The Making of a
(Civically Engaged) Scholar

Walter Licht | Civic Scholars Faculty Director

The roots of the Civic Scholars program are closely entwined with Penn’s experience in West Philadelphia. They also extend deep into the activist cortex of Walter Licht.

Back in the mid-1960s, as a Harvard undergraduate, he would get into a van on weekday afternoons and drive to one low-income Boston neighborhood or another, settling into a school cafeteria or some such nook to tutor and mentor inner-city kids. He did this for four years.

“Volunteer work was fairly institutionalized at Harvard through the Phillips Brooks House,” recalls Licht, sitting in a small, airless room in Civic House, the 19th-century cottage that sits in the shadow of the high-rise dorms of Superblock. “And I’m not sure why I walked in the door to do that. It might have been because of a girlfriend—I always say that I majored in extracurricular activities and falling in and out of love in college. But it turned out that the best moments, the warmest moments, the kind of relaxing moments, was just going to those schools and working with these kids. It took me out of the kind of preoccupations that college students have about themselves—Will anybody like me? How do I appear? What am I going to be when I grow up?

Labor historians, as a whole, tend to be political southpaws, and Licht is no exception. But “he’s a questioner—he never tells you what to think,” as one of his Civic Scholars notes, and his scholarly books—which include Working for the Railroad: The Organization of Work in the Nineteenth Century, Getting Work: Philadelphia, 1840-1950, and Industrializing America: The Nineteenth Century—are highly regarded in the field.

He comes by his civic engagement honestly. Though his primary allegiance as a kid was to the hometown Brooklyn Dodgers, he grew up in a “very activist family” filled with “radicals of all stripes.” His mother was an “extraordinary rebel and activist” who organized anti-lynching protests in the South and sundry union and consumer activities up North—and made sure that her bright young son knew about the issues. One spring day in 1957 when he was 10, she took him and a friend to a hardscrabble African-American section of Bedford-Stuyvesant, set them up with a couple of tables, and left them to sell tickets for a massive civil-rights march on Washington.

By the time he got to Harvard as an undergraduate he was an experienced activist, organizing anti-war protests and sitting in on the first meetings to establish the Boston chapter of Students for a Democratic Society. A year later, he helped organize a Boston contingent of the first anti-Vietnam War march, which brought some 50,000 protesters to Washington.

“There were fraternity boys pelting us as we got on the buses,” he says. “Two years later, we were sending 50 and a hundred buses down there—including the fraternity boys.”

The changing nature of the protest movement was an “eye-opener,” he admits cheerfully, one that took him “out of the parochial world of New York City liberal-leftists.” For Licht, who connects easily with a broad range of people, expanding his circle wasn’t exactly cruel and unusual punishment.

Though he privately fancied himself as a literary sort, he had always loved history, and so became a history major “by default,” writing his senior thesis on the short-lived American Labor Party. But his real love was the activism and organizing and other extracurricular activities, which ranged from theater to those supremely satisfying moments of “very direct, hands-on working with people.” The summer between his sophomore and junior years, he got himself into a Yale program working with inner-city New Haven kids, and wound up taking four of them on a road trip that culminated in two weeks on an Indian reservation in North Dakota. (That summer he also met another future historian named Tom Dublin, who would become a lifelong friend and his co-author of The Face of Decline: The Pennsylvania Anthracite Region in the Twentieth Century.)

But all those hours in schools and after-school programs sparked a deep interest in school policy, and after graduating from Harvard in 1967 Licht enrolled in the University of Chicago’s sociology of education program.

“For the first time in my life I actually became a student,” he says. “I had extraordinary teachers, some of the great minds in sociology, and the top sociologists of education in the field. I loved being in the classroom. But midyear, two things happened. One, I realized this was ridiculous, to sort of abstractly theorize about all of this stuff and really not know [firsthand] what happens in a school today. So I decided that if I’m going to write on the sociology of a school, I should probably be there.

“Then, right at the same time, my draft board said, ‘You’re being drafted. You’re 1-A, and you’re going to be called up.’”

He wasn’t. Instead, he got himself a substitute-teacher’s license in New York, which provided him with “one of the last teaching deferments”—and a job, at a public school at 113th Street in Harlem. (Around that time he also met his future wife, Lois, a VISTA volunteer who had also recently returned from Chicago, and had the billy-club scar from a protest march to prove it.) That job landed him smack in the middle of the “great Ocean Hill-Brownsville dispute in New York,” which boiled down to the United Federation of Teachers versus the increasingly community-controlled school boards, and resulted in a lengthy strike filled with ugly racial and ethnic tensions. To the horror of his Old Leftist parents, he crossed the picket line.

“I went into a circumstance of instantaneous community,” Licht explains, “because three-quarters of the teachers went out [on strike], and it was the young New Leftists and the African-American staff who stayed in.” One administrator joined them. “We ran the school—it was like a community school—for three months. And I stayed to 6, 7, 8 o’clock at night, cleaning the bathrooms and working with kids.”

When the teachers finally came back, it was “instantaneous mayhem, because the community was so angry with some teachers,” he says. But even though he was staying late in a dangerous neighborhood, nobody ever accosted him on his way from school to the subway. Nor did his car tires get slashed, a fate suffered by many of the teachers.

“I once asked the head of the parents’ association, ‘What’s going on here?’” he recalls. “He said, ‘Don’t worry—word is out there. You guys went into the school. No one’s touching you.’”

He taught there for four years, during which time he “gave his heart and soul to teaching.” But by then his old love of history was flaring back up, even as he was reading the great masters of sociology.

“I was struck by how their ability to conceptualize came from an extraordinary immersion in history,” he says. “I knew that if I was going to be a scholar of some sort, it would not be the sociologist who conceptualizes out of thin air, or picks up tidbits of fact from those who do the real research. I was going to do the real research and come from the bottom up to become the great conceptualizer.”

And so he went to Princeton, where he wrote his dissertation on railroad workers, which would become the foundation for his 1983 book Working for the Railroad. By the time he left in 1977, PhD in hand, the grassroots conceptualizer had a swelling reputation as a labor historian and a sack full of job offers. He knew he wanted to be in the Northeast, in an urban setting. And so he came to Penn.

It’s fair to say that it’s worked out well for both sides. Licht is highly regarded in the classroom and for his scholarship, with numerous teaching awards to his credit. (“Greatest History Prof on earth,” wrote one student on “Should be teaching people how to teach.”)

In the view of Penn President Amy Gutmann, “Walter’s leadership serves as a model of how Penn faculty challenge our students with tough, important questions and invite the widest range of thoughtful, informed responses.”

He has also pulled his weight and then some as an administrator (associate dean for graduate studies and a “divisional” dean in SAS) and as an overall citizen of the University.

Richard Beeman, who just retired as the John Welsh Centennial Professor of History and whose administrative titles have included dean of the College, associate dean of SAS, and chair of the history department, has had plenty of opportunity to observe Licht during his career at Penn.

“Walter’s one of the real good guys who has poured his heart and soul into the School of Arts and Sciences and the University,” he says. If “five percent of the faculty cause 95 percent of the problems, it’s also the case that five percent of the faculty do 95 percent of the work beyond their own scholarly and teaching careers for the University. And Walter’s one of those people.” —S.H.


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COVER STORY: Getting Engaged By Samuel Hughes
Photography by Candace diCarlo

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SIDEBAR: The Making of a (Civically Engaged) Scholar

SIDEBAR: A Civic Scholar Sampler

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SIDEBAR: The Making of a (Civically Engaged) Scholar

SIDEBAR: A Civic Scholar Sampler


©2011 The Pennsylvania Gazette
Last modified 6/24/11