Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Notes from the Master Teacher of Black Studies, Dr. Nathan Hare


That’s no joke. As a college student I prided myself on my memory, but when I got to the University of Chicago it appeared to me I had been largely memorizing the wrong things; but I hung on and stuck to task and got to the end of my first year and was asked by my advisor what I was doing my master’s thesis on, something that might well have been done by then. Thus, on top of having less time to put into the memory bank that was paying back less and less, a professor of mine, the one who had been a classmate of E. Franklin Frazier’s, and was married to the daughter of the great Robert E. Park (Everett Hughes) told our class to “develop the habit of talking back to books” (by which he meant write in the margins as we read – I’d seen that going on but thought the people were kooks or downright crazy. After a while of talking back to books, I found I could come up with my own ideas and thoughts, so it took me two more years to get the master’s degree, three years in all, I was writing so much in the margins of books and with considerable vengeance. Meanwhile my unlearned relatives thought I wasn’t up to task, that my small black undergraduate college they knew had failed to prepare me. It became a big joke among some to ask me when I was going to get my master’s degree, as conventional wisdom was it was one year in and out, like at Harvard in those days when they didn’t require a thesis for the master’s in sociology, or you didn’t get the master’s, my people thought, and figured it was very likely I wasn’t going to get mine ( my relatives and acquaintances cocked their heads and crowed in sheer delight).

They didn’t know you didn’t have to have the master’s to get the Ph.D. at Chicago, and my superfluous coursework (inasmuch as I continued to carry a full load required by my Danforth Fellowship) would count toward the Ph.D. and it would take me only one more year of coursework and two years in all to finish my work and examinations for the Ph.D. I took my comprehensive exam ahead of time to fail and practice like just about everybody. People would take off and prepare for a quarter and even grow a beard to symbolize or signify their determination leading up to the vaunted “Comps.” I continued my full course load and twenty hour a week research assistantship at the Population Center, and even did a three-hour interview plus travel stint that weekend for the National Opinion Research Center. I also went to my Advanced Sociological Theory class  on the morning of the first day of the Comps. The Theory course was one of two of the required courses of the total units needed for the Ph.D, so six students in the class taking the exam were absent from the class. “Hey, Nat, I thought you were taking the Comps,” the other students cried when I walked in. They wore a look on their faces suggesting they thought I had lost it or something.

I left the theory class and went to the Comps, where soon the clock struck one to signal the beginning of four questions to fill the four hours of the first of the two-afternoon Comps. I picked up the exam and couldn’t believe my eyes. The first question was: “Compare the contributions of Parsons and Merton to a general theory of social action.” The professor of the Theory class, apparently thinking the test takers would be absent, had lectured an hour and a half of the contributions of Robert Merton. I quickly summarized the lecture and concluded that “Merton didn’t begin to develop a general theory of social action, not to mention Parsons” (because I didn’t know that much about Parsons anyway). I then enjoyed the extra time I had left to ponder the other three questions on the first afternoon of the Comps.

Later, the chairman of the department at the time, Philip Hauser, told a group of students and faculty at a gathering in his large Hyde Park home-- he didn’t mention the fact that I was the only black person, it being so visibly apparent --  that only two of the twelve of us taking the Comps had passed all four sections (you could pass one section and take a failed section next time, and there was no stigma to failing any section at any time, which is why I was taking it early to get the feel of it). Prof. Hauser went on to say that I had made the highest score (the tests were written in bluebooks with only an ID number for grading purposes, not our names). They must have wondered who in the world could handle Merton with such ease, so wish he hadn’t just tossed off Parsons, guess he ran out of time or it got lost but he surely knew something about Parsons (because the Theory professor, Peter Blau, would later have a transformative effect on the field of sociological theory.

Parsons was thought to be exceedingly heavy, but his jealous detractors said he wrote poorly and appeared to believe if something was unintelligible that made it profound.
My apologies to Parsons for dissing him, but it’s a world I never made.


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