An Affair to Remember, continued

Nobody ever questioned Scott Nearing’s brilliance or his oratorical skills. Having won a city scholarship to Penn after graduating at the top of his high-school class, he excelled as a student and on the University’s debating team. In 1905, Old Penn (the Gazette’s predecessor) reported that Nearing had received a “prolonged ovation” for his “excellent rebuttal” to Columbia University’s team in a debate about whether the Interstate Commerce Commission should be vested with authority. Nearing, who maintained that it should, pointed to several cases of “unjust discrimination” by the nation’s railroads—which, he argued forcefully, clearly needed governmental oversight.

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 era’s 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, Nearing’s 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 women’s rights and racial equality decades before either cause became popular. Yet with people he could be brutally insensitive and blunt—“an 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 joining—and his quick expulsion by—the 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 Patten’s 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 Nearing’s words. Patten described Nearing as one of Penn’s “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 University—there were 400 in his class—and no one could have done his work better.”

For Nearing, the role of a teacher was that of a “sentry—an 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 Earner’s 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.”

Lines for Scott Nearing (1883-1983)


And what if you were wrong about Albania?

You called child labor Capitalism’s disease

While children toiled in the coalmines of Trustees

Of the University of Pennsylvania,

Who fired you from their Wharton School forthwith—

A cause clbre! Our tenured free speech grew

Out of ‘the Nearing case.’ But not for you,

Old rebel loner, bound to Reason’s 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 Thoreau’s abnegations, though with a wife?

Your rows of Escarole, Romaine, Deer’s Tongue

—How comely, how proportionate your land.


From Hang-Gliding from Helicon
(Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1988)

1988 by Daniel Hoffman


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