultural elements of music and not different elements, or fewer, is because he was trying to illustrate the glory of encompassing all of human society in one’s lens of the world.

  • Harmon Siegel

    Bert taught Sosc in Cobb 102 for 43 years–he also had Sosc in that room when he was an undergraduate. They should put his portrait in that room.

  • Jinnie

    Bert will be missed. I was fortunate to take a class with him and he touched my life in theist genuine way a human beig could. Rest in peace, Bert. You did a great job teaching in the earth school.

  • Bill

    I’m glad this obituary takes account of Bert’s wonderful work as a teacher of U of C undergrads; I wish it would have given attention — even a sentence — to his scholarship on sexuality and development, particularly on the course of gay and lesbian lives. He was my analyst for three years. I wish I had thought to tell him how much I appreciate him. But I know he’s had far greater impact on the lives of other people, and I’m sure he knew what a force for good he was. Thanks, Bert.

  • Jeffrey E. Clark

    “No wine before its time…”
    A great teacher, a great mind, and a mensch.
    I will miss him.

  • Geertrui

    We have set-up a Memorial page for Bert so that all of the stories are collected in one place. Please consider re-posting your messages here: http://bertramcohler.wordpress.com/tributes/

    Thank you.

  • George OBrien

    Bert your Frued classes prompted some of the most dynamic classroom discussions of my time at The U of C. You will be missed by all who you touched.

  • Tigg

    Very odd that the Maroon’s obit of Bert Cohler doesn’t even mention that Bert came out as gay, but the obit from the U of C News Office does.