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A man for all reason. Sociologist David Riesman is a thinking man whose views are molded not by convention, but by observation and compassion. (on zee page: A MAN FOR ALL REASON: Sociologist David Riesman)

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / September 29, 1988



Cambridge, Mass.

A young black Harvard student knocks at the door of David Riesman's house on Linnaen Street in Cambridge. Wearing sneakers and a baggy tweed coat, Mr. Riesman graciously ushers her in for tea. Her senior thesis on black feminism is too ambitious. Could he help her narrow it? He does. After she leaves, he takes notes of the talk. Later he writes her a letter offering additional thoughts and a bibliography. It's a familiar scene to Riesman, one the emeritus professor of sociology has repeated for 40 years. Riesman may be one of a disappearing breed of large-scale public thinkers in academia. Author of ``The Lonely Crowd,'' the seminal work in the 1950s on the changing character of postwar America, he is often regarded as the conscience of American social science and someone who knows more about American colleges than any other living person.

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But he has always made time for students, always welcomed them to the academic enterprise. Riesman's spirit of generosity and civility - not always prized qualities in the intellectual hustle of big-time academics - has become legend among colleagues. For many, he is the model scholar.

``He's shown us that 19th-century ideals of virtue and moral sense are no less relevant today,'' says sociologist Robert Bellah.

``I wish we had some way in this country of honoring people like Riesman,'' says Harvard educator Robert Coles. ``Having a conversation with him is an education in itself.''

``He's in touch with the young, and not only college kids, but working-class as well,'' Mr. Coles continues. ``He understands the heartland of America. He shows you that it's possible to be totally involved in the academic world, but not be isolated by it - unlike some of us who walk, if not strut, through Harvard Square.''

What's more remarkable, says Dr. Bellah, is the fact that such a relatively quiet man has been so radical as to ``influence everything in his field.'' He's been a tireless pioneer both in the forefront and behind the scenes of American social thought and education.

Out in front

``The Lonely Crowd,'' for example, was a groundbreaker. It asserted that with the sudden rise of a consumer culture, the mass media, mobility, and ``leisure time'' (formerly a concept foreign to the middle class), Americans in the postwar era were starting to base their behavior and values less on ``inner directed'' ethics and standards handed down from elders, and were becoming more ``outer directed,'' looking to their peer groups and to images in magazines and on the airwaves for clues about what was right and how to live.

In ``The Academic Revolution'' in 1969 he was out front in education, showing how the college faculty had become the most powerful force on US campuses.

Among academics, he has been something of an outlaw, something of a Don Quixote. He's constantly challenged majority views: mocked scholarly piety, questioned current wisdom, intellectual fashion, national hubris, bigotry, and what he calls ``the bumper-sticker mentality'' of American debate. His role has been to say, ``Yes, but....''

During the McCarthy period of the early '50s, he defended the right of professors - against terrific pressure from American loyalists in college administrations - to write and speak freely.

The blandness and complacency of America in the mid-'50s caused Riesman to say that the United States was suffering from a lack of Utopian thought.

During the cold war, his was one of the earliest voices on behalf of a nuclear test ban treaty, and for d'etente. Antiwar, though not a pacifist, Riesman started the Council of Correspondence, a famous newsletter among intellectuals critical of the arrogant nationalism of the day: its jingoism, its assumption that the spiritual health of the nation was found in the rising gross national product, its naive effort to export a shallow American democratic morality through military might. Riesman called it ``bomber liberalism.''