"Social Studies - Then and Now"

September 25, 2010 - Navin Narayan Memorial Lecture, 50th Anniversary Celebration of Social Studies, Harvard University

Keynote Speech by Penn President Amy Gutmann

Thank you, Drew [Faust], for such a gracious and warm welcome. It’s so good of you to be here to join in the celebration of Social Studies 50th Anniversary. It’s wonderful to be back at my alma mater. I’m particularly relieved to know that Harvard has not lost you to the Red Sox bullpen -- even though the Sox Nation could use you. Harvard is all the more fortunate to have you.

It’s my great pleasure to deliver the Navin Narayan Memorial Lecture. My deepest thanks go to Kalman Narayan for creating this legacy that enables us to honor a most remarkable Social Studies student. Navin was with us for too short a time, but, in that time, he touched the lives of countless people not only at Harvard but all around the world. His life truly was a blessing.

My great thanks to Richard Tuck for inviting me to speak and to all my fellow Social Studies graduates who have paid such a fitting tribute to Social Studies at 50. Join me in expressing special thanks and appreciation to everyone on the Social Studies staff who has made our visit so meaningful and today’s celebration such a success.

Spending time with my classmates certainly has conjured up many fond memories of the past. I still vividly recall the last Social Studies tribute I attended. It is the spring of 1971, just days before my graduation.  I join the Social Studies faculty members and my fellow seniors on the top floor of Holyoke Center for a celebratory dinner -- my last free meal as an undergraduate. After dessert is served, three graduating seniors -- all summa graduates -- are asked to offer parting tributes, reflections on their experiences.       

The first speaker stands before the group, and, after graciously thanking her tutors and thesis advisors, she denounces fair Harvard for being sexist. The second speaker engages in similar pleasantries. He then launches in to denounce fair Harvard for being racist. And the third speaker, certainly not to be outdone, seizes the opportunity -- you guessed it -- to denounce the University for being classist.

After politely listening to these passionate denunciations, one of the founding fathers of Social Studies, the great Russian economic historian, Professor Alexander Gerschenkron springs to his feet. The room is silent. Everyone braces for a no holds barred rebuttal.

Professor Gerschenkron smiles and says he is very pleased to hear how much these distinguished Social Studies graduates have suffered through their Harvard experience: “Thank you,” he says. “You have made me feel very much at home -- because in Russia, the country I come from, happiness is suffering.”

All is not what it seems on the surface, as students of Social Studies could appreciate, then as now. The 50th anniversary of Social Studies therefore presents a perfect time to probe beneath the surface, and ask: Why Social Studies then? Why Social Studies now?

Why Social Studies then? My “then” began in the spring of 1968. Majoring in Math had lost its luster for me -- it was too otherworldly -- and I made the life-changing decision to apply to become a Social Studies major, the consummately worldly concentration.

My decision to switch majors was not easily arrived at, for many reasons, not the least being the application process. The last I checked, the Social Studies website says that it is a “unique program of study at Harvard College.” It was a uniquely difficult major to enter in 1968. My classmates and I did not simply apply. We endured an intense and mysteriously selective process of individual interviews by which we were presumably tested. We did not protest, or even so much as complain about the high hurdles. Quite the contrary, multitudes of Harvard students sought admission into the newest and most exclusive Harvard major, ingloriously named Social Studies.

One indication of the genius of the founding fathers -- and, yes, they were all men -- is the name they bestowed upon their progeny. By a simple act of naming, the founders made it a safe bet that students would not concentrate in Social Studies for its market value. Nor would lazy students  -- if any were mistakenly admitted to Harvard or Radcliffe -- be drawn to a major that featured such a tough sophomore tutorial -- how many of us pulled all-nighters to complete hundreds of pages of weekly reading coupled with mind-stretching writing assignments? No, students would be drawn to Social Studies for its intrinsic, intellectual value, then and now.

What exactly is that intellectual value? How is Social Studies unique?

First and foremost, what was special to me about Social Studies in the decade after its founding was that it encouraged consideration of the dramatically different ways in which a series of great thinkers answered the big question: “What is a well-constituted, (well-governed) society -- and what is our role in it?”

Social Studies asked a big normative question at a time when a methodological perspective called “positivism” was growing, perhaps even peaking, in social sciences disciplines and political philosophy. By positivism, I refer to the idea that the disciplines of social science -- economics, political science, anthropology, and sociology along with philosophy -- can and should be value-neutral. In politics and economics, this perspective was central to efforts to transform these disciplines into sciences.

Economics long had a dominant paradigm, but in Social Studies’ early years Harvard’s Economics department could boast Alexander Gerschenkron Albert Hirschman, and David Landes -- brilliant economic historians with broad historical and political understandings. Some of Harvard’s most eminent political scientists -- Samuel Beer, Stanley Hoffman, and Michael Walzer, to name just three -- were all broadly educated in history and the history of political philosophy. Each recognized the value-orientation of the most meaningful inquiries into human society, economics, and politics.

The intellectual history of H. Stuart Hughes, the political sociology of Barrington Moore, Jr., the defense of individual autonomy by Robert Paul Wolff and the French social history of Laurence Wylie served as multiple “existence proofs” that great research into politics, economics and society is neither narrow nor value neutral.

 Harvard faculty members associated with Social Studies, then and now, bring evaluative and historical perspectives into their scholarship and teaching. Harvard’s Government department, from which I later received my Ph.D., was -- and still is -- distinguished by requiring both political philosophy and quantitative methods of all its graduate students. Some eminent faculty members in the department -- including one of my dissertation advisors and dear friend, the late Judith Shklar -- were skeptical about educating students to be interdisciplinary before we were expert in a discipline. But these same faculty members also called their own skepticism into question, since they collectively resisted the claim that politics is a subject matter reducible to a single discipline.

Regardless of the normative inclinations of some of Harvard’s greatest minds, positivism was, indeed, on the rise in the late 60s. It threatened hegemony over the social science disciplines. By contrast, in philosophy, where the presuppositions of the positivist perspective were most explicitly exposed and analyzed, positivism died a mercifully swift and definitive death.

In collective human endeavors you can’t beat something with nothing. I therefore mark the death of positivism in political philosophy in Cambridge, Massachusetts, when the theories of justice of John Rawls, Robert Nozick and Michael Walzer came to life and to the attention of the educated public.

First as teachers, and then as friends, Rawls, Nozick and Walzer gave me a front row seat to witness the revival of normative political philosophy in the grand tradition. Over the course of a decade, Jack Rawls published A Theory of Justice, Bob Nozick published Anarchy, State and Utopia, and Michael Walzer published Obligations; Political Action; Regicide and Revolution; and Just and Unjust Wars.

Michael was a devoted and dazzling teacher. He also was my mentor in Social Studies, before that term was trendy. He and all Social Studies faculty members encouraged synthetic power coupled with analytical rigor. But most of all they encouraged kibitzing -- or what Michael later called “being a connected critic.” Michael modeled this technique in his strong yet sympathetic critique of the student anti-war movement in Obligations, and subsequently with his now classic refutation in Just and Unjust Wars of the tempting idea that war is hell and, therefore, all’s fair in warfare.

To this day, to me, Social Studies stands, above all, for the idea that values -- more specifically moral and normative perspectives -- are implicated in every systematic way of thinking about our society and the world. We can understand and evaluate the work of great thinkers best when their values are brought into the light rather than relegated to the shadows. Moreover, this understanding, this evaluation is not solely a scholarly enterprise. Regardless of your profession, if you care about what makes a society well governed and what makes a life well lived, you cannot do better than to begin by critically considering the answers offered by the greatest social and political thinkers, and the empirical observations and normative insights that inform their answers.

Naturally, that’s what I tried to do in my Social Studies senior thesis on “Values and Social Science: Max Weber, John Dewey and C. Wright Mills.” I approached my Social Studies senior thesis as my life’s work, reading every primary and secondary source possible on Weber, Dewey and Mills. I demonstrated how their recommended methods for doing social science -- far from being value neutral -- could best be understood, defended, and criticized by taking careful account of their moral perspectives.

This is where the suffering comes in. Four days before the thesis deadline thousands of note cards covered every surface in my Walden Street apartment, I realized that my only hope of submitting my magnum opus on time was to write nonstop for four days without sleep. That’s what I did. Far from putting positivism in social science to rest, my senior thesis came close to putting me to rest.

That experience was the most painful of my academic career. Yes, my entire career. It was, however, also the most valuable. As a consequence, writing my doctoral dissertation was a far more pleasurable experience and a far more successful one. In my case, suffering led to happiness -- through learning from my own painful mistakes.

In true Social Studies spirit, my doctoral dissertation connected the disciplines of political philosophy, political science, and history. My explicit intellectual goal was to defend a liberal theory of equality -- on both historical and philosophical grounds -- and thereby “to supply more reasons for citizens of contemporary liberal democratic societies to be concerned with equality.” In particular, I wanted “to indicate why that concern [for equality] should complement rather than preclude a concern for individual freedom.” And why a concern for individual freedom should complement rather than preclude a concern for equality.

My dissertation became the foundation of my first book, Liberal Equality. Its epigraph is from Matthew Arnold, and it voices a critique that is no less true and even more urgent today than it was when Liberal Equality was published in 1980: “Certainly equality will never of itself alone give us a perfect civilization. But, with such inequality as ours, a perfect civilization is impossible.”

The aim of joining liberty with equality rejects the straw men of liberty as license and of equality as sameness. It develops the morally defensible and historically rooted idea of a society in which “every citizen is respected and self-respecting.” Such a society would be consistent with liberal democratic values, and it “would be a significant, indeed an enormous improvement over our own.”

Over the course of my career, I’ve taken what’s unique about Social Studies to heart, uniting political theory, empirical evidence, and history. This interdisciplinary perspective has influenced my teaching, which began as a Social Studies 10 tutor; it has influenced my scholarship, and it has profoundly influenced my university leadership. I always will be thankful for my Social Studies roots. That is my story. Now, let’s fast forward to Social Studies in the 21st century.

Why Social Studies now? Positivism is still alive, even ascendant in economics and parts of political science. But it’s the underdog in history and the humanities. This unstable equilibrium is on balance better than the ascendancy of any single methodology. The hegemony of anti-positivist methodologies would be as threatening to rigorous and creative thinking as the hegemony of their positivist counterparts. Pluralism, in academic life as in politics, is both a source of creativity and a safeguard against tyranny.

I’m pleased to see that Tocqueville, Marx, Weber, Durkheim, and Freud still are part of the Social Studies 10 pantheon. But it’s also a sign of progress that today’s Social Studies 10 syllabus includes Adam Smith, and as importantly both his Theory of the Moral Sentiments and his Wealth of Nations.

Why Social Studies now? Because whether you are happy, you are suffering, or you are some combination of both, you cannot do better, intellectually, ethically, and practically speaking, than to come to terms with the question: “What is a well-constituted society--and what is my role in it?” The best way to begin answering this question is to understand how great thinkers did so, and to be open-minded and critical in one’s approach to those thinkers.

Fifty years ago, Social Studies was controversial and ahead of its time as an interdisciplinary social science major. Today, little doubt remains that majoring in Social Studies is one of the very best ways for inquisitive minds to commence their journeys to leadership in any 21st-century profession. Social Studies majors, many of whom I’m happy to count among my good friends, include eminent leaders in political science and polling, journalism and jazz, economics and history, law and medicine, sociology, and philosophy, corporate law and investing, the judiciary, and -- very importantly -- public service, including an eminent member of Congress, the director of the American Repertory Theater, the executive director of the Sierra Club, and the president of the Gay and Lesbian Alliance against Defamation.

We now know that specialization at the college level has been over-rated not because specialized skills are unimportant but because bright minds pick up specializations quickly. If we are to educate leaders -- whether of private or public, profit-making or non-profit institutions -- we must enable them to understand and to evaluate the social contexts in which they work. We must encourage them to be constructively critical of injustices. Such breadth and depth of understanding can be achieved only when minds also are primed to remain open to rethinking our assumptions when we encounter the unexpected.

Of course, the concentration still has its critics. Last year I read in The Crimson the complaint that “Year after year Social Studies concentrators are forced to bear the stigma of the grade-school name that their plan of study carries… Sure, students can explain that they are indeed in college and that, yes, they are in fact studying material above the fifth-grade level. But such rationales will never appear on a transcript or an actual degree.” As a bearer of the so-called Social Studies stigma, I respectfully disagree. I say all the more power to preserving a concentration that, by virtue of its very name, demonstrates the importance of appreciating its intellectual above its market value.

Social Studies offers the kind of broad and deep education that primes bright and moral minds to become insightful and able leaders, not because they were born to become “the best and the brightest,” not because they are seeking the most marketable degree, but rather because they are studying some of the greatest social thinkers, carefully and critically. They are guided by eminent faculty mentors and engaging peers. They read; they write; and, yes, they kibitz well. Above all, they are intellectually primed to give back to society at least as much as they have gotten from it.

In conclusion, I salute -- we should all salute -- Social Studies for the fact that its graduates receive a great education by virtue of the intellectual value of their degrees. And let it not go without saying that we Social Studies graduates, then and now, have no cause to complain about our market value either. Our happiness is not, and never truly was, suffering.

So, I thank you Social Studies and Harvard -- from the bottom of my heart and the top of my mind -- for contributing so much to my happy intellectual life and career. Here’s to the next 50 years!


Harvard Magazine Coverage

Harvard Magazine Online Coverage