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Thursday, June 3, 2021


It was already 70° when I started my morning walk today at 7 AM so instead of wearing my usual longsleeved turtleneck shirt, I put on a tatty old black T-shirt that I have had for 30 years and more. On the front is emblazoned a red star around which are inscribed the words SOCIAL THOUGHT AND POLITICAL ECONOMY. The shirt commemorates an undergraduate interdisciplinary program that I created at the University of Massachusetts when I joined the faculty there in 1971. UMass, which is big on acronyms, dubbed the program for purposes of its computer records as STPEC, which almost immediately came to be pronounced “stepick.”  

STPEC was intended by me as a left-wing version of SOCIAL STUDIES, the Harvard undergraduate interdisciplinary major of which I was the first head tutor in 1960 – 61. It was launched on a shoestring in 1973. It grew and flourished, most especially after I turned it over to Sara Lennox in 1980 when I moved to Boston so that my first wife could take up a professorship at MIT.  In two years, if my Parkinson’s will permit, I will travel to Amherst to take part in the 50th anniversary celebration. Should theweather be mild enough, I may wear that old T-shirt


I have told the story of the creation of STPEC at some length in my autobiography and will not undertake to repeat myself here but there is one feature of the program of which I am especially proud and I thought I would take just a moment to talk about it.


As originally conceived, students in the program were to take a combination of courses drawn from the social sciences and humanities capped by a senior year two-semester seminar taught jointly by two faculty members drawn from different departments (thus guaranteeing that it would be “interdisciplinary.”) The first Senior Seminar was taught by myself and my friend and colleague William Connolly from Political Science. Excited by the opportunity, Bill and I went a little bit over the top and it was a very demanding seminar. Word got back to the juniors in the program who came to me rather nervously to say that they did not feel they were prepared for a seminar of this sort and wondered whether there was something I could arrange that would give them the background they needed. I responded by creating a junior year seminar. Several years later, that junior seminar was taught by Tracy Strong, whom I had recruited for the purpose from Mount Holyoke College. Tracy taught a rather demanding junior seminar and the sophomores in the program, hearing about it, came to me and said they did not think they were ready for such an experience. Once again I responded, this time by creating and teaching a new philosophy department course called Introduction to Social Philosophy.


Thus was born a tradition carried on by Sara Lennox, a tradition that I think may be unique in American higher education, of developing a major not by consulting the wishes and wisdom of professors but by responding to the needs and demands of students. It has been a long time since I have been in touch with the STPEC program, but I very much hope that it has, all these years later, retained this character.


Jim said...

Professor Wolff --

Although I was a Political Science major at UMass, some of my close friends were STPEC majors. One of them was someone who I had known from elementary school -- Peter. Peter was a kind-hearted, sensitive soul who literally embodied a strong sense of social justice, kindness, and personal loyalty. As a consequence, those of us who knew him gave him the nickname "Saint Pete," based on his tendency to do no wrong and stand up to injustice whenever and wherever he encountered it. I would often have long discussions with him about the material we were reading for our respective courses. At times he would become depressed and lament about the amount of evil that existed in the world. I would respond by saying that is why we are studying this -- to critically analyze and figure out how to develop strategies to counteract the evil we experience in the world. It didn't help that the woman Pete fell in love with and eventually married had a father who was a dyed in the wool William F. Buckley conservative. He hated Pete with a passion and negatively viewed him as a modern day Leninist, which of course he was not.

One day, we had a particularly long discussion that left Pete in a deeper state of despair than usual. I later related this to a mutual friend of ours. After hearing my story, he took a long pause, leaned back and said, "It's that damn STPEC major." "What do you mean?," I said, rather incredulously. He said, "That major will chew him up and spit him out." "No way!," I exclaimed. "It's the perfect major for Pete, this is what he has always been looking for. This is where he can pursue those lifelong questions and find ways to deal with them." Our mutual friend disagreed. He said, "No, it will only make him feel worse." "I don't know," I said. "I think it will ultimately provide the answers he needs."

While that conversation took place 33 years ago, it still remains burned into my brain to the point where I reflect on it often. Turning it over in my mind all those years has changed my thinking a bit.

What is the purpose of this comment on Professor Wolff's blog about STPEC? I love critical analysis -- it is what I do. Dig deeper, unveil and reveal the filth, the rot, the injustice, the institutional racism, the sexism, the homophobia, the fascism, the exploitation, the corruption. I revel in it. But what I have found is that you must temper it with something positive. Critical theory embodies an inherent negativity -- which I think is good. But it might inhibit some people from recognizing what may be positive out there if they are engaged in critical analysis 24/7. As a consequence, I am always careful to intertwine positive social movement outcomes into my critical analysis course. My hope is that instead of depressing everyone, let's try to motivate them to emulate and build on actions that have resulted in positive change. I do not know what the STPEC program encompasses today. I suggest that it should culminate with a course entitled "Successful Positive Change Social Movements." There are a lot of them out there. Students deserve to know about them.

That said, I think that STPEC is one of the most vital and needed programs out there -- definitely lacking in most universities.


Another Anonymous said...

Here’s some advice from Sally Bowles:

What good is sitting, alone in your room?
Come hear the music play!
Life is a cabaret, old chum!
Come to the cabaret!
Put down the knitting, the book and the broom
It's time for a holiday
Life is a cabaret, old chum!
Come to the cabaret!

Come taste the wine
Come hear the band
Come blow your horn
Start celebrating
Right this way your table's waiting.

What good's permitting some prophet of doom?
To wipe every smile away
Life is a cabaret, old chum!
So come to the cabaret!

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Jim, what a wonderful reminiscence about STPEC. If I do manage to make it to the 50th anniversary celebration, with your permission I will read it to the gathering. Lordy, I am beginning to feel like Mr. Chips!

LFC said...

Curricular programs, whether traditional majors or something like STPEC, obviously don't remain static. They change in response to a combination of internal and external forces or stimuli. It would be extremely surprising if STPEC has not changed in some fairly significant ways since its founding, though the initial impulse/vision might have been preserved. (I know that Social Studies has changed quite a lot over the years, though I have neither time nor inclination nor complete enough knowledge to go into it now.)

I'll say one thing though. Prof Wolff has said several times that he created STPEC to be "a left-wing version of Social Studies." When I went through the latter in the late '70s, my sense was, while it didn't indoctrinate its students, it was pretty left-wing in some respects. On the other hand, one could go through it and, if one were headed for an academic career, become a good scholar but not necessarily an esp left-wing one. I am thinking of certain specific people here but am not going to name them.

Jim said...

Professor Wolff --

I think it is fine if you read the commentary to a larger gathering, but if I had known that would be the case, I would probably be more specific.

Key point: The value of Critical Theory is that it allows us see through the veneer of capitalist industrial society by revealing its exploitative and corrupt nature. This is a good thing. This is the value of STPEC any other programs like it. But we need more than mere criticism and penetrating social analysis. We need to offer strategies and pathways for potential change and emancipatory projects. Otherwise we wind up with Adorno and Horkheimer's conclusion from "Dialectic of Enlightenment": There is no escape from the all encompassing domination of modern industrial capitalism so our best bet is to disengage from it as much as possible in order to avoid contributing to that domination. But this is not a satisfactory answer -- particularly for those who have an ardent desire to rupture the dominant system. Therefore, we must be sure to let everyone know that strategies to resist domination exist and have been successful in the past: activists in antebellum US, the White Rose in Nazi Germany. Heck, even Greta Thunberg taking on global capitalism. If we don't highlight these efforts, then all we are left with are critically enlightened students with little hope for a better future. How do we communicate that human actions matter, that human choices matter? How to we communicate that the current system of domination is not necessarily permanent? How do we teach people to effectively change the system? I am still trying to figure it out.

-- Jim

Tom Weir said...

Though not a member of STPEC, I was a student of philosophy at UMASS, graduating in 1976. (I thoroughly enjoyed taking your classes during my time there.) Your post reminded me of how exciting it was to be a student at UMASS in those days. There were many avenues to pursue in learning in order to become an educated person and a critical thinker. The comments by Jim about critical analyses certainly makes me wonder about the state of the world today.
I was a student of, and had the pleasure of working with Professor Robert Wellman while at UMASS and helped him develop the Center for High School Philosophy Teachers. I did my student teaching in philosophy at Amherst High School, and was amazed how much the students enjoyed the class. I mention this because I see such a lack of critical thinking in our modern world. The lack of objective analysis and evaluation of important social and political issues by our citizenry is leaving our country in a poor position. Faith in the opinion of others is not enough, and yet faith seems to be the deciding factor for people who cannot form their own judgments.
I often think that learning critical thinking is like the hub of the wheel that connects all the other disciplines, and should be a mandatory, fundamental objective to pursue in education.
So I hope you can discuss in this blog at some point, if you have not previously done so, how we as philosophers can promote, on a daily basis, critical thinking among our citizenry, especially on our social media platforms.

Tom Weir

Christopher J. Mulvaney, Ph.D. said...

I had the pleasure of being the T.A for the the sophomore preparatory class (Philosophy 161) for the STEPEC program in 1978. I find it hard to believe it was less rigorous than the preceding courses. I still have the final exam from the course which consists of seven wicked difficult questions. But I am jumping the gun. No sooner had I sat down in the back of class for the first lecture when I found myself furiously taking notes on Plato, and realizing everything I had learned about Plato from the Jesuits at G’town was garbage. It also confirmed my opinion that the best thing to happen to me as an undergrad was being kick out of the G’town School of Foreign Service So I learned Plato along with the undergrads.

That wasn’t all I learned. For example, I learned the value of well-chosen stories and jokes being woven into a lecture. Frankly, I never laughed so hard in an academic setting as I did when Prof. Wolff managed to explain several key concepts in social and political theory while doing a comedy routine on stage in the lecture hall. The “Rabbit Whompers and Bush Beaters”, is the story of an obscure society, apparently not often covered in anthropology classes, that lived exclusively off of rabbits. I can only hope that popular demand will encourage Dr. Wolff to reprise it one day. (Hint, hint)

STEPEC is a great program, and one in which grad student’s can learn a thing or two!!

LFC said...

@ C Mulvaney

I recall your mentioning some of this here before. You probably don't remember, at this remove, what the Jesuit take on Plato was or why it was (in your words) garbage, but if you do remember, I would be interested.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Chris, I told her version of my rabbit story on this blog in October, 2010, on October 6 I think. Maybe I should do it every decade :-)

Christopher J. Mulvaney, Ph.D. said...

The key to the answer to your question lay more in the fact I was in the School of Foreign Service and less in that the Prof.w as a Jesuit. The crux of the matter was that the Republic was the urtext of totalitarian thought. Aristotle was the counterpoint. The prof. wasn’t interested in anything other than construing philosophy in the service of freedom and democracy. At the end of the second semester of this class the topic was existentialism and the prof assured us that Camus, had he not died prematurely, would have converted to Catholicism. I found that so absurd and I argued a bit too doggedly and was asked to leave the class.

Lest one believe that G’town SFS was a complete joke, it was only the required philosophy and religion classes that fit that bill. The social science and history classes were very good, though they never left the realm of liberal orthodoxy. The School was very much an adjunct to the American foreign policy establishment. In a nondescript building across the street from the school, which was a block of two off campus, there was the affiliated program that educated Central and South American military officers in the art of fighting communist insurrection.

One last story. I played in a band and we were hire to to play at a dance that was to take place on the roof of the foreign service student’s dorm. We had been playing for about an hour when two of D.C.’s finest arrived and informed us that we had to stop. The complaint had been called in by Sen Claiborne Pell (R) R.I.

LFC said...

Thanks for the answer re the take on The Republic.

(Btw Pell was a Democrat. Too bad he called the police on your band.)