Social Studies: Confrontation and Celebration

I’m just back from the Social Studies event last weekend and here are my reactions. First, the confrontation. The issue of whether Harvard should accept the scholarship fund named in honor of Marty Peretz was passionately debated, but it did not dominate the day. The protesters outside the Science Building seminar and Adams House luncheon and those who walked out of the luncheon when Peretz rose to speak were loud, but not obtrusive. That seemed balanced, and consistent with the spirit of the free exchange of ideas in a university.

I feel considerable sympathy for and sadness about Peretz. The honor was for his responsible leadership of the program during a difficult time. (For example, Prof. Michael Walzer revealed that, in the aftermath of the Harvard strike of 1969, Peretz worked hard to convince the university not to expel the students who had occupied University Hall.) The honor was undermined by what Peretz, in his posted confession on Yom Kippur eve called his “sin of wild and wounding language.” A responsible and judicious leader and mentor can at the same time be an extreme partisan in print in the culture wars, a tendency aided and abetted by the ease of instant online publication. As a general precaution, I think blog publication software should have an automatic internal “diplomacy checker” that cautions against overly provocative prose and prevents a post from going up until the writer looks at it the next morning. My guess is that wouldn’t be sufficient in this case: Marty is who he is.

Aside from the sadness of l’affaire Peretz, there was much at the seminar that was thought-provoking, which I’ll discuss under the themes of inter-disciplinarity, connecting, and remembering.

In its essence, Social Studies is an interdisciplinary social sciences program. Interdisciplinarity is great for undergraduates, but is feasible for a practicing academic? Most academics are specialized, not interdisciplinary. Tenure decisions and publication decisions are usually controlled by people rooted in their intellectual niches.

One of the speakers, sociologist Rogers Brubaker, observed that sociology’s absence of a dominant paradigm and perpetually fracturing and realigning subdisciplines facilitates interdisciplinarity. University of Pennsylvania President Amy Guttman, in contrast, observed that economics is controlled by a dominant rational actor paradigm, making it difficult for economists to engage in inter-disciplinary research. That said, it seems to me that she passed over the growth of behavioral economics, which is a hybrid of psychology and economics, attempting to supplant the rational actor with more realistic psychological assumptions.

One difficulty of being interdisciplinary is the challenge of learning a new discipline in mid-career. You must go beyond undergraduate dilettantism; if your knowledge of the new discipline is superficial, reviewers for academic journals will catch you out. Perhaps a better way to do interdisciplinary research is to put together a team of scholars from different disciplines. While each will not be expected to master the other discipline(s), each will have to become conversant enough with the other disciplines that the collaboration produces synergies. Social studies encouraged us to be interdisciplinary and provided models of effective interdisciplinary scholarship, but emulating the models is always a challenge.

Second, connecting. Because there were faculty and former and current students from a 50 year period present, likely everyone knew only a handful of the several hundred in attendance, a situation that is painful for introverts and delightful for extroverts. I went with the latter tendency, and ended up talking with many of the lecturers, recent graduates, and current students. To a person, I found them engaging and engaged, with lots of ambitions and plans for future learning, whether through formal research or life experience. The caliber of its participants speaks highly of the strength of the program’s design and its appeal to the best students and young faculty members.

Third, remembering. I asked Director of Studies Anya Bernstein whether the program had been recorded and her answer was that, as is often the case now at Harvard, there wasn’t money in the budget. As someone concerned with narratives and institutions, I deeply regret that. The Social Studies program, while a relatively young institution by Harvard standards, has a wonderful story to tell. Telling an institution’s story is a great way of recruiting – not that Social Studies seems to have any problem there – and of building identification with the institution on the part of its participants. It would be great for Anya and other lecturers to say to their students that, if they wanted to know more about the history and philosophy of the Social Studies program, they could look up the proceedings of the 50th anniversary celebration on the program’s website.

Without the benefit of transcripts, I hope Anya can round up the speaker’s notes and texts which, together with the filmed interview of Prof. Stanley Hoffmann, one of the program’s founding fathers, would constitute something approaching a record of the event, and post it on the program’s website. I think the students, current and future, would learn a lot from it. I found it so thought-provoking that I’d also like to read it and think again about all that was said.

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