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Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Formative (18): Mon père

My father, Leon, was a sociologist who later became a university administrator. I was born while he was doing his PhD at Harvard with Talcott Parsons, the main American sociologist of that period, with a dissertation on civil rights. One thing he told me later was a surprising finding: that companies that actually tried to discriminate less would often receive more complaints of discrimination. The explanation her gave was that employers who simply did not make an effort insulated themselves and were not approached by African-American workers in the first place. Complaints tended to arise, instead, in the contact between two culture. [I could be remembering this imprecisely, but this point has always stayed with me.]

It seemed logical that he would go to his school, as I went to mine. We lived in Ann Arbor in those days, the early and mid 60s. He was against the Vietnam war right from the beginning. I believe he was still working on the dissertation for several years while he had his job in Michigan. They just called him in one day and told him he had tenure: no paper work, no bureaucracy, and then he moved to Davis as full professor and chair of the department. For several years UMich was trying to get him back. He edited The American Sociologist in the early 70s. Then in 76 he became Vice-Chancellor and spent most of the rest of his career in administration until he got seriously ill. He had always been sickly, and a bout with rheumatoid fever triggered rheumatoid arthritis. He would spend a lot of time on his back when he wasn't working. When he was about the age I am know, (and I was finishing my PhD and getting my first job) he got pneumonia and never fully recovered. He died in 2001 a day short of his 65th birthday. He is still a frequent visitor in my dreams, though less intensely than in the past.

I never thought of going into social sciences. I hated how those people wrote: Parsons is probably the worst prose stylist of any intellectual of comparable fame. It was an advantage having an academic family, because I knew the expectations and could get professional guidance at home. My decision to go into academia was never really in question. That's what I would do. My younger brother also got a PhD (UCB, where my dad had done his undergraduate degree) in Finance. My father had extensive literary and musical interests. He was a bit of what you would call now a "mansplainer." He would go to a museum and lecture the guide about the exhibit he was seeing. It would drive my ex-wife crazy.

He subscribed to the New York Review of Books. I read it too, of course. I found the letters and responses to be formative of a style of intellectual debate.

He was used to being the smartest person around. He wasn't particularly imaginative in his thought, though. His last book was about the constitution of the public sphere and was indebted to Habermas, a figure with whom I feel very little affinity. We had two very different kinds of intelligence, but had great conversations over Chinese food. He helped me get out of high school into college where I thrived. I did get one B in college, but that is another story.


Andrew Shields said...

The New York Review of Books is mostly still an exemplary guide to good prose style for intellectuals.

I've been wondering recently if that's the result of a house editorial style or not. It seems like it probably is, but then again, maybe the editors are just picking the right authors. Or the authors know what it means to write in that venue, so they write a particular way for that venue.

Anonymous said...

I still want to see the post on that B. :-)