Mead at Chicago

Chicago, which had been only a small log fort in 1833, had become amajor city only sixty years later. Crude, raw, full of vigor and energy, itboasted of spectacular advances in industry and commerce within one genera-tion. It was a major meat-packing center, the "Hog Butcher for the World."South Chicago and neighboring Gary, Indiana, became important steel millcenters where the Lake Superior iron ore shipped down to Lake Michiganjoined coal from Illinois fields brought in by rail. Among the major users ofthat steel was the Chicago-based Pullman Company, which built the sleepingcars for the American railroads and was the location of one of America's mostfamous labor battles.

Conscious of its phenomenal rise to eminence among American cities,Chicago boasted of its accomplishments. The first steel-framed skyscraper hadbeen built there, the flow of the Chicago River had been reversed, land valueshad risen with fabulous rapidity, and even the crime rate, partly the result ofrapid migration and the attendant disorganization of many slum districts, wasspectacular. Soon the city would claim the world championship in organizedcrime.

The new university, endowed by John D. Rockefeller, opened its pseudo-Gothic doors in 1892 under the presidency of William Rainey Harper. Fromthe beginning it was meant to be another Chicago spectacular. Rainey ruth-lessly raided the campuses of Eastern universities and promised those hewanted to attract not only a salary roughly double what they had been earn-ing, but also the prospect of working in a university that would soon be thegreatest in the world. He was eminently successful. Within a very few yearsthe University of Chicago ranked among the first in the country. The originalfaculty boasted no fewer than eight professors who had given up college presi-dencies to join its ranks. Although ten among the original thirty-one full pro-fessors taught theology, thus still continuing the traditional emphasis ofAmerican universities upon training men of the cloth, the university soon be-came a major center of secular learning.

One of President Harper's proudest coups was young John Dewey. Soonafter Dewey assumed his duties as head professor, he enticed his friends Tuftsand Mead to join him, thus creating a department in which the new pragmaticphilosophy could flourish, unhampered by the resistance of traditional philoso-phers who impeded the growth of the discipline in older universities. "A realschool, and real Thought, Important thought too"--this was the reaction ofWilliam James to the group of philosophers gathered around Dewey at Chicagoin the early 1900'S.

In accord with the reforming activism of its founder, the Philosophy De-partment did not limit itself solely to academic work but wanted to have apart in solving the manifold social problems of the city. Educational experi-mentation, settlement houses, industrial education, and general social reformwere all very much on the minds of Dewey and his associates. They wishedto learn by doing good, and they took their pragmatic philosophy seriously.

Progressive education was Dewey's foremost preoccupation, and Mead,though himself not as active as his friend, joined him in many of his educa-tional ventures. He was not much inclined toward writing, but neverthelessmanaged to write eight articles on educational matters between the time hejoined the faculty and the First World War. He was active from its inceptionin the experimental school Dewey had founded. He was president of theSchool of Education's Parents' Association, and also for a time was an editorof one of the university's major educational journals, The Elementary SchoolTeacher. He spoke out as an observer, critic, and advocate of new educationalpolicies, and served as a member, and sometimes as chairman, of a variety ofcommittees dealing with educational affairs.

Mead's concerns for reform were not limited to education. He was as-sociated with Jane Addams' Hull House and its pioneering work in the settle-ment house movement, as well as being actively involved for many years inthe City Club of Chicago, an association of reform-minded businessmen andprofessionals. For a while he served as president of this club.

All this outside activity did not distract Mead from his teaching duties. Aman of exceptional strength, he conveyed, in Dewey's opinion, "a sense ofenergy, of vigor, of a vigor unified, outgoing and outgiving." And so he gaveto his lecture audience the same energetic devotion he displayed in his reformactivities. He prepared his lectures with care, and they were always well at-tended. His delivery was clear and orderly. Although he had great difficulty inwriting down his thoughts, he had no similar impediments when it came tooral delivery.

In particular, Mead's course in social psychology attracted many studentsfrom other departments, especially from sociology and psychology. HerbertBlumer has said that he always considered it rather curious that the responseto Mead's lectures was invariably bimodal. Some students, among them Blumerhimself, were deeply impressed by Mead and felt that he changed their wholeoutlook. Others, by no means less intelligent than the first group, never under-stood what the course was all about. There were enough men in the firstgroup to spread Mead's renown and to assure him a steady supply of majorstudents, among them, T. V. Smith and Charles Morris in philosophy, andEllsworth Faris and Herbert Blumer in sociology.

Something of a myth seems to have spread recently, namely, that the mem-bers of the Department of Sociology formed a unified Chicago school of socialpsychology around the person of Mead. This was not the case. For example,although both W. I. Thomas and Robert Park held Mead in high regard, theformer pretended not to understand him and the latter claimed not to haveread much of his work. While it is easy to conclude retrospectively that Meadshould have had a special appeal for sociologists, in fact, the only major linkbetween Mead and the Sociology Department was Ellsworth Faris, Mead'sformer student now teaching in that department. Mead's ideas, as well asDewey's, were surely prevalent in sociology at Chicago, and it may even betrue that W. I. Thomas gave up his earlier emphasis on instinct in favor of amore social-psychological orientation under the influence of the pragmaticphilosophers. But this is a far cry from the myth of a unified Chicago schoolof social psychology created by Mead. Park and Burgess included none ofMead's writings in their famous textbook. Mead never saw himself as head ofa "school." And it might be noted that the term "social interactionism" wasnever known at Chicago while Mead lived.

In his early period at Chicago, Mead was overshadowed by the more dy-namic and outgoing Dewey. Even after Dewey had left for Columbia becausehe felt that his educational experiments were not given enough support atChicago, Mead did not assume the eminent position his friend had occupiedin university affairs. One reason for this was the sparsity of his publications.

Mead experienced great difficulty in putting his ideas down in writing. Hewould spend agonizing hours at his table, sometimes verging on tears when hedespaired of giving adequate expression to the rapid flow of his thought. "Inconsequence," writes Dewey, "he was always dissatisfied with what he haddone; always outgrowing his former expressions, and in consequence so reluc-tant to fix his ideas in the printed word that for many years it was [only] hisstudents and his immediate colleagues who were aware of the tremendous reachand force of his philosophical mind.''

Mead's preferred medium was the spoken, not the written, word. He wasclearly autobiographical when he wrote: "We do our thinking in the form ofconversation, and depend upon the imagery of words for our meanings.""Conversation was his best medium," wrote his student T. V. Smith, "writingwas a poor second best. When he wrote 'something'--as he says in one placeof another matter--'something was going on--the rising anger of a titan or theadjustment of the earth's internal pressures.' But true of him as of his illustration, what the reader gets is certainly 'not the original experience." That ex-perience he was able to convey and articulate only in the flow of verbal ex-changes and significant gestures.

Quite apart from the objective fact of his scanty record of publications,Mead himself did not subjectively feel any urge to reach for a public rolesimilar to that of Dewey. A most modest, balanced, and harmonious man, hewas not much attracted by the prospect of major recognition and always sawhimself as only a relatively minor worker in the vineyard. Blumer remembersthat in the twenties, when Bertrand Russell was to give a lecture at Chicagoand Mead was to introduce him, Mead, then about sixty, was as nervous as ayoung instructor about to meet with one of the great minds of his discipline.

Mead's humility and diffidence should not be interpreted as a weakness ofcharacter. He was a man of principle and could act decisively when the oc-casion demanded it. When the then new president of the university, RobertHutchins, attempted to force the Philosophy Department to add to its staffHutchins' friend, the neo-Thomist philosopher Mortimer Adler, and Mead'sprotest seemed of no avail, he handed in his resignation and prepared to re-join John Dewey at Columbia. Only his untimely death cut short the prepara-tions for this move.

Toward the end of his life Mead wrote the sentence that might characterizehis own life: "The proudest assertion of independent selfhood is but theaffirmation of a unique capacity to fill some social role." In his gentle andunassuming way, Mead had no desire to shine in the limelight. He saw him-self as an ordinary soldier in the battle for social and intellectual reform anddid not aspire to lead the troops. His profound devotion to scientific inquirywas always controlled by his desire to contribute his share to the bettermentof mankind. "We determine what the world has been," he wrote just before hisdeath, "by the anxious search for the means of making it better." His sontold Dewey that the phrase which he most associated with his father when anysocial problem was under discussion was: "It ought to be possible to do so andso."

Mead died in the belief that he would be known to posterity, if at all, onlyas the writer of a few technical articles. He seems to have had no inkling ofthe fact that the impact of his work would grow from decade to decade sothat he may now well be reckoned as one among a handful of Americanthinkers who have helped to shape the character of modern social science.

From Coser, 1977:343-347.


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