An Affair to Remember, continued
It was a characteristic assault on the powers-that-were. Although he was born into a wealthy coal-operating family in Morris Run, Pa., Nearing soon rejected most of the bulwarks of the eras capitalism.
The distribution of wealth, he wrote, was the most difficult as well as the most interesting part of our science. While American society had reached the stage where its people had learned how to produce wealth, as yet they have never learned to distribute it so as to satisfy all the interested parties.
In a time of seismic societal tremors, Nearings worldview was built on a rock of moral conviction. He saw his role not only as a social scientist investigating modern society but as a teacher working for the liberation of the individual soul, notes John Saltmarsh, author of Scott Nearing: An Intellectual Biography. His economic analysis revealed that modern society was fragmenting and degenerating because of the failure of the dominant class to meet its social duty.
If I am rich and you are poor, Nearing wrote, both of us are corrupted by inequality.
He became an outspoken opponent of child labor and inherited wealth, and would champion womens rights and racial equality decades before either cause became popular. Yet with people he could be brutally insensitive and bluntan idiosyncratic ideologue from the word go, in the words of Dr. Daniel Hoffman, the poet and Felix Schelling Professor of English Emeritus, who knew Nearing in the last decades of his 100-year life. That ideology led to his joiningand his quick expulsion bythe Communist Party in the 1920s, and ultimately to a Spartan life as an organic farmer on the coast of Maine, where he became a kind of counter-cultural hero to the young. It also led him to conclude that the Albania of Enver Hoxha was a wonderful example of a planned economy.
As a Penn student, Nearing was profoundly influenced by Dr. Simon Nelson Patten, professor of economics. After hearing Pattens discussion on Adam Smith and his reasoning concerning capital, Nearing realized that he had found a teacher who suggested to us that the established order was not all that it might be. Patten, he later recalled, spoke to his students constantly, not of the things that had passed, but of the things that were to be.
When Nearing began teaching, he soon became one of the Wharton Eight, a group of faculty who believed that they should make a contribution not only to our students and the University but also to the society at large, in Nearings words. Patten described Nearing as one of Penns most effective men, a man of extraordinary ability, of superlative popularity and a man who, to my mind, exerted the greatest moral force for good in the University. He also noted that Nearing had the largest class in the Universitythere were 400 in his classand no one could have done his work better.
For Nearing, the role of a teacher was that of a sentryan outpost in the realm of ideas. Though some economists found his methods unscientific, he was a vigorous, prolific scholar. During his brief tenure at Penn he wrote The Solution of the Child Labor Problem; The Super Race; Women and Social Progress (written with his first wife, Nellie); Financing the Wage Earners Family; Social Religion; Social Sanity; Reducing the Cost of Living; Wages in the United States, 1908-10; Anthracite; and Income.
He was highly regarded by his students, who would later sign petitions in droves protesting his dismissal. Many of us do not agree with his economic theories, yet every one must admit that he is one of the few men who actually perform the service that the University expects of them, wrote a Wharton student named Jacques M. Schwab. He makes the college men think. A professor who can do that is, in my opinion, worth his weight in gold.
And what if you were wrong about Albania?
You called child labor Capitalisms disease
While children toiled in the coalmines of Trustees
Of the University of Pennsylvania,
Who fired you from their Wharton School forthwith
A cause cÈlËbre! Our tenured free speech grew
Out of the Nearing case. But not for you,
Old rebel loner, bound to Reasons myth
The economy is just that is all planned.
Was this what in your old age drew the young
To your walled garden, as witness to a life
Of Thoreaus abnegations, though with a wife?
Your rows of Escarole, Romaine, Deers Tongue
How comely, how proportionate your land.