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The History of Harvard's Commencement, Explained

Gordon W. Allport

NO WRITER ATTRIBUTED

In a survey some years ago, American psycho-therapists were asked to name the theorists whose work they found most useful. Sigmund Freud, of course, headed the list; second was Gordon Allport.

Allport himself was somewhat bemused by the fact, He had never established, as had Freud, a school of thought bearing his name; his students were as diverse in their outlook as the fields he brought together in 1946 to form the Social Relations Department. And that is the way he wanted it.

His greatest contribution to sociology was a theory on the uniqueness of each human personality. He applied it not only in his writings, but in his own life--in his relations with his students, his colleagues, and society at large. It was a theory that mirrored his overriding sense of human decency.

Allport; had peculiar courage. He was a shy man--his students, misunderstanding, often thought him aloof--and his quiet, gentlemanly air gave the impression of a man not easily involved in the turmoils outside academic seclusion. Colleagues thus mislead were frequently amazed. In the thirties, he worked to bring to this country Jewish scholars, especially psychologists, then living in Nazi Germany. During the war, he was one of the founders of the Boston Herald's "Rumor Clinics," and he began a systematic survey of rumor mongering--ignoring a feeling among some of his colleagues that it was not a fit area for precise professional study.

His discovery that most remors involved bigotry--baseless reports that one minority group or another was not doing its part--prompted his keen interest in race relations. In 1944, he gave a course in minority group problems to Boston police captains; three years later he gave a similar course to Cambridge police officers. And again, shrugging off the notion that the subject was too "soft" for useful study, he began a systematic consideration of prejudice; it lead to the 1954 publication of this classic on the subject, The Nature of Prejudice.

Allport was in fact always something of an academic maverick. He turned to the study of the human psyche at a time when his American colleagues--and especially those at Harvard--though of psychology chiefly as the study of animals.

It was perhaps, his own probity, his own sense of what he was about, that kept his work focused on an extraordinary entity for systematic study: the personalities of men. He came relatively late in his career to the fearful realization that essentially decent men could put together a social system that ravishes their fellows. He saw in his lifetime and accumulated in his work more than enough evidence of the paradox. His legacy is not, as he was himself painfully aware, a solution. "Social science," he wrote, "lags far behind medical and physical science. It lags too behind the moral sense of mankind."

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