The Study of Society

by zunguzungu

From two posts at Robert Paul Wolff’s blog, on the Social Studies conference at Harvard and Marty Peretz:

This was a gathering of more than four hundred former and present Social Studies majors — possibly the largest assemblage of sophisticated social theorists since the last garden party of the Frankfort School for Social Research. These are people who think nothing of discerning the deeper ideological meaning in Afghan popular music or Tibetan architecture, or teasing out the epistemological filiations between Foucault and Montesquieu. And yet, confronted at their own conference by a massive protest, the best they could come up with was “Marty is a nice guy.”

…Programs like Social Studies and STPEC have it as their mission to teach students how to understand the socio-economic realities that lie beneath the often beguiling and glittering surface appearances the social world presents to us. What is more, the people who run Social Studies and STPEC [as well as the only person who was in at the founding of both of them — namely me] hope that students will fight in their lives for justice and equality, using what they have learned to make them more effective. But we learn how to act courageously and effectively not only by mastering texts and grasping concepts — accomplishments that are essential, I believe — but also by coming to see how these intellectual skills are inseparably linked to traits of character — courage, honesty, integrity.

Perhaps I could learn multivariate calculus from Marty Peretz, however unpleasant an experience that might be. But I could not learn social theory from Marty Peretz, because who he is would interfere fatally with what he was supposedly teaching me. And what is more, I could not learn social theory from someone who would make excuses for Marty Peretz as “a wonderful teacher.” So, whatever generations of Social Studies students may think, and however famous Michael Walzer may be, they were not learning how to be fighters for social justice from him. Nor could I learn to be a fighter for social justice from a program that, when the money was dangled, was willing to honor the likes of Peretz.