SOCIOLOGY AS A COLLEGE SUBJECT
SOCIOLOGY AS A COLLEGE SUBJECT
When I looked over the program of this meeting I chose to speak in the discussion on this question because it is the one that interests me most. I hope that in the course of the discussion we shall develop some useful suggestions in regard to it. The fact is, it seems to me, that to-day there is nothing more important for all young men to learn than some of the fundamental notions of sociology. I use the term now in the broad sense of a philosophy of society, the synthesis of the other things that we sometimes include under sociology; and it seems to me that in all the public discussion that is going on and in the matters that nowadays seem to interest people more than anything else, what they need is some sound fundamental notions that a sociologist might give them.
For instance, everybody ought to know what a society is. “Society” is a word that has a great many different uses. It is very much confused by these different uses; and at the same time a society is the fundamental thing with which sociology is concerned. The social sciences are all of them connected with particular details of social life, and if people could get an idea of what a society is, and perhaps still more exactly what it is not, it would correct and define a great number of false suggestions that nowadays perplex the public mind.
Then, again, it is most important in regard to a society that it shall be publicly understood what you can do with a society and what you cannot do with” it. People who know what a society is, and what we can do with a society by our best efforts, would know that it is great nonsense to talk about the re-organization of society as a thing that people are going to take in hand as a corrective measure, to be carried out by certain social enterprises so called. What we try to do, and what we want to try to do in class work, is to give the young men and young women (where the latter are concerned) a sound idea of some of these fundamentals, that would stop them from going over into a false line of effort and thought.
Now, it seems to me that in doing this one thing what we want to do is to get down to facts; and we ought to stick as close to facts as we can. I don't mean statistical facts, but I mean the realities and the truth of the life around us, the life that is going on, the motives of the people, their ideas and their fallacies, the false things on which they pin their faith, and so on. And the facts all show that there ought to be understood by students of sociology all fundamental facts about society, about what it is, what is possible in it, what is not possible in it, and so on. We have our work at New Haven so organized that we try to have the students take courses in ethnography and some related subjects which are of a fundamental character and which form a stock of knowledge that a student of sociology ought to have. If we do not do this, sociology becomes a thing up in the air. We have a lot of abstract definitions and abstract notions that may, of course, have some philosophical value or psychological truth; but the student starting out from them is in great danger, at any rate, of going off into the old-fashioned methods of deduction from these broad notions that he starts with, and the whole thing becomes lost in the clouds. That seems to me the greatest danger that sociology nowadays has to encounter. If we allow it to become foundationless—I mean in regard to the real facts — and make it a matter of thought and deduction, we cannot expect that we shall have great effect on public opinion; we cannot expect that people will pay very much attention to us or care much about what we say. The only way to get an influence that we want and that we think we deserve is to keep sociology directly and constantly in touch with common everyday life and with the forms of the social order.
If I were a man forty years old, and were beginning to be a professor in one of our American colleges, I should think that the opportunity to take hold of a department of sociology, and give it shape and control its tendencies, lay down its outlines, and so on, was really the most important thing that a man nowadays could undertake, because of the tremendous importance of these social questions that are arising. There cannot be any doubt of it, and I, at any rate, am perfectly convinced that within the next twenty-five or thirty years the questions that are going to shake American society to its foundations are questions of sociological character and importance. Some have already been referred to; such, for instance, as this race question that has been rising and getting more strenuous every year. It has got some truth at the bottom of it, if we can get at it; in the end it will have to be settled from the merit that is in it, and it is the sociologist who will have to find the truth that is in this matter. Again, such questions as are involved in conflicts about capital are unlimited in their influence on the welfare of the American people. And if I were at the beginning of a career, instead of at the end of it, I should think there was nothing that was better worth work than to get into the minds of the young men some notions that were sound in regard to such fundamental matters. Then in regard to this matter of divorce and the way in which it is acting upon the American people; it is a question that ramifies through the whole society and even the most dithyrambic of our orators have never gone beyond the truth of the importance of this matter to the American people.
My opinion in regard to this is that the way to build a science of sociology is to build it on the same fundamental methods that have proved so powerful in the other sciences—I mean the more or less exact sciences. We cannot pretend that we can ever make an exact science of sociology. We ought not to try. We haven't got the information, and I don't know that we ever can get it in the accurate, positive shape in which it is ascertained in the exact sciences. We are all the time dealing more or less with propositions that under certain circumstances will have to be modified. They are valuable, they are important, but more knowledge, more information, may force us to modify them. That will not do any harm. There have been sciences that have had a long and useful life, although they remained in that form. I don't think that is a fundamental difficulty, but it is one that we want to overcome so far as we can. We ought to be truly scientific so far as possible. We ought to use positive and well-tested methods and we ought not to trust any others. The methods that we use ought to be such as would be regarded as valid at any time and anywhere, on any subject.
Now if the young men are to be trained in this, you have got to bring them up to it by a study of a positive character that deals with facts and information. We have thought that ethnography was at any rate one of the very broadest of these subjects. The books on sociology all refer constantly to certain things as true with regard to primitive or uncivilized people, and we ought to have a stock of knowledge about such matters that is firm and well-learned, so that the students know what we are talking about. They would know at once if all the things as asserted are actually and positively true. Then there are the economic courses: as has been well said, they have important limitations, but they furnish a convenient and practical introduction to our line of study. Again there is the great field of history; that furnishes us a vast amount of our material—the material on which we base our deductions and generalizations, so that a student who is going to be a sociologist never can know too much history. And if history is taught well and according to modern ideas and methods, it furnishes a very good introduction to sociological study.
Well, I myself am about at the end of it; only one or two more years remain, and I am most interested now to know what can be done for the sake of the future, for those who will come after and take up the work and carry it on. I hope we shall get up a discussion here — if necessary, a quarrel — which will develop ideas about this matter that will help. Somebody asked me last evening if this was going to be a gay discussion, and I said it had possibilities for a very gay discussion; and, Mr. Chairman, it is whist I hope we shall have in the remainder of the session.