Letter to President Harper on Statistical Training

Albion Small

New York. Dec. 29. 1894

President William R. Harper,
University of Chicago,
Chicago, Ill.

My dear Dr. Harper:

It is unfortunate for me that I did not have longer time to hear further from you with reference to the matter of statistics. Quite likely I have partially misunderstood your brief statements, but I will reply as intelligibly as I can to the main points as I gathered them.

I have had no thought of disturbing, denying or rivaling the vested rights of the department of political economy in the matter of statistics or anything else. Whatever has been interpreted to the contrary has been misunderstood. I have no wish to change the arrangement by which the general theory of statistics is taught in the department of political economy.

On the other hand, no university department can have a monopoly of the statistical method any more than of the exegetical or of the laboratory method. The statistical method is tributary to the physical, biological and social sciences alike; its relative importance in different cases not being determined by the scope of the department in general, but by the kind of evidence required in the particular problems investigated. In the sessions of the economic association which I am now attending it has been positively stated over and over again by economists, statisticians and sociologists

( 160)  alike that statistics is a primary and essential instrument in some of the most important divisions of sociological inquiry.

Our department of sociology needs statistical instruction, planned with special reference to classes of problems which are of immediate concern to sociologists—vital and moral statistics particularly—which are of secondary interest to the economist. The many divinity students desiring to study sociology increase the demand for this special application of the statistical method.

Without interfering in any way with the prerogatives of the department of political economy, but calculating to use the instruction offered by that department and especially the instruction already provided for in statistical science, I reported to you that the interest of students of sociology made it urgently desirable to introduce instruction in the application of the statistical method to the class of inquiries which they most need to learn how to pursue. In the nature of the case, so long as the instructors in the department of sociology are presumed to be competent, they are the best judges of the subjects which those inquiries should investigate. It is important that an expert statistician should work in co-operation with Dr. Henderson and myself in carrying out plans of investigation directly tributary to our own lines of study.

A chance conversation with Dr. Gould suggested to me that he might be available for both kinds of work—that desired by the department of political economy, and that particularly needed in sociology. Telling him plainly that the suggestion must be regarded as entirely irresponsible, because I had no assurance that my desire for statistical work could be granted, and moreover because I had no right to assume that the suggestion would meet the approval of others concerned, I asked Dr. Gould to outline a double minor in the theory of statistics, and another double minor in the application of the statistical method to sociological inquiry. After I had done this I reported my action to you, and asked if you would get Prof. Laughlin's views of the desirability of an arrangement with Dr. Gould.

If I understood you correctly, Prof. Laughlin thinks that I have committed an offense by not dealing with him in this matter instead of with Dr. Gould and yourself. I most emphatically decline to admit that there is cause of complaint on that ground. There is no more reason why I should consult Prof. Laughlin before finding out what is possible in the line of statistical courses in sociology, than why I

( 161) should consult Prof. Whitman before endorsing Miss Talbot's request for a sanitary laboratory. Very likely the department of pedagogy, and perhaps psychology and history, and political science, and half a dozen more may want to apply the statistical method, and it would be as absurd to require them to go to political economy for permission, as it would to require the department of political economy to obtain the consent of the department of mathematics if it wanted to use tables of logarithms.

I distinctly recognize the limits of my own freedom in the matter by stating to you that I should be glad, for my part, if a man of Dr. Gould's well earned reputation could take charge of the part of the work preempted by political economy, and at the same time the work which I need. If it is trespass to express such a desire, leaving action upon it entirely to yourself and Prof. Laughlin, I am simply ignorant of the law which created the crime.

If the root of the difficulty in this case is unwillingness to have statistical instruction offered unless the courses are all scheduled with political economy, I would say that I do not care a straw what label is on them. If the sociological rose would smell sweeter under the economic name, by all means let it have the added fragrance! I do not believe, however, that it would be agreeable to Prof. Laughlin any more than to me to have the matter left in such shape that both Dr. Henderson and myself would feel ourselves in the position of interlopers whenever we ventured to consult with the instructor in statistics about his assistance in sociological investigations. It may be wise for the University to place the department of sociology under the supervision of the department of political economy, but I am strongly of the opinion that such is not the case.

Perhaps it was my own invention, but my impression from the talk with you was that Prof. Laughlin regarded my desire to apply statistical methods in a sociological course as a reflection upon his wisdom in conducting the department of political economy. As soon as there is a possibility that the funds of the University will allow it, I propose to ask an appropriation for a sociological museum; and I should say that Prof. Chamberlain would then have precisely the same right to interpret the request as a reflection on his curatorship of Walker. In my innocence I applied for what seems to me necessary: If the interests of the University veto the request, well and good. Whatever be the decision I hope to be absolved from the imputation of desire to encroach upon another department; and at

( 162) the same time I want to register my protest against allowing one department to handicap another by asserting exclusive control of any method of investigation.

My opinion is positive that the two courses marked out by Dr. Gould could not be improved upon in plan. It is plain to me that they would add greatly to the attractiveness of our offer to students. One or both of these courses would meet wants of a large number of students outside of both departments. It was to me an interesting coincidence that Prof. Richmond Smith, of Columbia, read a paper yesterday describing what would be in his judgment an ideal course in statistics as applied to sociology. It was enthusiastically commended by the whole association. And everybody said that such instruction should be a part of all well equipped departments of sociology. The courses proposed in the paper were almost precisely identical in scope with those which Dr. Gould outlined to you and me. Under such circumstances I do not believe that the University can afford to let any trifling questions about departmental boundaries interfere with the acquisition of such an important element in our instruction. What I am after is the thing itself. I do not care very much about the matter of names and locations on paper. It seems to me that the courses in question ought to be a bond to unite the two departments for practical purposes, not a barrier to separate them. As they cover so much of the ground which is basal to both departments, and which cannot possibly be accurately fenced off, it seems to me scholarly and courteous to recognize the elements which the two departments have in common, in the premises, and not to attempt a too minute limitation of proprietorship.

As I said before I am quite willing to abide by the decision which shall be made from the standpoint of University organization in general, even if that point of view shall necessitate an opinion different from that which I am bound to express.


Albion W. Small


No notes

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