50 Years of Social Studies

The interdisciplinary undergraduate concentration celebrates half a century of applying great thinkers' ideas to the problems of the world.

Amy Gutmann

In 1960, the idea that Harvard undergraduates could concentrate in a field that pulled together economics, political science, sociology, history, and philosophy, instead of choosing just one of those disciplines, was revolutionary.

Social studies (Harvard’s second interdisciplinary undergraduate concentration, after history and literature) was “ahead of its time,” said University of Pennsylvania president Amy Gutmann ’71, Ph.D. ’76, one of the program's eminent alumni.

Giving the keynote address at the concentration’s 50th anniversary celebration on September 25, she noted that fellow alumni work in “political science and polling, journalism and jazz, economics and history, law and medicine, sociology and philosophy, corporate law and investing, the judiciary and, very importantly, public service.”

By introducing her to the works of great thinkers and teaching her to read them with a critical eye, Gutmann said, her social studies courses profoundly influenced her own scholarship and leadership, and form a solid foundation for a thoughtful life, regardless of one’s chosen profession. “We now know that specialization at the college level has been highly overrated, not because specialized skills aren’t important, but because bright minds pick up specialized skills quickly,” she said. In any walk of life, she said, “you cannot do better—intellectually, ethically, and practically speaking—than to come to terms with the question: What is a well constituted society and what is my role in it?”

If interdisciplinarity was not the prevailing ethos at the time of the concentration’s founding, some professors anticipated its allure: the entering class of sophomores was limited to 15. The heads of the departments for the subjects that constitute the concentration “suspected—and they were right—that they would lose some of their best students to this program,” said Buttenwieser University Professor Stanley Hoffmann, one of the founding faculty members. (Hoffmann—profiled in "Le Professeur," July-August 2007)—had a previously scheduled speaking engagement in France but shared his recollections in a video.)

Even though enrollment is still limited today, the concentration has grown into the College’s third largest (after economics and government, it roughly ties with psychology in the number of concentrators).

The concentration invited 3,200 alumni and former faculty members, as well as current instructors and students, to the day’s events: panels, a luncheon, and Gutmann’s evening speech. About 450 attended.


In a morning panel, a few of the program's graduates and former instructors commented on currents in the social sciences during the last 50 years. For scholars who engage in interdisciplinary work, “the charge of dilettantism is never far,” said Seyla Benhabib, the former social studies chair and now a professor of political science and philosophy at Yale. But the concentration’s interdisciplinary view is crucial to understanding today’s political phenomena, she said: understanding Hamas, the Taliban, or competing factions in Iraq requires considering ethnic and religious concerns, but also political economy. And, she said, it requires moving outside the clean lines of the nation-state as a unit of analysis (considering, for example, the shift of state functions, such as military operations and incarceration, to private companies).

Rogers Brubaker ’79, a onetime social studies concentrator and now a professor of sociology at UCLA, noted the remarkable continuity of the reading list for Social Studies 10, the concentration’s famously intense sophomore tutorial in social theory. Seven theorists—Smith, Marx, Mill, Weber, Tocqueville, Durkheim, and Freud—have been taught nearly every year since the beginning. Three others—Foucault, Habermas, and de Beauvoir—were added in the 1990s and have been taught every year since.

The list, Brubaker said, “speaks to the program’s defining and abiding commitment to serious engagement with the great theorists of the epochal transformations—social, political, economic, and cultural—that have formed the world that we still inhabit.”

Sherry Turkle ’69, Ph.D. ’76, recalled that when she was doing her doctoral research in sociology and psychology, psychologists who studied thinking were on one floor of William James Hall, and the psychologists who studied feeling were on a lower floor.

“Metaphorically speaking, cognition and affect were on separate floor,” she said. “But social studies taught a different sensibility altogether: study the social, but don’t be afraid to do it through the lens of the individual. Study the general, but keep it concrete.”

Turkle, also a onetime social studies concentrator, is now a professor of the social studies of science and technology in the Science, Technology, and Society program at MIT. Drawing from her own and related work, Turkle spoke about a new research methodology she deemed “intimate ethnography,” which has given rise to studies such as ethnographies of kidney dialysis patients, people with internal cardiac defibrillators, and nuclear-weapons scientists; to explorations of gamblers’ relationships with their slot machines, and her own work on people’s relationships with their computers.

Looking back over the years of the social studies concentration, University of California-Berkeley economist J. Bradford DeLong ’82 (also a graduate of the program) invoked the late Barrington Moore Jr., a political sociologist who was among the concentration’s “founding fathers.” Moore asked why the same “urban literate industrial societies” could give rise to Abraham Lincoln but also Vladimir Lenin, Franklin Delano Roosevelt but also Mao Zedong. Why did it turn out not to be true, as it appeared in the early 20th century, that “science drove prosperity, prosperity drove order, order allowed the spread of liberty, liberty promoted peace and thought, and peace and thought drove science”? Why was this “virtuous circle…not a natural path but instead a fragile accident”? These questions, he said, constitute “the spine of the social studies major.”

The present moment, he said, is “both too early and too late” for exploring the questions Moore raised. Understanding “modern monsters” such as Saddam Hussein and members of Hamas and Hezbollah requires new models, he said. But at the same time, he said, there is a need for returning to the four basic freedoms propounded by both John Locke and Franklin Roosevelt: freedom from want, freedom from fear, freedom of speech and expression, and freedom of religion.

Here DeLong referred to the controversy surrounding Martin Peretz, Ph.D. ’66, editor-in-chief of The New Republic, and an instructor in the social studies program for more than 40 years. As part of the celebration, the committee on degrees in social studies accepted the gift of a scholarship fund, named for Peretz, to support undergraduate research. Alumni and other supporters of Peretz endowed the fund with $650,000. But in the days leading up to the celebration, protests mounted over the plans to honor Peretz. In a September 4 blog post, Peretz reacted to a New York Times editorial on the furor over the proposed Islamic cultural center and mosque near Ground Zero in Manhattan. Those who objected to the proposal displayed “a sadly wary misunderstanding of Muslim-Americans,” the editorial said; Peretz argued that no misunderstanding lay behind suspicion of the planned mosque, given “routine and random bloodshed” and “unrelieved murders in Islamic lands.”

“Muslim life is cheap, most notably to Muslims,” Peretz wrote. “I wonder whether I need honor these people and pretend that they are worthy of the privileges of the First Amendment which I have in my gut the sense that they will abuse.”

DeLong said Peretz’s sentiments show that “we don’t even have consensus on the basic Lockean bedrock which has to serve as the foundation on which the whole structure was built. …Surely we cannot aim beyond tolerance until and unless we all have at least gotten into its neighborhood.”


The lunch program, at which Peretz had originally been scheduled to speak, included stronger critiques, chiefly by Robert Paul Wolff ’53, Ph.D. ’57, who taught philosophy and Afro-American studies at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst but is now retired.

Wolff, who was among the social studies concentration’s founders, was originally scheduled to speak at the luncheon alongside Peretz. Wolff at one point decided not to attend the celebration at all; when the lunch program was changed so that all of the former social studies head tutors (including Peretz) would be given a chance to speak—and so that the scholarship fund would be announced at a separate dinner the previous evening, Wolff agreed to participate and to serve as the principal luncheon speaker.

If he were a religious man, Wolff said, he would have looked to the Bible for wisdom to share on this occasion; instead, he looked to Das Kapital for a relevant passage:

Since every commodity, upon becoming money, disappears as a commodity, it is impossible to tell from the money itself how it got into the hands of its possessor, or what article has been changed into it. Non olet, from whatever source it may come.

Wolff explained the classical origins of this maxim: Titus, the son of the Roman Emperor Vespasian, complained, after being sent to collect taxes at a public urinal, that the money stank. His father’s reply: Pecunia non olet—the money doesn't stink.

But in this case, Wolff said, “Pecunia olet. The money stinks.” (Wolff wrote about the event, his remarks, and Peretz on his blog, The Philosopher's Stone.)

When Peretz rose to speak, a handful of those attending the lunch got up and walked out. In his brief remarks, Peretz called Wolff and DeLong “professors who like to get applause,” and said he was content with his contribution to his students’ lives.

Meanwhile, outside the Adams House dining hall where the luncheon was held, protesters chanted: “Harvard, Harvard, shame on you for honoring a racist fool.” Earlier, they had gathered outside the Science Center, the site of most of the day’s events, holding signs bearing quotations from other Peretz writings. Among them: “Arab society is…hidebound and backward” and the Lebanese “fight simply because they live.” Inside the Science Center, Harvard University Police Department officers stood outside the auditorium door limiting entry to invited guests registered for the event. And almost every question-and-answer session posed forceful questions about the decision to honor Peretz.


An afternoon panel, organized to feature social studies alumni whose time at Harvard laid a foundation for working toward social change outside academia, brought defenses of Peretz.

Moderator Michael Walzer, Ph.D. ’62, a retired political philosopher who taught at Harvard and Princeton (and a contributing editor to The New Republic), recalled that he and Peretz had formed the “Social Democratic Rescue Committee” in 1969 to protect student protesters against expulsion. “There are a number of far-left kids who owe their Harvard education to him,” Walzer said. “Most of them don’t know that, but I wanted you to know it.”

Panelist Jamie Gorelick ’72, J.D. ’75, who had led the effort to create the fund in Peretz's name, remembered him as “a fantastic teacher” who was supportive and generous with his time. “The desire to honor him was not an endorsement of any particular view,” she said. “You can honor him as a teacher without agreeing with everything he’s ever said.”

Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne ’73 said Peretz’s writings only represent one side of a “complicated human being,” and that people who only know him through his writings “don’t know that he stood up for the Roma. They don’t know that he stood up for the gays, very early, when others weren’t. They don’t know that he stood up for the Kurds. …We are honoring Marty as a teacher, and his passion has many sides.”


Peretz comments aside, the second panel highlighted how four graduates had applied the lessons of social studies to careers in politics, law, journalism, and nonprofit management.

Adele Simmons ’63, vice-chair of Chicago Metropolis 2020, has, over the course of her career, conducted anthropology research in Mauritius; worked for the Economist in North Africa; taught at Princeton; served as president of Hampshire College (under her tenure, the first U.S. college to divest from South Africa in protest of apartheid); and headed the MacArthur Foundation. “Abstract theory was not my strong suit,” she said, “but I am grateful for the theoretical base that was a part of the social studies program.”

Gorelick, a former deputy U.S. attorney general who served on the 9/11 Commission; a former general counsel to the Defense Department; and who now chairs the public policy and strategy practice and the national security practice for WilmerHale in Washington, said her social studies education taught her to argue with courage, respect, and a spirit of compromise, and to consider thoughtfully the exercise of state power.

“While I cannot tell you that I sat in my study these 35 years since I graduated and pulled Durkheim and Weber and Freud and Marx off the shelves, those ideas affected me enormously,” she said. “I am very much in debt to this concentration for the powerful ideas it has put at my disposal.”

Dionne, who is also a professor at the Georgetown Public Policy Institute, said social studies taught him about the foundations of democratic governance—including the two kinds of critics necessary for social change: the practical, as exemplified by Abraham Lincoln, and the idealist, such as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

“The politician focuses on the work that can get done, and is called upon to have a realist sense of the limits of the possible,” he said. “The critic is dogged in pointing to the work that remains unfinished, the reforms that are inadequate, the crooked places that have not been made smooth.” But, said Dionne, both are necessary. “Lincoln needed Frederick Douglass. …John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson needed Martin Luther King.”

And Jarrett Barrios ’91, an attorney and former Massachusetts state legislator who is now president of the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD), said social studies gave him the rhetorical tools to advocate on issues including domestic violence, information privacy and identity theft, and marriage equality.

And it helped him understand the principles that underlie his current work, he said: “Full equality isn’t something you win in a courtroom or a legislature. It’s something you win in the court of public opinion.” Now, through speaking out about bigoted remarks, “the work that we do is trying to set the boundaries, in the media, for what is acceptable. To move the needle.”


The celebration brought out some entertaining historical highlights: at lunch, Wolff read a list of the first cohort of social studies concentrators. Male students were identified by their first and last names; female students, by “Miss” and a last name.

The celebration drew two multigenerational social studies families: Simmons and her two children, Ian Simmons ’00 and Erika Simmons ’99; and Steven Kelman ’70, Ph.D. ’78, and his daughter, Jody Kelman ’05. David Firestone ’74 also attended, but his son, Will Firestone ’10, was absent; Sarah Howland ’11 attended although her father, Frank Howland ’80, could not. The concentration knows of two more such families: Sen. Charles Schumer ’71, J.D. ’74, and his daughter, Jessica Schumer ’06; and Fran Schumer ’74 (the senator's sister) and her son, Jake McNulty ’11.

And Amy Gutmann remembered writing her social studies senior thesis—on the values that underlay the writings of Weber, Dewey, and Mills—as “the most painful experience of my entire academic career—I repeat, my entire academic career.” (Gutmann went on to get a Ph.D. in political science; to write about the values that underlie education and the forces that shape societies’ educational systems in her 1987 book Democratic Education; to teach at Princeton, then serve as provost and found the Center for Human Values at that university; and to chair the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues, as well as serving as Penn’s president.)

In all of this work, President Drew Faust said in her introduction, Gutmann displays the “all too rare ability to unite knowledge and action.” Gutmann, she said, “works to make a difference in the world by calling upon her deep intellectual understanding of questions she began to explore as a social studies concentrator.”

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