Stan Rothman: A Tribute

Steve Balch

The name of Stanley Rothman – who passed away yesterday at age eighty-three – is destined to become a household word among the historically literate. The reputations of most social observers fade with the generation that produced them, but for those few who provide a unique kind of insight into an important historical epoch, like the duc de Saint Simon for the court of Louis XIV, or Finley Peter Dunne for American politics at the turn of the nineteenth century, each new cohort of historians unfailingly revives their testimony. So it will be with Stan.

Stan was one of the first social scientists to see the unprecedented divorce that was taking place inside the United States – the ideological separation of the nation’s elites from most of its citizenry. Throughout American history, one without the tensions between aristocracy and masses that wracked Europe, America’s cultural leadership largely embraced values similar to those of the average citizen. This allowed for a level of social concord, as well as a consensus about the nature of American governing institutions, rarely duplicated. And it produced, after the Civil War, an uncommonly stable polity.

What Stan saw, long before most, was that this consensus was being undone. But he did more than just see that fact. He documented it in book after book and article after article of thoroughgoing analysis, quantifying the gap that had opened between the country’s highly educated cultural elites in academe, philanthropy, entertainment, and the learned professions, and those outside these spheres, pitting an adversarial attitude toward many traditional American ideas against a still allegiant one.  This was a new phenomenon, the harbinger perhaps of a gigantic cultural transformation – should the elite views prove leading indicators – or of deep and enduring cultural conflict – should they not. One way or another, America was being redefined.

The answer future historians will give as to how this conflict turns out can’t be predicted. But we can be sure that they will come back time and again to the evidence Stan compiled and interpreted in order to chart it. No one else accumulated such a treasure trove of analysis and explanation. No one else attended in such a protracted, painstaking, and intelligent way to the underlying processes. Stan was at the right place at the right time, standing along a tearing seismic rift with the sophisticated social science instruments and the unfailing social science honesty needed to measure it.

Stan Rothman also had the keenest appreciation for what was at stake in this disjuncture, and was particularly troubled by what he saw as the erosion of a commitment to reason, self-restraint, and old fashioned liberalism among important segments of elite and academic opinion. It was these apprehensions that drew him to the NAS during its formative years. He took his place as a frequent speaker at our conferences and a contributor to our journal, but most importantly, for more than a decade, as chairman of the NAS board where he sat beside me, affording advice, encouragement, and occasional consolation, during a long stretch of my organizational presidency.

Stan was anything but a Pollyanna. He felt elite opinion’s immense weight and the strength of the cultural shifts it was enacting. Yet he retained a belief in the powers of reason, and in the appeal of a tolerant, open, and sensible society that made the battle for them continue to seem worthwhile. He communicated this reassurance to all of his NAS colleagues and particularly to me who, quite frequently, needed it the most.

Stan was a close personal friend. As he lived some distance from Princeton – in Northampton, Massachusetts, where he served for many years as Mary Huggins Gamble Professor of Government, and Director of the Center for the Study of Social and Political Change at SmithCollege – we saw each other less often than we would have liked. But we always found opportunity to get together during our summer holidays and whenever else the occasion offered, and spent much time in conversation on the phone. He was a devoted husband to Eleanor, his equally devoted and accomplished wife, and the loving father of two sons, David and Michael, the latter tragically predeceasing him.

Stan bore up under the assaults of life and age with philosophic fortitude and a tenacious commitment to his work. His latest book, The Still Divided Academy (with April Kelly-Woessner and Matthew Woessner) appeared barely a month before his death. He found in his work, I think, a solace derived not just from pride in its important intellectual service, but from the belief that its rigor and candor made it part of the hopefully ongoing march of the rational and reasonable civilization to which he was dedicated.

Stan Rothman was the gift of a passing generation of scholars to scholars yet to come. They won’t forget him – nor will we.                    

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