Campus & Community

Political scientist to give Tanner

6 min read

Wilson takes look at marriage and morality


James Q. Wilson, a political scientist whose studies of crime, police work, marriage, and morality have had an important impact on public policy at all levels of government, will deliver this year’s Tanner Lectures on Human Values, Nov. 2-4.

Wilson’s general topic will be “Polarization in America.” His first lecture will explore the impact of polarization in politics, his second, in religion.

In a phone interview, Wilson explained why he thinks the subject of polarization is so crucial at this time.

“It struck me as a social scientist that polarization is the most important political trend of the last 10 years. A gap has opened up in this country that shows no signs of closing.”

Wilson, who taught at Harvard from 1961 to 1987, said his views are at odds with those of many of his colleagues, who tend to downplay the importance of polarization. Polls are not often designed to capture the intensity of public opinion, which is one reason polarization is not more generally acknowledged, he said. In his first lecture Wilson will give examples to show how the gap is increasing and will offer explanations of why different segments of society are drawing further apart, focusing especially on the contributing role of higher education.

In his second lecture, Wilson will discuss religious polarization in the light of recent events like the re-election of George W. Bush and the Terry Schiavo case. Looking at the current situation against the background of America’s religious history, he will consider the question of why the United States is more religious than the advanced industrial democracies of Europe. Other commentators have attributed this difference to the mysterious factor of American exceptionalism, but Wilson takes a different view.

“I think it’s Europe that’s odd,” he said. “The United States is part of a process that is also happening in Latin America, Africa, and parts of Asia, namely the rise of socially conservative Protestant churches. For example, in Brazil today, there are more Protestant ministers than there are Catholic priests.”

Tanner Lectures on Human Values, James Q. Wilson’s lectures, 4:30 p.m. Nov. 2 and 3, Lowell Lecture Hall. They will be followed by a seminar at 10 a.m., Nov. 4, in Wiener Auditorium, Taubman Building, Kennedy School of Government.

Commentators will be Alan Wolfe, professor of political science and director of The Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life at Boston College, and Lizabeth Cohen, the Howard Mumford Jones Professor of American Studies at Harvard and director of the Charles Warren Center for Studies in American History.

Wilson first began casting a penetrating eye on American society and its problems in the 1960s with his studies of urban government and political leadership among African Americans. In 1968 he published “Varieties of Police Behavior: The Management of Law and Order in Eight Communities,” following it up with further studies of crime and policing that had a direct influence on the community policing movement and the idea that crime can be diminished by eliminating signs of decay and disorder in a community. In the 1990s, the anti-crime campaign of New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and police Chief William Bratton was inspired, at least in part, by Wilson’s writings.

More recently, Wilson’s studies of morality (“The Moral Sense” [1993] and “On Character: Essays” [1995]) and his analysis of the importance of marriage (“The Marriage Problem: How Our Culture Has Weakened Families” [2002]) have made important contributions to the public debate on those issues.

During his tenure at Harvard, Wilson gained prominence not only for his teaching, but also for his leadership in institutional affairs. From 1966 to 1969, he served as chair of the Committee on the University and the City, an important planning effort whose recommendations had a far-reaching influence on Harvard’s plans and priorities. From 1976 to 1977, he chaired the task force on the core curriculum, which established Harvard’s system for requiring a broad-based liberal arts education for undergraduates.

He also served as chair of the White House Task Force on Crime in 1966, as chair of the National Advisory Commission on Drug Abuse Prevention in 1972 – 1973, as a member of the Attorney General’s Task Force on Violent Crime in 1981, as a member of the President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board from 1985 to 1991, and as a member of the board of directors of the Police Foundation from 1971 to 1993. He is now serving as a member of the President’s Council on Bioethics. In 2003 he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian award.

Born in Denver in 1931, Wilson grew up in southern California where he attended public schools. He earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Redlands in 1952 and a master’s degree and doctoral degree from the University of Chicago in 1957 and 1959, respectively. From 1952 to 1955, he was a lieutenant in the U.S. Navy.

From 1969 until 1987, when he left Harvard to take a job at the University of California, Los Angeles, he was the Henry Lee Shattuck Professor of Government. He is currently the Ronald Reagan Professor of Public Policy at Pepperdine University.

Wilson has been back to Harvard once before to deliver the Edwin L. Godkin Lectures in 1996. He said he was looking forward to the prospect of a return visit.

“I’m absolutely delighted to be coming to Harvard again. I thoroughly loved it when I was there. I’d still be teaching at Harvard if they had followed my advice and moved the University to southern California. But Harvard wouldn’t move, so I moved.”

The Tanner Lectures on Human Values is a nonprofit corporation administered at the University of Utah. It is funded by an endowment and other gifts received by the University of Utah from Obert Clark Tanner and Grace Adams Tanner.

At the request of a founding trustee of the Tanner Lectures on Human Values, these lectures are dedicated to the memory of Clarence Irving Lewis ’06, Ph.D. ’10, who served on the Faculty of Arts and Sciences from 1920 to 1953.

Co-sponsored by the Office of the President and the Edmond J. Safra Foundation Center for Ethics, the series is designed to advance scholarly and scientific learning in the field of human values, embracing the entire range of moral, artistic, intellectual, and spiritual values, both individual and social.