Reflections on David Riesman (1909-2002)

by Robert T. Sandin

In an Op-Ed article in the New York Times for May 19, Orlando Patterson, Professor of Sociology at Harvard, celebrated the life of David Riesman, once his own mentor, who died on May 10 at the age of 93. He called Riesman “The Last Sociologist,” not only mourning his death but also complaining that he died “discarded and forgotten by his discipline.” Riesman’s death, said Patterson, marks the decline of an important tradition in sociology which has been giving way, as have essentially all the social sciences and even the humanities, to a fragmented scholarship, controlled by a method of thinking and research that is centered on the verification of hypotheses of limited scope by reference to statistical data generated by measurements presumed to be valid.

That was not David Riesman’s way of doing social and educational research. He and his peers—scholars like C. Wright Mills, William F. Whyte, Daniel Bell, Nathan Glazer, and Peter Berger—looked at the big picture. Their concerns, says Patterson, were with the nature and meaning of social behavior, the cultural contradictions of capitalism, the role of religion in economic life, the problems of the American melting-pot, the nature of civil society, and the virtues and dangers of patriotism. Mainstream sociology, according to Patterson, has become largely disdainful of any exploration of basic human values, meanings, and beliefs, although these were once considered its central province. The discipline is now thought to be kept more scientific and rigorous if it avoids matters of judgment and ambiguity. Riesman, he says, died irrelevant to the discipline of sociology as it exists in America today.

Actually, Riesman came late to sociology, and he never satisfied the stereotype. Born in Philadelphia on September 22, 1909, he attended William Penn School from 1919 to 1926, where he says he studied Latin for seven years and Greek for three by rote, never being introduced in any real sense to classical civilization. At Harvard, where he was an undergraduate from 1927 until receiving his A.B. in 1931, his education was partially redeemed, he says, by his work on the Harvard Crimson, his leadership as speaker-chairman for the Harvard Liberal Club, and his senior-year essay under Irving Babbitt, comparing the educational theories of Goethe and Rousseau.

He drifted into the law school at Harvard, completing the LLB in 1934. He clerked for Supreme Court Justice Brandeis in 1935-36, went into legal practice in Boston in 1936-37, and taught law at the University of Buffalo in 1937-41. While a visiting fellow at Columbia Law School (1941-42) he came into contact with Robert and Helen Merrill Lynd, Paul Lazarsfeld, Margaret Mead, and others whose perspectives he found much more amenable to his own than any he had known among lawyers and political scientists. After serving as Deputy Assistant District Attorney for New York (1942-43) and then in a legal position with Sperry Gyroscope Company on Long Island (1943-46), he received an opportunity to join the teaching staff of the College of Social Sciences at the University of Chicago as a visiting professor (1946-47), creating something of a disturbance by appearing without a Ph.D. He then became Professor of Social Sciences (1949-58). He went to Harvard as Henry Ford II Professor of Social Science in 1958 and served in that capacity until his retirement in 1980 at the age of 71.

The range of Riesman’s approach to the “big picture” in sociology can be seen in the topics of his major writings: The Lonely Crowd.- A Study of the Changing American Character (1950); Faces in the Crowd (1952); Thorsten Veblen (1953); Individualism Reconsidered and Other Essays (I 954); Abundance for What? And Other Essays (I 963); and Conversations with Japan: Modernization, Politics, and Culture (I 967). As Patterson says, Riesman was an example of a scholar committed to independent thought, dominated by confidence in ideas, engaged in a kind of research in which one runs the risk of aloneness, yet dedicated to a personal life and professional work that permit one to avoid being morally defeated by the new culture of the academic world.

It was in his leadership in the study and reform of American higher education that David Riesman did his best work. Clark Kerr called Riesman the best informed, most insightful, and most interesting commentator on higher education in the nation—for that matter, in any other nation as well. In his writings in this field Riesman managed a remarkable combination of profound analysis, factual reliability (without statistical overkill), and incisive commentary that is rare in any field of scholarship. He served for many years as a major contributor and board member of the Carnegie Commission on Higher Education, and he continued his work on behalf of the nation’s colleges and universities through the Carnegie Council on Policy Studies and the Fund for the Improvement of Post-secondary Education. Out of these national efforts, in which Riesman was a major player, came a flood of studies of the highest quality and relevance. David Riesman’s influence in the Carnegie reports was huge.

Several “academic revolutions” have occurred in American higher education over the last century and a half. The book on The Academic Revolution (1968), produced by Riesman with the help of Christopher Jencks, who had previously been his research assistant, dealt with the rise of faculty domination of the governance of colleges and universities and the politicization of academic governance and decision making. A previous revolution had occurred at around the turn of the century with the replacement of the “classical college” model by the modem university model, bringing a proliferation of subjects, departments, and schools at the expense of compromising the traditional ideals of the “higher learning.”

In his earlier small book on Constraint and Variety in Higher Education (1956) Riesman used the metaphor of a serpentine procession to characterize an array of post-secondary institutions engaged in copying one another, not so much on the basis of models of academic excellence as on the basis of the ability to thrive in an economically-competitive environment. The problem is that by the time the tail of the snake has come up to where the head was, the head has turned in another direction. Riesman saw stressful economic conditions in a highly competitive higher education market as posing a tremendous challenge to responsible educational planning, while “intellectual veto groups” were creating a new obscurantism which threatened the integrity and unity of scholarship.

In his lead article to a large book On Competence: A Critical Analysis of Competence Based Reforms in Higher Education (1979) Riesman analyzed “Society’s Demands for Competence,” once again seeking to bring the focus of educational planning back to the central issue of the relation between education and society. Finally, in his book on Higher Education—The Academic Enterprise in an Era of Rising Student Consumerism, Riesman documented his long-standing contention that a revolutionary shift was occurring away from the traditional values of academic merit and excellence toward an emphasis on designing the curriculum and conducting instruction in such a way as to satisfy the “wants” of the student consumer market.

Another book might be added to this library, although Riesman could never have written it. That book would document the decline of Christian higher education to the point where ideals gradually succumb to economic and market pressures, where faculty preparedness and willingness to engage the central issues of religious faith and moral obligation are often halfhearted, and where institutions may become stronger in resources and public image while growing weaker in coherence and virtue.

Riesman’s approach in this continuing assessment of the American higher education system was initially focused on the student—i.e., on the instructional process in its effort to encourage a wide-angled curiosity in students, to build on their developing literacy, to enhance their capacity for collecting and processing quantitative data and for handling historical materials, to help them find intellectual excitement in far-reaching scientific and scholarly horizons. He found that his hopes often outran his planning. He realized that he needed to address the people who were already at work in the colleges and universities, as well as others who might be persuaded to consider careers in the field, and those who are in a position to shape educational policy.

He sought to alert readers, both professional and lay, to what was actually happening in American higher education in the hope that his “heads-up” might inspire constructive change and improvement. He sought to avoid over-generalization; at the same time he was willing to be guided by his experienced judgment in evaluating institutional processes and policies. He was realistic in identifying problems and weaknesses, but he warned against “premature pessimism” as well. He said that he had been chastened by his errors of prophecy, but he refused to give in to “dogmatic determinism” or “resigned cynicism.”

What is most threatening to the health and proper development of academic institutions, Riesman declared, is not demographic or economic decline, but failure to recognize that “the future is always in some measure open.” What is needed, he said, is rational planning to nourish and sustain reasonable and realizable expectations of improvement and reform. Educational plans may need to be of modest proportions, he recognized, but that does not require them to be designed with less passion or less conviction.

Robert T. Sandin is a former academic Dean of North Park University.

See all articles by Robert T. Sandin