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.
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.''
It was typified by the can-do policies of Harvard social scientists in the Kennedy administration, policies that led to Vietnam. These were technocrats out of touch with grass-roots America, Riesman felt. In ``The Best and the Brightest,'' David Halberstam writes of a 1961 luncheon Riesman had with two such policymakers who glibly discussed America's right to fight in Southeast Asia. Riesman finally burst out, ``You all think you can manage limited wars and that you're dealing with an elite society which is just waiting for your leadership. It's not that way at all. It's not an Eastern elite society run for Harvard and the Council on Foreign Relations.''
He wrote letters and raised money on behalf of the cadre of Harvard students organizing against the arms race. One of them, Todd Gitlin, now a Berkeley sociologist, remembers: ``It was never an armchair, intellectual thing with him. Believe me, in 1962 there weren't a lot of professors willing to stick their noses out. That took courage.''
On the other hand, although student radicals in the New Left had been weaned on ``The Lonely Crowd'' as a critique of conformity, Riesman never embraced them. He felt that their behavior was destroying what civility there was left in the younger generation; it was ``uncivil disobedience,'' he said. In a famous confrontation at Berkeley in the late '60s, Riesman told student leaders that their conduct was provoking a right-wing kickback that, he predicted to incredulous ears, would ``one day elect [then-California Gov.] Ronald Reagan president.''
Watergate waylaid this kickback, Riesman says. During Watergate, he criticized President Nixon's duplicity and his tragic flaws, but was equally critical of the ``arrogant innocence'' of the American press and public. Mr. Nixon, ``far less an amateur than most presidents,'' had also accomplished much; the public failure to weigh Nixon's virtues and vices bothered him.
By contrast, he feels that President Reagan's ``depredations are serious and reckless in a way Nixon's were not. Nixon surrounded himself with such capable people - he could have brought about real welfare reform, for example. We don't find this with Reagan.'' More `generosity' today
Today Americans are more egocentric, sophisticated, antinomian; they tend toward small groups, have a far more intense and deeper definition of friendship than in the ``outer directed'' days of the 1950s, he says. ``I also find more generosity among friends now.''
At the same time, Riesman is concerned about the temperament of American life, should ``the present economic high'' end.
``I wonder what kinds of meanness and social divisions will come. ... The other side of the American generosity is a vindictiveness that could lead to fragmentation.'' An amateur Civil War historian, Riesman is concerned about society's latent passions: ``I'm tremendously alert to the fragility of civilization.''
Riesman's background and interests are diverse. He was managing editor of the Harvard Crimson in the '20s, worked for the eminent scholar Carl Friedrich, then for Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis and for the University of Buffalo before becoming counsel to the Sperry Gyroscope Company in New York. His writings on civil liberties led in 1946 to an offer to teach sociology at the University of Chicago; he left in 1958 for Harvard.
Riesman has written on everything from sports, Japan, and blacks to American industry, psychology, and arms control. His correspondence, dozens of letters a day to students, faculty, deans, and presidents at schools across the country, once occupied two full-time secretaries.
In 1980 he retired, though he still lives near Harvard with his wife, Evelyn, in a house formerly occupied by the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead.
He also still works.
For the last 12 years, this work has been concerned exclusively with fine-grained questions in higher education: from how college presidents are chosen, to the ethical responsibility of professors, to minority student quotas, the troubles of black colleges, student living, academic freedom, and so forth.
Such questions may seem small, Riesman admits. Especially for Americans used to getting their education on the run. ``But,'' he says, ``the way colleges are set up implicitly has everything to do with whether learning takes place, with the values that are imparted. Class interaction, the amount of lecturing - it all matters. For example, I'm passionately against the habit of graduate teaching assistants using sarcasm on students - it destroys natural curiosity. My colleagues say they aren't interested in these issues. Most schools aren't, either; they just go with the flow.''
``He's our most helpful critic,'' says Bellah. ``He's witnessed so much. Maybe Allan Bloom [author of ``The Closing of the American Mind,'' the recent critique of colleges] knows the inside of Cornell and 10 other schools. Riesman can tell you not only the differences among various orders of Catholic women's colleges, but where they stand on the Vatican.''
Not surprisingly, his views on education run counter to the norm. Take, for example, the college-entrance Scholastic Achievement Tests. Riesman doesn't buy the current disparagement of them. They are useful indicators for counselors who don't know students, he says: ``Flawed, but better than the alternatives.'' They can also defend students against the ambitions of over- or underachieving parents - not a small problem, he adds.
He's a believer - one of few - in the concept of in loco parentis. There should be a greater adult presence on campus. Further, freshmen men and women should not live in coed situations, he says - it's too distracting. ``I know that's unpopular, but studies bear this out.''
He is against current efforts to make women's studies a separate major. ``I want to see gender reflected in every appropriate place throughout the curriculum. To build an enclave removes the pressure to do this.''
Recruitment on campus by the US Central Intelligence Agency has been blasted by faculty and press from coast to coast. But Riesman doesn't share the outrage. ``I want to see more bright people in intelligence gathering,'' he says, ``not less.''
His central notion is that colleges should not simply mirror the values and attitudes of the general society. They must exist in tension with society - be more than job-training centers.
College and causes
For this reason, he is wary of student causes, such as protests over South Africa: ``It's too easy.'' He also finds student political passions unfairly influenced by the ``immoral moral righteousness'' of certain faculty.
``My serious critics say it's good for the kids to be active. But I say college and school are a time to learn two lifelong musical instruments, two lifelong sports, a craft such as plumbing or carpentry, a foreign language, how to give a talk. It's a time for mutuality, generosity, sharing - without ideological trimmings.
``It's a time for students to be allowed to do things badly; to be awkward; to think about Utopian subjects, to read Baudelaire - it's one of their last opportunities for that, and they shouldn't be crowded out of the time for rethinking. Politics can come later.''
Riesman is best known among educators for his ``countercyclical theory'' of learning. That is, that good education should free students from the tyranny of the present and should be guided to run counter to students' habits and presuppositions. In teaching Sociology 136, for example, his famous Harvard course, Riesman found students in the early '60s somewhat timid and diffident and spending too much time in the library. So he sent them out to interview, collect oral histories, and do interpretive analysis. By the late '60s, students were so caught up by the romance of fieldwork that Riesman sent them back to the library - and stressed ``objective scholarship.''
Although he didn't share their views, he defended in class those students who supported the Vietnam war. And he has never shared the animosity of many in the liberal arts for business: ``It's unfair. I encourage interested students to take their MBAs.''
``David is able to take small questions and draw large, peculiarly American lessons from them,'' says Judith McLaughlin of Harvard, co-author with Riesman of a recent paper on an ill-fated search by the University of Florida for a new college president under that state's ``sunshine laws'' - laws that presumably ensure fairness and ``the public's right to know.''
Titled ``The Shady Side of Sunshine,'' it was a lesson in how democracy cannot always function out in the open.
The Florida presidential search committee got so bogged down in legal process, Riesman found, that less, not more, information about candidates became known; the most desirable candidates, who couldn't risk their present jobs by dancing openly in the Florida ``sunshine,'' dropped out. The school ended up with a parochial, not a dynamic, choice - actually serving the public less well, Riesman implies.
Much of the responsibility of improving the atmosphere on campus today falls to the faculty, Riesman feels. There needs to be more adult, faculty presence. But he wants adults who act like adults. ``This proclivity of professors to be `liked,' to treat undergraduates like `pals' - it's artificial. Students need to see adults being serious with other adults.''
Personal morality is again becoming a faculty issue, he adds. Twenty years ago when a head tutor was taking female students to local hotels, Riesman maintained that the man should be dismissed, or at least not be head tutor. ``I was looked upon as prurient, a square,'' he says. ``But today this is being more policed; it falls under the category of sexual harassment.''
Fight against cynicism
There are no fewer bright students today than in previous eras, says Riesman. But he criticizes a prevailing ``unexploratory behavior among students who take a `shopper's attitude' towards college; who think of it in terms of a quick transaction. The longer, perhaps more fruitful road is more rarely taken today.''
There's still a battle to be fought against student and faculty cynicism, he adds - a belief that ``one really already knows what's worth knowing.'' This eats away at a quality that David Riesman feels is indispensable to the educated person: ``Curiosity - perhaps the quality above all which I seek to encourage as a lifelong outlook.''
He speaks his mind Riesman on America's right to fight in Southeast Asia:
`It's not an Eastern elite society run for Harvard and the Council on Foreign Relations.'
On `uncivil disobedience' at Berkeley in the '60s:
`[It will provoke a right-wing kickback that will] one day elect [then-California Gov.] Ronald Reagan president.'
On Richard Nixon compared with Ronald Reagan:
`[President Reagan's] depredations are serious and reckless in a way Nixon's were not. Nixon surrounded himself with such capable people - he could have brought about real welfare reform, for example. We don't find this with Reagan.'
On the temperament of American life, should `the present economic high' end:
`I wonder what kinds of meanness and social divisions will come.'
On graduate-student teaching assistants using sarcasm on students:
`It destroys natural curiosity.'
On Scholastic Aptitude Tests:
`Flawed, but better than the alternatives.'
On women's studies:
`I want to see gender reflected in every appropriate place throughout the curriculum. To build an enclave removes the pressure to do this.'
On CIA recruiting on campus:
`I want to see more bright people in intelligence gathering, not less.'
On student protests over South Africa:
`It's too easy.'
On political activism on campus:
`I say college and school are a time to learn two lifelong musical instruments, two lifelong sports, a craft such as plumbing or carpentry, a foreign language, how to give a talk. It's a time for mutuality, generosity, sharing - without ideological trimmings.'
On animosity in the liberal arts toward business:
`It's unfair. I encourage interested students to take their MBAs.'