Nathan Glazer is hardly a household name, but the retired Harvard University sociologist’s work – over a 70-year career— has helped shape public discussion on a wide range of social issues. In the 1950s, he wrote, together with David Riesman and Reuel Denney, The Lonely Crowd, which is considered a classic in sociology and traced the evolution of values in the post-World War II America. In the 1960s, with future-Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, he wrote Beyond the Melting Pot, which punctured the widely held idea that immigrant groups abandoned their distinctive characteristics once they came to the United States.
In the 1970s and 1980s, he was a central figure in debates over education, affirmative action, welfare reform, and urban policy. Not least importantly, he helped found and co-edit The Public Interest, the leading “neoconservative” journal on public policy, whose articles influenced both Republican and Democratic policymakers.
With award-winning documentary filmmaker Joseph Dorman, Lenkowsky has edited a collection of Glazer’s most important essays, many of which appeared in magazines that are no longer in print. Entitled When Ideas Mattered: A Nathan Glazer Reader, the book also includes appraisals of Glazer’s work by Washington Post columnist E. J. Dionne, Jr., and scholars Mark Lilla of Columbia University, Reed Ueda of Tufts University, Peter Skerry of Boston College, and Jackson Toby of Rutgers University. Transaction Press is publishing it in November.
“Nathan Glazer,” Lenkowsky said, “embodies what being a ‘public intellectual’ means.” The essays in this volume “demonstrate the importance of understanding policy, history, society and culture to address public concerns – even seemingly minor ones, like subway graffiti.” Throughout his career, Lenkowsky added, Glazer has also displayed considerable intellectual courage, not only repeatedly challenging conventional wisdoms, but also reversing himself when the evidence indicated he should. “Nathan Glazer comes from an era in which ideas really mattered, and his work shows how to make them count in the future.”
What, then, are we to make of the fact that immigrants today maintain so much stronger ties than in the past to their homeland and its people? My conviction is that assimilation still works; but today it works in different ways. More easily than in the past, it accommodates more than one identity and more than one loyalty. Immigrants continue to identify with the old country, its institutions and its politics. But this is not necessarily cause for regret—for they also forge an identity as Americans.
Thus we find Dominicans in New York City waving Dominican flags when a Little League team of young Dominicans wins a world series title for the United States. New Yorkers are at worst bemused when Dominican presidential candidates come to raise money in New York’s Dominican community, and we already see candidates for mayor of New York adding the Dominican Republic to their campaign itineraries. Most important, though it may take several generations, eventually the newcomers’ connection with their home island will diminish. Thus it was in the past, and thus it will be today—for Dominicans and for other new Americans. The world itself is very different, and assimilation too looks different—a marked departure from what it was during and after the great European immigration. But eventually today’s immigrants, like their predecessors a century ago, will most likely become Americans.
To sum up: Whereas the liberal believes that to every problem there is a solution, and the radical believes that to any problem there is only the general answer of wholesale social transformation, I believe that we can have only partial and less than wholly satisfying answers to the social problems in question. Whereas the liberal believes that social policies make steady progress in nibbling away at the agenda of problems set by the forces of industrialization and urbanization, and whereas the radical believes that social policy has made only insignificant inroads into these problems, I believe that social policy has ameliorated the problems we have inherited but that it has also given rise to other problems no less grave in their effect on human happiness than those which have been successfully modified.
The liberal has a solution, and the radical has a solution. Do I have a solution? I began this discussion by saying that the breakdown of traditional modes of behavior is the chief cause of our social problems. That, of course, is another way of saying industrialism and urbanization, but I put it in the terms I did because I am increasingly convinced that some important part of the solution to our social problems lies in traditional practices and traditional restraints. Since the past is not recoverable, what guidance could this possibly give? It gives two forms of guidance: first, it counsels hesitation in the development of social policies that sanction the abandonment of traditional practices, and second, and perhaps more helpful, it suggests that the creation and building of new traditions must be taken more seriously as a requirement of social policy itself.
Let me be clear: this is not to dismiss the significance of empirical work, based on the model of the natural sciences, work that takes a hypothesis and tries to test it with all the controls for objectivity we have developed over the past century. Clearly sociology needs that kind of work and it should be central to it. But it seems to be the case that a large thesis, with implications for many areas of life, is not easy to encompass in detailed empirical studies, which try to reduce the thesis to elements that can be objectively measured and tested. A large thesis often escapes the narrower bounds of what science can do with it, it seems bigger than the elements into which it is divided for empirical studies, and they do not fully capture it. How do we deal scientifically with the questions that Tocqueville raised, his fear and concern that one implication of democracy and equality, pressed far enough, was the reduction of the sphere of freedom? He could see evidences of this in America. This is not the kind of question that can be settled by objective tests and inquiries and measures, whatever the additional light or insight they might offer. Does it mean such questions should therefore be abandoned, and play no role in sociology?