William I. Thomas as a Teacher

Ernest W. Burgess
University of Chicago

As a first-year graduate student I entered the Department of Sociology in 1909, seventeen years after the founding of the University of Chicago. Dr. Thomas was then one of the group of outstanding scholars constituting the department. They were admiringly referred to by the students as the "Big Four."

Four more distinctive, colorful, and divergent personalities have seldom been associated in a common enterprise. Albion W. Small, the head and founder of the department and dean of the Graduate School of Literature and Arts, had the presence, authority, and literary style of the German scholar. His lectures, written in polysyllabic sociological language were delightfully, even if incongruously, interspersed with extemporary comments in colloquial American. Charles R. Henderson, a rare combination of saint and scholar, held the post of University chaplain and gave courses in social amelioration. George E. Vincent, also dean of the faculties of art, literature, and science, orator and after-dinner speaker of renown, and gifted administrator, held the students in his classes in social psychology spellbound by his eloquence and wit.

In contrast to his colleagues, William I. Thomas was at the same time sportsman, artist, and scientist. He had his daily golf game, a habit he religiously maintained until within a few months of his death. He rolled his own cigarettes from a blend of tobacco of his own choosing. In his workshop he experimented with golf balls and clubs of his own fashioning. He had a great gusto for living; enjoyed food, drink, conversation, and people.

A professor of English at Oberlin, he entered sociology with an intuitive sense for the dramatic in human experience and an unerring skill in literary expression.

Thomas was the one member of the department who was engaged in inductive research in human behavior. He had set himself the ambitious task of creating a science of social psychology which observed and interpreted the behavior of the individual in his social relationships. In his general orientation he was profoundly affected by the pragmatic philosophy of John Dewey, whose influence still pervaded the university although he had departed for Columbia five years earlier, by the social thinking of George H. Mead, also a colleague, and by the anthropological studies of Franz Boas. As students we were deeply impressed by his book just pub-

( 761) -lished on Social Origins, dealing with the beginnings of social institutions.

We were interested in the plans he was making for the study of the Polish peasant in Europe and in this country.

Thomas developed his own methods of conducting his courses. He brought into the classroom materials from his research recorded on small slips of paper. Bibliographical items were on blue slips, extracts from books and articles on yellow slips, and his own comments on white slips. His custom was to read quotations from the literature upon a given topic, supplementing these by his own inimitable comments. Students in his courses were alternately shocked and thrilled by an extract on behavior widely different from our own or by a penetrating interpretation which showed among the great diversity of human behavior a manifestation of human nature akin if not identical with our own.

Thomas presented in his courses the material in which he was currently most interested. Students who had had two or three of his courses he advised to take no more, explaining that although the titles were different, the material was the same.

All courses in sociology in the first two decades of this century were jam packed with new and perhaps subversive teaching, in the light of prevailing ideas of that period. In Dr. Small's classes the evils of capitalism were scathingly exposed, to the astonishment of students entering a university whose chief benefaction had come from the largest fortune of that time. Dr. Vincent took delight in unmasking time-honored beliefs, prevailing prejudices, and shams in high places. Dr. Henderson challenged students and the public to face unmet social needs and to alleviate human suffering.

Dr. Thomas, through his presentation of the findings of research, punctured many of the current beliefs held by the students. Although a Southerner, he was the first among the sociologists to adduce evidence that all races of mankind have the same mental endowment and that differences in intelligence are largely a matter of culture and education and not of inheritance. He marshaled facts to prove that women were of equal mental ability with men and that much of disadvantage to women arose from their isolation, often in subtle protective ways, from participation in vital experiences. At a time when certain psychologists were finding high percentages of criminals and delinquents feeble-minded, Thomas called the estimates greatly excessive-as has been proved by later investigations. He was a pioneer among sociologists in the study of sex, pointing out by convincing materials from diverse cultures that the significance of sex as human behavior inhered not in its biological or psychological manifestations but as it was socially defined in a given culture.

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Of the four great men who created sociology at the University of Chicago the continuing influence in the department has been that of Small and Thomas. Of these two, that of Thomas has probably been the greater. He discovered in Robert E. Park, then working with Booker T. Washington as informal secretary at Tuskegee, a kindred sociological spirit. On his initiative Dr. Park joined the sociological staff of the University and developed in other directions the type of inductive research in which Thomas had been a pioneer. Since Thomas left the University in 1918 his successor, Ellsworth Faris, has carried forward his courses with much more specific application of the theoretical formulations of John Dewey and George H. Mead but in the sane spirit of inductive inquiry and reliance upon documentary material. Today the great majority of courses in the department, whether in social psychology, social organization, social change, or social disorganization utilize in greater or less degree the conceptual system and the employment of personal documents developed by W. I. Thomas.

The record of the courses offered by Thomas at the University of Chicago as presented in the Annual Registrar makes interesting reading and helps to explain the vitality and originality of his teaching. It also reveals the scope and the shifts in his interests. The changes in the titles and the introduction of new courses indicate a persistent trend in his thinking to conceptualize in sociological terms materials that up to that time were still in the domain of anthropological and psychological interpretation.

In other words, Thomas very early in his career set himself the task of creating almost single-handed an inductive science of social psychology. It is perhaps significant in view of this tendency of Thomas to interpret sociologically the subject matter of human behavior, that the first course he offered at the University in the summer of 1894 was entitled "The Historical Sociologies, "an exposition of significant classical, medieval and modern attempts to interpret social phenomenon; criticism of data, methods and conclusions."

The next school year, 1895-96, he was announced as an instructor in ethnic psychology, giving courses with the anthropological and psychological sounding titles of Comparative Psychology of Human Races, Somatic and Psychic History of Women, Primitive Art and Animism. The next year there was a slight shift in his emphasis, with the titles of the first two courses changed to Folk Psychology and Sex in Folk Psychology. The following year his stress had become definitely sociological as revealed by the titles of his courses: The Social Psychology of Art and Amusement,

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The Social Psychology of Sex, and Primitive Social Control (formerly Folk Psychology).

By 1900 the viewpoint and organization of his teaching had become stabilized around five main courses : namely, Sociological Function of Art and Play, Origin of Social Institutions, Race Development of Mind, Sex in Social Organization, and Primitive Social Control. The names of some of these courses are changed ; for example, Origin of Social Institutions becomes Social Origins and is the only course in the above group which Thomas continued to teach during his tenure at Chicago. Race Development of Mind was changed to Mental Development in the Race and was offered for the last time in 1916.

New courses appear in the Annual Registrar and indicate Thomas' continuing shift of interest in subject matter more than in his point of view. These are listed with the approximate years in which they were offered : Origin and Psychology of the Occupations (1902, 1906, 1909) ; The Negro in Africa and America (1906-07) ; The Mind of the Oriental (1908) ; Savage Childhood (1909) ; The Mind of the Negro (1913) ; The Immigrant (1910-12) ; The European Peasant (1913) ; Social Attitudes (1913-17) ; Psychology of Divergent Types (1914-16) ; Prostitution (1914-16) ; The European Peasant (1914-16) ; The Jew (1914-15) ; Divergent Types (1916) ; Races and Nationalities (1917) ; and Theory of Social Disorganization (1917).

An examination of the above courses discloses definite trends in Thomas' interests and theoretical orientation. He became much less concerned with ethnological subject matter and much more attracted by studies of the Negro, the immigrant, the European peasant, and the Jew. The changes in the titles of his courses indicate the shift of his interest from social psychological interpretation of concrete materials and growing concern for an analysis of his data drawn from different areas in terms of a conceptual framework, e.g., courses in races and nationalities, social attitudes, and the theory of social disorganization. This latter trend, of course, should be viewed in relation to his parallel research on the Polish peasant in Europe and America and his interest in correlating his teaching with his current research.

In conclusion, brief reference will be made to a few of his characteristics which impressed me as a student and friend.

First of all, he was very human in having strong likes or dislikes for people and in his loyalty to his friends. He had great personal charm and evoked devotion in others. He had high standards of performance and was satisfied with nothing short of his best achievement. He directed his ener-

( 764) -gies and talents to research and did not permit himself to be deflected from this goal by distractive time-consuming activities. He spoke and wrote as one with authority, but the authority was derived from data and their interpretation.

Both as man and as teacher he has left a lasting impress upon successive generations of sociology students. Recognition of his influence on his associates is the volume Social Attitudes, edited by Kimball Young, containing papers by his former students and by his collaborators upon research projects. Thousands of students in sociology courses in this and other countries who did not know him personally are indebted to him for concepts that have become common currency in sociology, such as fundamental wishes, attitudes, values, life organization, and social type. His contributions were original, creative, fertile; therefore they have become a part of the basic knowledge of social psychology and sociology.


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