THE PROFESSOR’S VIEWS
BY W. I. THOMAS
I have no desire to make a formal statement concerning the incident which led to my dismissal from the University of Chicago unless it is done in connection with a summary of my view of life in general, of the problems of teaching and investigation, of freedom from public oversight in the fields of private life, and in general with the problems of securing a more efficient and happy society, for only in that way can the incident have a meaning and value.
We are all aware that human relations are not what we would have them. We have a war, and crime and pauperism, and problems of labor and capital, and prostitution and revolutions, etc., and in view of this imperfect state of society it is the task of the social sciences to develop a method of determining social laws and their application which will give in the human world a control approximately as perfect as the control obtained in the physical world though the laws developed by physics and chemistry and in the animal and plant world through the study of biology.
But the social sciences, have failed. History has failed, political science has failed, economics has failed, sociology has failed, criminology has failed.
Social World Lacks Laws
In the material world we have a marvelous progress — mechanical invention, scientific agriculture, scientific medicine — because physics and chemistry and biology have by intense and unprepossessed attention developed a large number of laws and their application. But in the social world we have developed no laws, and consequently social changes are not rationally made. When conditions become unendurable we resort to prohibition, sabotage, new legal enactments, revolution, and eventually to bolshevickism.
I have been a professorial student of society for a long time, and I have long felt a profound dissatisfaction with the unreality of what I was doing toward the solution of the problems of society. Indeed it would be a bold man or a stupid one who would claim at the present moment satisfaction with his contribution.
It happens that history is the most elaborately organized of all the social sciences and has made the most minute and painstaking contributions. But the historian attempts to present lessons to the present from the past, while the present is, in fact, totally different from the past, and history cannot, by its present methods, at least, do anything for the present. Consequently in this, as in other academic lines I have mentioned, there has been a failure of intellectualism, and no one feels this more keenly than the intellectuals themselves.
Error in Methods.
For myself, I confess that I took for a time an even more remote path than historicism. I attempted to reach
( Page 16) an understanding of the present through the study of the most primitive forms of society, through the so-called savage.
But a number of years ago I concluded that the only proper way to understand the present was to study the present, and that the proper way to study behavior (which is the ultimate basis of social control) was to study the individual.
I had indeed gained from a study of the past some impressions which contributed to the formulation of a new method. I saw that always and everywhere people tend to believe that their existing type of organization is right, or nearly right, and at most requires only a little modification, such as changing the existing laws while leaving the condition of the people the same. An on the other hand, I found that various time and peoples present the most astonishing differences and contrarieties in their types of organization and their moral codes, and that whoever attempts to change these is regarded as an enemy of society and one to be destroyed.
Points in Illustration.
To illustrate these points: It was at one time sin in Scotland to rescue shipwrecked sailors on the Sabbath day; it was a moral act in England to burn a 9 year old boy for repeating a bit of profanity which he did not understand; it was right to burn widows in India, and 18,000 persons petitioned the British privy council for permission to continue the practice; in parts of the Pacific infanticide was ordered by law; the killing of parents by children is often regarded as obligatory; in the eighteenth century the use of the iron plow was condemned as an insult to God; the English war department informed the inventor of the first practical telegraphic device that it had no use for that contrivance, etc. And if we omit recent years (and in recent years only the scientific and practical fields), it would be difficult to find a single innovation that had not encountered opposition and ridicule.
And the history of innovators is well known to the world. When Galileo had the termerity (sic) to say that the sun did not move, and to drop two objects, a small one and a large one, from a tower, thereby discrediting the Aristotelian dictum that these bodies would fall with unequal velocity, he was treated as sinful. The earliest anatomists had to behave as criminals in cutting open the human body to satisfy their curiosity .
Theory of Evolution
The theory of evolution has contributed more to the control of the world than all the theologies since the beginning of the world with their doctrines of atonement and salvation, and yet Darwin was bitterly accused of a wish to ruin society by “driving God out of the world.” Mayer, the discoverer of the law of the transmutation of energy, was accused of the delusion of grandeur and twice confined in insane asylums. Twenty years later he was still regarded as insane in his provincial town of Heilbronn, and he regarded himself as insane in this town. When Düring asked the privilege of visiting him he requested that the meeting be held in the neighboring village of Wildbad “since,” he said, “I am regarded as insane in Heilbronn, and every one considers himself justified in exercising a spiritual guardianship over me.”
There is, therefore, an inevitable conflict between the individual and his society. Society needs the dissent and innovation of the individual, for otherwise there would be no change, no progress, no increasing efficiency, but society tends to destroy the individual who introduces the change.
The individual needs the society, for the society furnishes him with all the materials through which he works. But the society always desires stability, order, permanence, solidarity, conformity, while the individual tends to change, desires new experience, is critical and experimental.
Three Types Stand Out.
And as a general result of this conflict we have three types of individual. These we may call the Philistine, the bohemian, and the creative man. The Philistine is one who adapts his active abilities completely to the prevailing social order; he chooses security at the cost of new experience and individuality. The bohemian spends his life in trying to escape from conformity instead of building up a positive organization of his life.
In contrast with these two types, the Philistine, tending to accept everything, and the bohemian, tending to reject everything, the creative man reconciles his desire for new experience with the desire of society for stability by providing the elements for the creation of a new stability. The creative man and the criminal are both of the disorderly persons from the standpoint of society, but in the creative man this disorderliness is expressed in the setting and solutions of problems, while in the criminal it is merely destructive of the existing system.
But what, after all, has this academic digression to do with my own case ? It means that I am primarily interested in the problems of crime, juvenile delinquency, prostitution, and other forms of social disorganization; in immigration, racial assimilation, individual and social efficiency and happiness, etc., and that I have developed and exemplified in two volumes, published a month ago, a method of studying “human behavior.”
This method may be called the case method. It involves the study of the life history of individuals, and its pursuit constitutes a dangerous occupation. It involves association with normal and moral persons, indeed, but also association with prostitutes, thieves and bums. It involves the possibility of being seen in places and with persons in which and with whom you are not supposed to belong.
The explorer in this field knows that he has a chance of perishing, just as the geographical explorer knows he has that chance. I have committed not one but many indiscretions in this connection, but I have done no injury to society, nor to individuals, according to my standards, except in this case, where the state has invaded the domain of private life and has itself done the injury.
“The Topic of Sex.”
I have constantly been identified in the public press for years with the topic of sex, yet not one-tenth of my printed works are on this subject. Sex bears to my work only the relation it ought bear as a part of human nature. It is a nasty thing or a dignified thing, according to the purpose with which it is approached. The human entrails are a disgusting region to explore as a pastime, but it becomes a noble enterprise when the surgeon explores them with reference to saving human life.
And just so with sex. A prurient or pornographic interest in sex is disorganizing, but a knowledge which may save the child from disaster is organizing.
Some years ago I was speaking of some cases of sexual abnormality to a woman to whom I had a right to speak openly, and she became disgusted. But she was interested in the Juvenile court, and a year later she came to me with some cases which she could not understand. I pointed out, that the explanation of these cases was to be found in the information I was giving her at the time she became disgusted. The information then became a value to her instead of an obscenity; it assisted her to protect young girls.
A Dangerous Subject.
I do not wish to let the topic of sex run away with me; I am already sufficiently identified with it. But before leaving it, I must point out that sex is a dangerous subject to study, because it is the only remaining subject which has not been opened up freely to scientific investigation. In the last generation religion was also a taboo question. At present anyone can safely do or say anything he pleases about religion, but the subject of sex is so dangerous that it can be handled with safety only by committees or commissions of safe and respectable men, and not by individuals, and even then it possesses unsuspected possibilities of danger to the reputations of those concerned.
By some unaccountable misconstruction I was at one time made a member of the Chicago vice commission. Otherwise this commission was constituted of about thirty high-minded men and women of an eminently “representative” character. They proceeded with extreme conservativism and explicitly excluded any policy that might be regarded as in the least radical. We read in the introduction to its report: “The commission has kept constantly in mind that to offer a contribution of any value such a contribution must be (1) moral; (2) reasonable and practical; (3) possible under the constitutional powers of our courts, and (4) that which will square with the public conscience of the American people.”
What could be more cautious “ Nevertheless the post office declared the report obscene literature, and the members of the commission were technically liable to a penitentiary sentence. In view of the dignity and numbers of the commission no action was taken, but what would have happened to the man who issued that report single-handed?
I must add that while I did not logically belong to the commission and did not concur in its report (I was in Europe at the time the report was completed), I dissented from each and every one of the conditions laid down in the paragraph I have just quoted.
While I think that a scientific report would have had no regard for either existing moral norms or reasonable and practical considerations (Implying, I presume, a consideration of the rate of wages paid to girls], or possibility under the constitutions, or the public conscience of the American people — I have a profound respect for the members of the commission and for their work. They could not do more than face a penitentiary sentence, and they did unwittingly tend to lift the taboo from the sex question by identifying themselves with its investigation.
The standpoint to be taken in any conflict between the interests of the individual and society is: What is of greatest benefit to the community ? The difference in this respect between primitive and civilized societies is that the former appreciate the individual for his conformity with tradition, the later for his efficiency in promoting civilization. The public which in its reaction to individual behavior applies the standard of conformity instead of the standard of cultural efficiency thereby shows that it stands on the level of savage and peasant societies, not of civilized life.
Error of Society
The great error of modern society, and particularly American Society — an error so absurd that it can be explained only by a complete mental inertia of social groups — is that while it expects from its members original and creative work for the benefit of the community, it continually hinders them from doing it by all kinds of special regulations. For the chief and indispensable requirement for original and efficient cultural activity is freedom of work and freedom of personal development.
Only an independently and highly developed personality with a wide sphere of interests and a comply liberty of action can create works which promote civilization and are not a mere repetition of the past.
There are no possible substitutes for originality and creativeness, and there are no possible substitutes for personal freedom in developing originality and creativeness in the individual. Your progress comes through your individual, and if you want to understand why your physical sciences are efficient and your social sciences are inefficient — why you have war and crime, etc., but can build Panama canals — you have to look for it in the complete freedom enjoyed by the physical sciences.
Duty of Society
The chief duty of society with regard to those who work for the advance of civilization is simply to interfere with them as little as possible and to provide them with the equipment they need. Nothing but the minimum of legal order necessary for the existence of the society should be the limit of the sphere of privacy which any society understanding its own interests should leave to its scientists, artists, inventors, its economic, social and political workers.
American society not only tends to include in its legal regulations proscriptions which hinder the normal functioning of its members but public opinion tends to exceed the limits of the law in its imposition of old and dead customs: And in this respect the American university shares the defects of the American public.
The institution from which I was dismissed is, in my opinion, the most liberal in America, but in its quick and eager response to public opinion (anticipating even the action of the law) it showed a demand for the maximum of conformity from its members and an unwillingness to concede any sphere of privacy in sexual life. This was to be expected, since the American school is historically a religious-moral institution even more than an institution for research.
But just as no individual can produce really valuable work if society makes claims upon him which interfere with his chief pursuit by distracting his energies and interests into other lines — if, for instance, an artist is asked to be a moral reformer, a scientist is asked to take an active part in religious or political life — just so no institution can efficiently promote the kind of activity which is the reason of its existence if it combines with it other alien activities — if, for example, a university tends to be not only an institution for the promotion of learning but also a center of moral and religious education.
This is sufficiently recognized in the economic field where the failure which follows every attempt to combine political, moral, hedonistic pursuits with business is evident, whereas the failure of a scientific institution to promote science is evident only to those who know anything about scientific work. The public is satisfied if such an institution functions at all, and the authorities demand from the instructors little more than conformity.
We should naturally expect that in America, with its insistent practical demands — adjustment of labor and capital, immigration, etc. — the university would be organized primarily with reference to meeting these pressing present demands.
But, as a mater of fact, while the university is admirably organized on the side of the physical and biological sciences, and also for the study of those abstract questions like philosophy and metaphysics, which have no practical bearing on the present, a free study of actual life in the present is not possible, because such study demands attitudes not in conformity with academic traditions.
The university cannot tolerate a study of actual life in the scientific sense because it sincerely acquiesces in the principles of limiting research laid down by the vice commission, and because it does not wish any profound disturbances of present economic organization.
The Russian Method
In Russia, under Nicholas I, the university was forbidden to occupy itself with any present social problems — economic, political, religious, sociological. It was obliged to limit itself to the study of the past. Does the American university wish consistently to occupy the Russian position ? I think it does.
Whether our present universities will gradually die in so far as the study of the present is concerned. , or whether they will reconstitute themselves on a basis which will include the present, or whether there will arise completely free institutions for the study of actual, concrete life without any limitation whatever, to the investigator except efficiency is a matter which only the future will show. Certainly it is the ardent wish of many academic men interest in the present to be incorporated in a completely free institution.
The chief conclusion of what I have
said up to this point is that society
ought to leave a larger share of the
interests of its members in the region
of private life, and that this is not to be regarded as the concession of a luxury to the individual but as a condition of his efficiency.
Some Safe Fields
There are of course regions of private life in which the state and the public do not interfere. In matters of food, clothing, in our religious, and to some extent, in our artistic interests we are left unmolested.
But there is also a large region of
sexual life, both inside and outside of
marriage in which the state and the
public should not concern themselves.
We cannot here discuss the limits of private and public life in the sexual field, but society certainly should not interfere with the free association of mature persons capable of planning their own lives and seeking their own values, and it certainly should interfere in the case of the immature and those incapable of doing so My own association with women has been varied, but always of a constructive not a destructive kind, according to my standards.
I have met many women in many situations which would be called compromising, have gained through this much new experience, and have incidentally been instrumental in raising a number of the persons concerned to higher levels of efficiency.
As to Public Opinion
I am impressed, as every one must be impressed, with the fact that in the present state of public opinion nothing but the question of publicity lies between security and disaster in many cases which lie clearly in the region of private life. As an example of this; I will cite a case, no so much because of its importance as of its banality, and because it is remotely connected with the present.
A statement has appeared in the daily press that I spent an evening with Mrs. Granger in her rooms at the Colonial hotel. The facts are these: Not Mrs Granger, but her sister, called me over the phone and stated that she had agreed with a committee of women to sell liberty bonds for one week, and asked me to come and help her write a better speech than the one the committee had asked her to memorize.
I went, and told her to say, not what the committee had recommended, but something like the following: “We are all prone to let pass opportunities to do things at the proper moment, thereby losing forever the opportunity and at the same time losing some value that we can never recover. I knew parents who had a very dear and very sick child, but delayed incurring the expense of a skilled doctor and a hospital and thereby lost a life which could never be recovered. Money is one of the lowest of values, but by failing to contribute it at this moment you stand a chance of losing beyond recovery civilization, which is, in fact, the life of the world.
Mrs. Granger Quoted.
She replied: “Yes, I had a very dear and talented friend. Recently she died of consumption in a dirty back room of a New York hotel. Her friends knew that she could be saved by sending her away, but they delayed, and finally spent more on her funeral than would have restored her to health. “
I told her that was her speech, and started to leave, but she importuned me to help her write it. We were in the lobby of the hotel, but with the consent of the manager, we went along with her sister, to her room and wrote it. This act was clearly within the region of my private life, but I suppose that if the manager had planned it and the press had given it publicity, this incident could also have led me to the position which I now occupy.
The Present Incident.
As to the incident which has provoked this statement from me, Mrs. Granger is a mature and ambitious young woman. Her life is mainly centered in her child and in self-development which would lead to the development of the child. In her association with me she was, consciously or unconsciously, seeking a means which would assist her to that end. She is incapable of any of the sentimentalities which she did not say but which the reporter wished her to say.
She has also literary ambitions. She had read a number of my “life histories” in manuscript and she stated that when she had previously lived in Chicago she had known a girl who had a remarkable history. She saw this girl and arranged to get her history on her own account and for possible literary uses. She was to bring the girl to my office, but before the meeting it developed that the girl could not come so far on that day and it was agreed to meet in the city.
Mrs. Granger did not know that I had registered her at the hotel, and she had such confidence in me that it did not occur to her to question whether the proceeding was discreet or not. We entered the room and were apprehended before the appearance of her friend.
“Not Guilty as Charged”
I am therefore not guilty of this charge as it is understood, but I am guilty of holding views and being capable of practices not approved by our social institutions.
And, finally, I avail myself of this unsought opportunity to say that I am in the curious position of being classed as ultra, not to say foolishly, radical, while in my own opinion I am rather conservative. That is partly due to such expressions as I have made in this statement and partly to sensational reproductions in the daily press of certain statements in one of my books.
I refer to this point not at all in my own interest, but to point out that the problem of a higher level of efficiency is the main problem of the nation, and that the newspaper would serve this end better if they would convey to the public more of information and less of sensation regarding the views of men in precarious positions, who nevertheless attempt to make their view articulate.
Illustrates His Ideas.
I will illustrate this point by examples:
My first volume appeared about ten years ago. It is now pretty much out of date, but it was received at the time with approval by the English suffragists and called one of the main aids to their cause. American women were, however, in the main, very much offended by the book. They evidently did not read it, but based their judgment on extracts out of the context by the daily press.
The book is a very sane book, although, perhaps, too “smartly” written, but the extracts representing it are always extremely silly. For instance, I am quoted as writing: “What the world needs is more of sexuality.” What I said amounts to this: The feeling of sex is not confined to the relation between man and woman. We have also the love of the mother for the child, and this is, in a wider sense, “sexual,” because based on the fact that the mother is a woman and has mother love. Also, the more general “love of humanity” has in it an element derived from the fact that we are sexual and transfer some of the feeling for the baby to humanity. It is not necessary to accept this view as true, but it is not silly.
Again, I am quoted as saying that woman is mentally on the same plane as the savage. What I have said is that the savage has a good head, a very good head indeed, but that he does not get into the white man’s schools, and use his books, and work in his laboratories, and share his traditions, and his head consequently does not acquire all the data of knowledge open to the privileged white. Similarly, women have very good intelligence, as good apparently on the average as that of men, but convention has limited their activities and interests, and they also, for the most part, do not acquire data of experience equal in range and value to those of the freer male.
I am further quoted as saying that a woman has a right to a baby whether married or not. I have said that it seems just that a mature woman with perhaps an occupational preparation and who chooses not to be married should nevertheless have her baby, but I have added that in point of fact the social penalties which the woman and the child would incur under these conditions are so serious as to make that course unwise, at least at present.
But perhaps in this view I am too conservative. These are not very important points, but I mention them at random, and could multiply them.
An in other respects I do not claim to be particularly radical. I believe, for instance, in property, and that the acquisition of capital should be favored in the state organization, though I believe, of course that the attitude of the capitalist toward his earnings should be something very definite — hat his chief interest should be the employment of his talent and his acquisitions in the service of society.
I do not believe in the social reform by the way of revolution, but by a knowledge of the laws of behavior and the development of a technique for the control of behavior. I do not believe in the reduction of the members of society to one class, but in a heirarchization of social classes based on efficiency. But perhaps my views on these and similar topics will contain vestiges of my academic fear-thought