Dr. Steven Pinker inaugurated Northwestern’s new Contemporary Thought speaker series Monday night, arguing in an hour-long evening lecture that violence has decreased over human history and that we are living in the most peaceful period ever. Pinker pulled from his book The Better Angels of Our Nature, which was named one of the New York Times Book Review's Best Books of 2011.
Ryan Auditorium was comfortably full with an audience ranging from freshmen to local adults, and it was speckled with recognizable faces: President Schapiro and his wife, Mimi; Dean of Students Burgwell Howard; Slavic Professor Gary Saul Morson; and Dr. Doris Dirks, future director of the LGBT Resource Center. Though Pinker is a professor of psychology at Harvard, the night resounded with Northwestern history and tradition, as both the student and faculty member who introduced him referred to Professor Baker Brownell’s mid-20th century class Contemporary Thought, which the speaker series aims to emulate.
Conjuring a class from the past
University archivist Kevin Leonard was also in attendance. He had been sought by the event’s organizers near the beginning of 2012 for a historical analogue to the series, and he said he immediately thought of Brownell’s class.
Professor Baker Brownell was "a very gifted popularizer of ideas and, by reputation, a very good speaker," Leonard said. According to the library’s record of his papers, he was a soldier and journalist as well as a philosopher–when he joined Northwestern’s faculty in 1921, it was in a journalism teaching post–and he was accordingly concerned with "the general topic of the human community," said Leonard.
It was a concern that flowed from his worry over vanishing small town life and respect for an intellectual whole.
Concerned by the increasing fragmentation of disciplines and the in-depth research pursuits of academics, which he believed kept students from assembling knowledge into a unified whole, he "concocted" his Contemporary Thought course near 1930, Leonard said.
The course brought in both premiere Northwestern faculty and outside intellectuals weekly. Students enrolled in Contemporary Thought could expect a lecture from a figure like Carl Sandburg, W.E.B. Du Bois, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Jane Addams. It was, according to Leonard, "wildly popular" among students.
“He was the it guy for his period,” said Leonard. And Pinker, he thought, was in line with Brownell’s aims.
“Pinker himself is able to take very intellectual ideas and popularize them,” Leonard said. “If Brownell were still alive, he’d be on board with this.”
From student interest, administrative support
Students apparently feel similar to Brownell. According to Weinberg senior Jonathan Green, who introduced Pinker, the event flowed from a survey that the Undergraduate Budget Priorities Committee (UBPC) conducted. Northwestern undergraduates, he said, felt the University lacked serious, unifying intellectual events.
Green chaired last year’s UBPC, which proposed an intellectually-oriented speaker series to the administration last February. Administrators accepted that idea, and a panel of students, faculty and administrators examined possible speakers convened last spring to discuss possible speakers. The panel included Professor Gary Saul Morson, Professor Neal Blair, and Bienen School Dean Toni-Marie Montgomery.
In his introduction of Pinker, Green said Pinker’s talk, like Brownell’s class, would address the "responsibility of the educated and Northwestern’s moral activity in a rapidly changing world."
Professor Dan McAdams, the chair of Northwestern’s Psychology Department, introduced Pinker after Green. Pinker, he said, "was one of the better angels of our shared intellectual nature."
"The most peaceful era" ever
Pinker’s delivered his talk in a precise baritone and entirely from behind the podium. He painted a broad story of human progress in almost exactly an hour.
"Believe it or not, and I know most people do not, violence has been in decline for long stretches of time," he said. "We may be living in the most peaceful era in our human existence."
Violence, he said, had been initially tamed by man’s move from anarchy to political bodies, and it was further limited by the civilizing eras and ideas that followed that rise.
In the medieval era, he said, the eradication of tribes and consolidation of states reduced feuding local nobles and warlords; in the Renaissance, the proliferation of printing and rise of literacy increased general empathy; Enlightenment ideas led to the outlawing of routine torture and slavery; and the "Long Peace" which followed World War II ended almost all Great Powers Wars. The "Rights Revolutions," a more recent development, had limited violence as well, as it empowered animals, women, children and racial and sexual minorities, he said.
Ultimately, he said, this reduction of violence might not continue, but it did rehabilitate the virtues of modernity and the truth of the idea of progress.
Charts filled his presentation, and his statistic evidence ranged from broad overviews of all human massacres since 500 B.C. as tabulated by “atrocitologist” Matthew White to more exact but limited government-maintained national crime data.
He accepted the hypotheses of philosophers who worked before good data was available–when considering the reasons violence had decreased, he weighed Thomas Hobbes’s idea of the Leviathan, a strong-state-led social contract–but rejected their evidence.
When Hobbes and Jean-Jacques Rousseau discussed man in a state of nature, he said, they were “talking out of their hat.”
A "romanticized view of what I thought college would be"
Pinker took questions after the event. Alice Mills, a retired M.D. from Wilmette, asked about urban violence and images of violence in the media. Pinker replied that he thought media violence "was largely a red herring."
Asked afterward if she enjoyed the talk, Mills replied initially in one word: "No." It was all statistics, she said, and not “addressed to individual threats of violence in urban society.”
But Pinker got an ovation from the crowd, and student organizers seemed afterward to appreciate the event.
“I really like how he touched on so many academic disciplines: psychology and statistics and political science and history and religion,” said Weinberg junior Ellie Graham, who served on the panel that helped choose Pinker.
ASG President Austin Young also served on the panel. He appreciated the graphs and statistics Pinker used to support his view, because they made Pinker’s "ideological and moral" thesis "tangible."
He also appreciated its broad intellectual focus.
"This is the romanticized view of what I thought college would be," he said. "That’s like too story-book…"
"—but it is story-book!," finished Graham.