B.A. with Honors ‘64
I saw my undergraduate years at Chapel Hill as the time to gain as wide but deep an education as possible. I came out of an educated family but childhood was spent in a then-very rural and backward area (Gaston County, now an adjunct of Charlotte but then very separate) with poor schools. I read avidly, mainly the great fictional works of the English language but also some history (I read War and Peace at the age of twelve and then everything I could get my hands on concerning Napoleon, for some reason) but spent most of my time in the forest. I had no aptitude or liking for math or science although I always insisted on good grades, even in math and science.
How I got a Morehead Scholarship remains a great mystery. I devoured the required courses that I had to take in my freshman year at Chapel Hill to make up for my enormous educational deficiencies, from English poetry to Modern Civilization to geology. I was not one to criticize having to take these amazing required courses, allowing me for the first time make some claim to having an education.
From this potpourri in my freshman year, I continued the trend of delving as diversely as I could. I did not want to have to find a major, which would mean specialization, but I chanced to take an introductory sociology course from Dr. Gerhard Lenski. Then I took his religion course. I decided here was a major that would not over-specialize me and was by definition a wide exploration of our world. Dr. Lenski asked the questions about human societies that totally captured my mind. I took his comparative-societies course, which was the best of all, my best course ever at Chapel Hill. I think I took every course that he offered undergraduates.
I was hardly an exemplary sociology major. I did not care for the statistical or scientific trend of sociology, which automatically disqualified me from further study in the field. But it was what I wanted as an undergraduate, and it set me up for the further life I sought. In those days — I do not know if it might still be true fifty years later — there was a place in sociology for a Renaissance thinker such as Dr. Lenski, a protean mind coursing wide across all layers of our society and across all societies on the planet, without having to be suffocated by statistics.
I suppose I did what I had to do, taking the required statistical courses in which I made the usual A but instantly forgot everything that I had been taught (just like calculus, alas). I remember very well the summer honors thesis, which did require statistical analysis but which, in my fashion, I made as broad as possible. It was a long rambling questionnaire with a vast number of questions about class, education, and attitudes. I perpetrated this monstrosity on the town of Graham, 45 minutes drive from Chapel Hill. It is extraordinary how many people allowed me into their living rooms (more women than men in those days, when women still kept house and kept to the house). The main lesson I took away was how plain and boring most people’s lives were, how narrow their understanding of the world despite television (usually on all day and never cut off when they were patiently answering my questions), and how much religion laced their language. It was not a thesis that made any great contribution to our understanding of American society — I concluded that income and education, especially education, are directly correlated to liberality writ large — but it forever disabused me of any romantic or sympathetic notion of our so-called working classes.
As for my life thereafter, I was one of the lucky ones, the really really lucky ones. What can anyone do with a sociology major or a classics major or, in general, simply being well educated? In my case, you become a diplomat. How I passed the Foreign Service exam, which is appallingly difficult, remains a great mystery. (I did not answer half the questions but had the good sense to read the directions, which said that wrong answers would count against as much as right answers for; it pays to read directions.) I have often been asked, what is the best training for diplomacy? My first answer is that it is not the study of law. I went down that route first (UNC Law School) and hated every minute of it, and then often observed that diplomats with law backgrounds were some of our worst diplomats: too much focus on law and too little focus on human whimsicality. The second answer is: find another Dr. Lenski! In fact, my whole diplomatic career, on and off for almost 40 years, was an effort to emulate Dr. Lenski’s approach to comparative sociology. Good diplomats must understand their own society (very weird, very hard in our own case) and must have a very fine sense of very different societies, a way of open thinking, an analytical framework, but also uncanny intuition. Anyway, by hook or by crook and by sheer luck, I had the best undergraduate education anyone could for the life I led abroad as an American diplomat in the Arab world and Africa.
I have retired to our family land in Gaston County, where I grew up. I spend my time working in the forest and reading journals such as the Economist.
Submitted February 2016