Park's Academic Career

In 1914, at the age of fifty, there came another turning point in Park's life:he embarked on an academic career. At the suggestion of W. I. Thomas, heaccepted a summer appointment in the Department of Sociology at the Uni-versity of Chicago to give a course on "The Negro in America" for a fee of$500. Soon afterward he joined the department as a permanent member andcontinued teaching there until 1936.

Park's success at Chicago was not immediate. When he joined the depart-ment, its founder and spiritus rector, Albion Small, still dominated it, andThomas, who had joined the department in 1896, was its most creative andforceful member. By 1920, however, when the students came back after thewar, Small was nearing retirement and Thomas had been forced to resign.Park became the outstanding member of the department.

Stimulating though his lectures were, Park's reputation did not dependon them. He insisted on getting to know each of his students personally andhaving protracted interviews and sessions with them. Learning about their back-ground and interests in this personal way, Park then helped them map outtheir field of research and specific research problems. It was a time-consumingprocedure, but he loved it.

Park brought his interest in the city into the university. He wrote that hehad "actually covered more ground, tramping about in cities in different partsof the world, than any other living man." Out of this he had gained "a con-ception of the city, the community, the region, not as geographical phenomenamerely but as a kind of social organism." It was the study of this organismin all its details that he now urged upon his students. The city of Chicagowas to become a great natural laboratory for research on urban man and hisnatural habitat.

For nine years Park taught at Chicago as a professorial lecturer with thesame nominal salary. But being dedicated to his students and having someindependent means by inheritance, he offered more courses than he was paidfor. One day he received an official document "authorizing Dr. Park to givecourses in the winter quarter without salary." The administration had finallydiscovered what was going on and wished to regularize the irregular. Park'sappointment as a full professor came only in 1923, when he was fifty-nine yearsold.

Park was a colorful man, even in appearance. Leading a sedentary lifewhile at the university, he developed a thickset and pudgy physique. Hiswhite hair was long, perhaps because he forgot to pay regular visits to the bar-ber. Living up to the stereotype of the absent-minded professor, he wouldsometimes appear before his class with shaving soap in his ears and with hisclothes in disarray. He would frequently forget where he had placed a book,and it even happened that he came to a convention forgetting to bring a copyof the paper he was scheduled to read. He once continued serenely with hislecture while a student walked to the front of the room and tied his neckwear,which had been dangling loose from his collar.

In the classroom Park had a gruff voice and manner, so he sometimes feltthe need to explain that when he spoke rudely he did not mean to offend butthat this was just his manner when thinking hard. Nevertheless, tears wouldsometimes flow when he told a student that his (the student's) ideas were notworth a damn. At times the chairman of the department, Ellsworth Faris,found it advisable to inform incoming graduate students that Park was one ofthe great scholars in sociology and that they should not be put off by hiscrustiness, thus depriving themselves of an exceptional opportunity. Oncestudents got to know Park, and discovered the warmhearted and affectionateman behind the gruff mask he liked to present, they became exceptionally de-voted to him. Few men have had as many deeply attached and grateful stu-dents.

Park was not a very prolific writer. Ellsworth Faris said of him that hewould rather "induce men to write ten books than to take time off to write onehimself." Apart from his dissertation, he wrote only one book, The ImmigrantPress and Its Control (1922). His main contributions came in a series of in-fluential articles and introductions to the books of his students, which havenow been gathered in the three volumes of his Collected Papers. Perhaps hismost influential publication was the pathbreaking Introduction to the Scienceof Sociology, which he published, with Ernest Burgess as a junior author, in1921 and which is by far the most important textbook-reader in the early his-tory of American sociology. One other book that appeared under his name,Old World Traits Transplanted, was the result of Park's collaboration withW. I. Thomas, though it was signed by Park and a junior author. This wasdone because the publishers and sponsors refused to print a book authored byThomas, who had recently been forced to resign his university position be-cause of what was then judged to be a case of sexual indiscretion.

Park received ample professional recognition during his lifetime. Heserved as President of the American Sociological Society (1925), a delegate tothe Institute of Pacific Relations, a director of the Race Relations Survey on thePacific Coast, an editor of a series of books on immigration for the CarnegieCorporation, an associate editor of several academic journals, and was a mem-ber of the Social Science Research Council and more than a dozen other learnedsocieties. He was also the first President of the Chicago Urban League.

An inveterate traveller, Park, before during and after his Chicago appoint-ment, roamed all over the world, exploring its racial frontiers and studying itscities. He visited Germany and conferred with its leading sociologists; he spenta whole academic year at the University of Hawaii; he lectured in Peiping andvisited India, South Africa and Brazil.

After his retirement from the Chicago faculty, Park, ever ready to sharehis knowledge with students, moved to Fisk University, where, right throughhis eightieth year, he taught students and directed their research activities. Hedied at Nashville, Tennessee on February 7, 1944, exactly one week before hiseightieth birthday.

Perpetually curious and ever open to novel experience whether on theracial frontier or in the wilderness of cities, Park was above all devoted totraining men who would be able to map the social world with precision andobjectivity. He was deeply committed to reform and improvement of thehuman condition, but felt what was needed at that juncture were trained anddisciplined observers of the passing scene. Students attracted to the area of racerelations were generally strongly disposed to social action against racial dis-crimination and for Negro civil rights. Park shared their sentiments. But, inErnest Burgess' words, he "told them flatly that the world was full of cru-saders. Their role instead was to be that of the calm, detached scientist whoinvestigates race relations with the same objectivity and detachment withwhich the zoologist dissects the potato bug."

According to Park, "a sociologist was to be a kind of super-reporter, likethe men who write for Fortune. He was to report a little more accurately, andin a manner a little more detached than the average . . . the 'Big News.'But in Park's view the sociologist was no mere gatherer of facts. He gave hisstudents, in Everett Hughes' words, "a perspective in which to see themselvesand thus satisfy their curiosity. The perspective was a system of concepts ab-stract enough to comprehend all forms of interaction of men with one an-other."

Devoted to the enterprise of studying urban life and culture with the samepainstaking meticulousness and attention to detail that anthropologists usewhen they describe primitive tribes, Park was convinced that no such studywas, to use his expression, worth a damn, if it was not guided by an array ofconcepts that would allow the student to sift the significant from the un-essential. To the extent that he managed to convey this sense of the importanceof theory to his students, and he was by no means always successful, he madethem transcend mere empiricism to become true sociologists.

There is no better testimony to the impact of Park's teaching than theimposing roster of his students. Everett C. Hughes, Herbert Blumer, StuartQueen, Leonard Cottrell, Edward Reuter, Robert Faris, Louis Wirth, and E.Franklin Frazier all became presidents of the American Sociological Society.Helen McGill Hughes, John Dollard, Robert Redfield, Ernest Hiller, CliffordShaw, Willard Waller, Walter C. Reckless, Joseph Lohman and many otherstudents of Park became leading social scientists. It is hard to imagine thefield of sociology without the contribution of the cohort of gifted men whomPark trained at Chicago. What higher tribute can be paid to a teacher?

From Coser, 1977:369-372.


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