Shils, Edward Albert

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Shils, Edward Albert

(b. 1 July 1910 in Springfield, Massachusetts; d. 23 January 1995 in Chicago, Illinois), sociologist noted for his work on civil society, the culture of academia, and his efforts to make sociology more relevant to mainstream audiences.

Shils was the son of Eastern European Jewish immigrants. His father was a cigar maker, first in Springfield, Massachusetts, and then in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Shils and his two brothers viewed the “City of Brotherly Love” as their own intellectual playground, exploring neighborhoods, libraries, and museums with equal fascination. As an undergraduate, Shils attended the University of Pennsylvania, where he majored in French literature while reading widely in European philosophy, especially the works of German social theorists Georg Simmel, Ferdinand Tonnies, and Max Weber. He graduated with a B.A. degree in foreign languages in 1931. Both at home and in his university studies, Shils learned to appreciate an international perspective on life and thought. Such preparation provided him with, as one of his friends has written, a “deep even intimate knowledge of several national cultures without ever losing touch with his own.” Shils married twice, divorced twice, and was survived by one son, Adam.

Interested in the composition of societies, Shils ventured into the field of social work following his graduation from college. His travels took him to Chicago and ultimately to that city’s distinguished university. At the University of Chicago, Shils became a research assistant to professors probing the dimensions of the then-emerging academic field of sociology. There he studied under and became a colleague of sociologist Robert E. Park, economist Frank H. Knight, and economic historian John U. Nef. Shils never completed his graduate work at the University of Chicago, but he did become a faculty member—a position he kept until his retirement from the Department of Sociology and the Committee on Social Thought as a distinguished professor in 1985.

During World War II, Shils was member of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) and was deployed by the British government to interrogate captured German soldiers. Shils chose not to pursue a life in the military, but he did put to good use his facility with the German language. He became America’s foremost translator and teacher of the giants of modern German social thought—Max Weber and Karl Mannheim. Shils helped make their work, as well as that of Emile Durkheim, accessible to the English-reading public.

In fact, Shils became a bridge between the academic worlds of the United States and Europe. Starting in 1946, he held joint appointments with the London School of Economics and, later, Peterhouse, Cambridge, for most of his scholarly career. As a member of an elite international club of academics, Shils became a guiding force behind the creation of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. As with many of his intellectual endeavors, Shils’s association with the scientists who had helped create the first atomic weapons was based on the belief that intellectuals must help the public understand issues that, however abstract and difficult, were significant to its welfare.

Shils was a public intellectual. He coauthored with the Harvard sociologist Talcott Parsons a major treatise on sociology entitled Toward a General Theory of Action (1951). Their study was an attempt to understand society as a network of interconnected individuals, groups, and interests. For much of his career, Shils worked to uncover and nourish those characteristics that would unite rather than divide societies and groups within societies. At the center of Shils’s theories about civil society was the idea of civility—regarded as the glue that holds myriad social elements together. Shils’s writing on that topic suggests that he was concerned as much with the people affected by such ideas as with the theories behind them.

Shils maintained that among the important uses of higher education was the ability to inculcate the virtues of civil society among the younger generation. To Shils, universities had a vital role to play in the ordering of societies as both an intellectual authority and a training ground for future leaders in public policy. To advance that notion, he founded the journal Minerva: A Review of Science, Learning and Policy in 1962. He edited the quarterly until his death in 1995, and it reflected his deep concern for the connection between the work done by scientists on university campuses and its implications for government policy. Not surprisingly, Shils was unsympathetic to the protests and violent outbursts by students on campuses across the United States and around the world in the late 1960s and early 1970s. He and Edward Levi, president of the University of Chicago, refused to decentralize the university or allow students to turn the campus into a battleground.

Shils died without completing a masterwork upon which to base his scholarly reputation. He did, however, leave behind a mountain of essays and articles that have been collected in four separate volumes, published in 1972, 1975, 1980, and 1997. He was a member of the editorial boards of a number of important journals, including Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Minerva, Encounter, Government and Opposition, and American Scholar. Shils also wrote an important book, The Torment of Secrecy (1956), in which he did a commendable job of dissecting the dubious nature of McCarthyism without soft-pedaling the dangers of communism. Shils was an intelligent and fervent anticommunist who was a member of the Congress of Cultural Freedom, an organization born of cold war tensions and devoted to the battle for the minds of Western intellectuals.

Beside his appointments at distinguished universities, Shils also delivered the Jefferson Lectures in 1979 at the request of the National Endowment for the Humanities. His topic, “Government and Universities in the United States,” emphasized a theme that ran through much of his career. He was also awarded the International Balzan Prize in 1983—an award that is the equivalent of the Nobel Prize for those fields not considered by the Nobel committee. As well as being friends with many of the most important intellectuals throughout Europe and India (a place Shils visited from 1955 through 1967), he also became close with Pope John Paul II during his participation in seminars at the papal retreat at Castel Gandolfo, Italy. Shils was a gourmet, a voracious reader of literature—his favorite authors included Charles Dickens, Honoré de Balzac, Willa Cather, and especially Joseph Conrad—and a dedicated mentor to students of all ages from all over the world.

To date there are no full-length biographies of Shils. One reason for this might be that researchers will not have access to Shils’s papers, housed in the Department of Special Collections at the University of Chicago, until 2020, and will not be allowed to see the entire collection until 2045. But since Shils was a prolific writer, he has a sizable collection of work in the public sphere, including: The Intellectuals Between Tradition and Modernity: The Indian Situation (1961); The Intellectuals and the Powers and Other Essays (1972); Center and Periphery: Essays in Macrosociology (1975); The Calling of Sociology and Other Essays on the Pursuit of Learning (1980); Tradition (1981); The Constitution of Society (1982); The Academic Ethic (1983); and three collections of essays that appeared in 1997: The Calling of Education: The Academic Ethic and Other Essays on Higher Education; The Order of Liberal Learning: Essays on the Contemporary University; and The Virtues of Civility: Selected Essays on Liberalism, Tradition, and Civil Society. See also Philip G. Altbach, “Edward Shils and the American University,” Society 36 (Mar./Apr. 1999): 68-73; Joseph Epstein, “My Friend Edward,” American Scholar 64 (summer 1995): 371–386; and Saul Bellow’s thinly veiled fictional portrait of Shils in his book about Allan Bloom entitled Ravelstein (2000). An obituary is in the New York Times (26 Jan. 1995).

Raymond J. Haberski, Jr.