George Herbert Mead: Mead at Chicago
Mead at Chicago
Chicago, which had been only a small log fort in 1833, had become a major city only sixty years later. Crude, raw, full of vigor and energy, it boasted of spectacular advances in industry and commerce within one genera- tion. It was a major meat-packing center, the "Hog Butcher for the World." South Chicago and neighboring Gary, Indiana, became important steel mill centers where the Lake Superior iron ore shipped down to Lake Michigan joined coal from Illinois fields brought in by rail. Among the major users of that steel was the Chicago-based Pullman Company, which built the sleeping cars for the American railroads and was the location of one of America's most famous labor battles.
Conscious of its phenomenal rise to eminence among American cities, Chicago boasted of its accomplishments. The first steel-framed skyscraper had been built there, the flow of the Chicago River had been reversed, land values had risen with fabulous rapidity, and even the crime rate, partly the result of rapid migration and the attendant disorganization of many slum districts, was spectacular. Soon the city would claim the world championship in organized crime.
The new university, endowed by John D. Rockefeller, opened its pseudo- Gothic doors in 1892 under the presidency of William Rainey Harper. From the beginning it was meant to be another Chicago spectacular. Rainey ruth- lessly raided the campuses of Eastern universities and promised those he wanted to attract not only a salary roughly double what they had been earn- ing, but also the prospect of working in a university that would soon be the greatest in the world. He was eminently successful. Within a very few years the University of Chicago ranked among the first in the country. The original faculty boasted no fewer than eight professors who had given up college presi- dencies to join its ranks. Although ten among the original thirty-one full pro- fessors taught theology, thus still continuing the traditional emphasis of American universities upon training men of the cloth, the university soon be- came a major center of secular learning.
One of President Harper's proudest coups was young John Dewey. Soon after Dewey assumed his duties as head professor, he enticed his friends Tufts and Mead to join him, thus creating a department in which the new pragmatic philosophy could flourish, unhampered by the resistance of traditional philoso- phers who impeded the growth of the discipline in older universities. "A real school, and real Thought, Important thought too"--this was the reaction of William James to the group of philosophers gathered around Dewey at Chicago in the early 1900'S.
In accord with the reforming activism of its founder, the Philosophy De- partment did not limit itself solely to academic work but wanted to have a part in solving the manifold social problems of the city. Educational experi- mentation, settlement houses, industrial education, and general social reform were all very much on the minds of Dewey and his associates. They wished to learn by doing good, and they took their pragmatic philosophy seriously.
Progressive education was Dewey's foremost preoccupation, and Mead, though himself not as active as his friend, joined him in many of his educa- tional ventures. He was not much inclined toward writing, but nevertheless managed to write eight articles on educational matters between the time he joined the faculty and the First World War. He was active from its inception in the experimental school Dewey had founded. He was president of the School of Education's Parents' Association, and also for a time was an editor of one of the university's major educational journals, The Elementary School Teacher. He spoke out as an observer, critic, and advocate of new educational policies, and served as a member, and sometimes as chairman, of a variety of committees dealing with educational affairs.
Mead's concerns for reform were not limited to education. He was as- sociated with Jane Addams' Hull House and its pioneering work in the settle- ment house movement, as well as being actively involved for many years in the City Club of Chicago, an association of reform-minded businessmen and professionals. For a while he served as president of this club.
All this outside activity did not distract Mead from his teaching duties. A man of exceptional strength, he conveyed, in Dewey's opinion, "a sense of energy, of vigor, of a vigor unified, outgoing and outgiving." And so he gave to his lecture audience the same energetic devotion he displayed in his reform activities. He prepared his lectures with care, and they were always well at- tended. His delivery was clear and orderly. Although he had great difficulty in writing down his thoughts, he had no similar impediments when it came to oral delivery.
In particular, Mead's course in social psychology attracted many students from other departments, especially from sociology and psychology. Herbert Blumer has said that he always considered it rather curious that the response to Mead's lectures was invariably bimodal. Some students, among them Blumer himself, were deeply impressed by Mead and felt that he changed their whole outlook. Others, by no means less intelligent than the first group, never under- stood what the course was all about. There were enough men in the first group to spread Mead's renown and to assure him a steady supply of major students, among them, T. V. Smith and Charles Morris in philosophy, and Ellsworth Faris and Herbert Blumer in sociology.
Something of a myth seems to have spread recently, namely, that the mem- bers of the Department of Sociology formed a unified Chicago school of social psychology around the person of Mead. This was not the case. For example, although both W. I. Thomas and Robert Park held Mead in high regard, the former pretended not to understand him and the latter claimed not to have read much of his work. While it is easy to conclude retrospectively that Mead should have had a special appeal for sociologists, in fact, the only major link between Mead and the Sociology Department was Ellsworth Faris, Mead's former student now teaching in that department. Mead's ideas, as well as Dewey's, were surely prevalent in sociology at Chicago, and it may even be true that W. I. Thomas gave up his earlier emphasis on instinct in favor of a more social-psychological orientation under the influence of the pragmatic philosophers. But this is a far cry from the myth of a unified Chicago school of social psychology created by Mead. Park and Burgess included none of Mead's writings in their famous textbook. Mead never saw himself as head of a "school." And it might be noted that the term "social interactionism" was never known at Chicago while Mead lived.
In his early period at Chicago, Mead was overshadowed by the more dy- namic and outgoing Dewey. Even after Dewey had left for Columbia because he felt that his educational experiments were not given enough support at Chicago, Mead did not assume the eminent position his friend had occupied in university affairs. One reason for this was the sparsity of his publications.
Mead experienced great difficulty in putting his ideas down in writing. He would spend agonizing hours at his table, sometimes verging on tears when he despaired of giving adequate expression to the rapid flow of his thought. "In consequence," writes Dewey, "he was always dissatisfied with what he had done; always outgrowing his former expressions, and in consequence so reluc- tant to fix his ideas in the printed word that for many years it was [only] his students and his immediate colleagues who were aware of the tremendous reach and force of his philosophical mind.''
Mead's preferred medium was the spoken, not the written, word. He was clearly autobiographical when he wrote: "We do our thinking in the form of conversation, and depend upon the imagery of words for our meanings." "Conversation was his best medium," wrote his student T. V. Smith, "writing was a poor second best. When he wrote 'something'--as he says in one place of another matter--'something was going on--the rising anger of a titan or the adjustment of the earth's internal pressures.' But true of him as of his illustra tion, what the reader gets is certainly 'not the original experience." That ex- perience he was able to convey and articulate only in the flow of verbal ex- changes and significant gestures.
Quite apart from the objective fact of his scanty record of publications, Mead himself did not subjectively feel any urge to reach for a public role similar to that of Dewey. A most modest, balanced, and harmonious man, he was not much attracted by the prospect of major recognition and always saw himself as only a relatively minor worker in the vineyard. Blumer remembers that in the twenties, when Bertrand Russell was to give a lecture at Chicago and Mead was to introduce him, Mead, then about sixty, was as nervous as a young instructor about to meet with one of the great minds of his discipline.
Mead's humility and diffidence should not be interpreted as a weakness of character. He was a man of principle and could act decisively when the oc- casion demanded it. When the then new president of the university, Robert Hutchins, attempted to force the Philosophy Department to add to its staff Hutchins' friend, the neo-Thomist philosopher Mortimer Adler, and Mead's protest seemed of no avail, he handed in his resignation and prepared to re- join John Dewey at Columbia. Only his untimely death cut short the prepara- tions for this move.
Toward the end of his life Mead wrote the sentence that might characterize his own life: "The proudest assertion of independent selfhood is but the affirmation of a unique capacity to fill some social role." In his gentle and unassuming way, Mead had no desire to shine in the limelight. He saw him- self as an ordinary soldier in the battle for social and intellectual reform and did not aspire to lead the troops. His profound devotion to scientific inquiry was always controlled by his desire to contribute his share to the betterment of mankind. "We determine what the world has been," he wrote just before his death, "by the anxious search for the means of making it better." His son told Dewey that the phrase which he most associated with his father when any social problem was under discussion was: "It ought to be possible to do so and so."
Mead died in the belief that he would be known to posterity, if at all, only as the writer of a few technical articles. He seems to have had no inkling of the fact that the impact of his work would grow from decade to decade so that he may now well be reckoned as one among a handful of American thinkers who have helped to shape the character of modern social science.
From Coser, 1977:343-347.