Episode 146: Harvard’s Quixotic Pursuit of a New Science with Patrick L. Schmidt

This episode of Across The Margin: The Podcast presents an interview with the author of Harvard’s Quixotic Pursuit of a New Science (The Rise and Fall of the Department of Social Relations), Patrick L. Schmidt. In Harvard’s Quixotic Pursuit of a New Science, Schmidt tells the little-known story of how some of the most renowned social scientists of the twentieth century struggled to elevate their emerging disciplines of cultural anthropology, sociology, and social and clinical psychology. Scorned and marginalized in their respective departments in the 1930s for pursuing the controversial theories of Freud and Jung, they persuaded Harvard to establish a new department, promising to create an interdisciplinary science that would surpass in importance Harvard’s “big three” disciplines of economics, government, and history. Although the Department of Social Relations failed to achieve this audacious goal, it nonetheless attracted an outstanding faculty, produced important scholarly work, and trained many notable graduates. At times, it was a wild ride. Some faculty became notorious for their questionable research: Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert (reborn as Ram Dass) gave the psychedelic drug psilocybin to students, while Henry Murray traumatized undergraduate Theodore Kaczynski (later the Unabomber) in a three-year-long experiment. Central to the story is the obsessive quest of legendary sociologist Talcott Parsons for a single theory unifying the social sciences — the white whale to his Captain Ahab. All in all, Schmidt’s lively narrative is an instructive tale of academic infighting, hubris, and scandal. Patrick L. Schmidt is an attorney in Washington, D.C. He received a BA, magna cum laude, from Harvard College, a JD from Georgetown University, and an MIPP from the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. He first examined the history of the Department of Social Relations in his undergraduate honors thesis at Harvard, meaning that he has lived with and examined this story for many years now. In this episode host Michael Shields and Patrick L. Schmidt examine why a group of some of the most distinguished social scientists of the twentieth century embarked up the controversial yet noble endeavor of birthing the multidisciplinary, innovative Department of Social Relations at Harvard. They discuss the famed thinkers that founded the department such as Timothy Leary, Ram Dass, Henry Murray, and Talcott Parsons. They explore the exciting rise of the Department of Social Relations, it’s controversial downfall, and ultimately expound upon the legacy and lasting impact of the movement and those a part of it. 

Grab a copy of Harvard’s Quixotic Pursuit of a New Science here!

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