Nathan Glazer: An Appreciation by Peter Skerry

Peter Skerry, National Affairs (Spring 2016).


If Nathan Glazer seems destined to stand apart from the tribe into which he was born, he has also been an interloper in the tribes among which he has lived and worked — tribes that don’t even realize that they are tribes. Indeed, it is noteworthy that his most acerbic commentary has been directed against his fellow sociologists. Clearly responding to events he witnessed while teaching at Berkeley in the mid-1960s, he has written that sociology serves “as a refuge for the academic action-seeker” who “specializes in unveiling the illusion that has deceived no one.”

Glazer has been less stinging but just as critical of the planners, architects, and visionaries who share his passion for understanding and improving urban life but lack his humility and common sense. His posture here clearly reflects the skepticism of social-science based, elite-driven reform that eventually came to characterize The Public Interest. But unlike others associated with that journal, Glazer never developed outright disdain and contempt for specialized knowledge and expertise.

From Glazer’s perspective, experts are colleagues presumptively worthy of a hearing, neither to be cravenly deferred to nor arrogantly dismissed out of hand. At the same time, he has long been wary of elites in love with their own ideas, especially those self-consciously motivated by high-mindedness or public-spiritedness, and in particular by modernist universalism that obscures from view the tastes and preferences of those presumed to be in need of uplift.

National Affairs