Academic journal article Public Administration Review

Music of the Squares: A Lifetime of Study of Public Administration

Academic journal article Public Administration Review

Music of the Squares: A Lifetime of Study of Public Administration

Article excerpt

Author's Note: In 1989, Nelson W. Polsby and Martin Landau, of the Institute of Governmental Studies at the University of California, Berkeley, contemplated an experiment to preserve the intellectual heritage of public administration by having people in the field "write autobiographically about their intellectual lives" and collecting their compositions. As part of the experiment, they invited me, among others, to submit an essay.

Recently, Larry Terry, now the book review editor of PAR, called the essay to the attention of Melvin Dubnick, the managing editor, who suggested that I submit it for publication in the journal. This article, slightly altered to bring it up to date, is that essay.

The title is meant to indicate that while some fortunate people hear the music of the spheres, I seem to have hearkened to less celestial strains.

If my father had not been a lawyer, I probably would not have become a political scientist. As far back as grade school, I wanted to be a lawyer like him, and I cleaved to that intention all the way through my junior year at CCNY, the City College of New York. Majoring in political science seemed to me the natural way to prepare for law school; indeed, I dare say most of us who majored in political science at that time planned to enter law school. The discipline to us was not an end in itself but an avenue to something else.

To tell the truth, I was not enthralled by the discipline when I was first exposed to it. My recollection is that formal structure and procedure made up most of what we were required to learn in our freshman and sophomore courses. The rest was a free-wheeling discussion of abstract ideology, with which I did not feel comfortable. It was as though government and politics were nothing more than a mass of detail and ill-formed opinion, an aggregation of mechanics and generalities with little relationship to life. I found the subject tedious. But, in my innocence, I stuck grimly to it because I thought that was the way one got ready for law school. Nobody said it was supposed to be fun.

I was in my junior year when Walter R. Sharp was lured from the University of Wisconsin to head up and modernize and revitalize the Department of Government at CCNY. He brought in a group of inspiring young instructors, including Samuel Hendel and Maure L. Goldschmidt, whom I found inspiring and who opened intellectual vistas for me that I had not till then imagined. Maure Goldschmidt, I remember, used to have a small group of us out to his apartment to discuss some of the classics. I had never been in a professor's house before, nor had I ever before had such eye-opening and exciting academic conversations. Those sessions were for me an introduction to the pleasures of learning and exploring as contrasted with proving I had done my homework or practicing the arts of caviling and quibbling. They gave me a new outlook on the purposes and rewards of education. I began to take a genuine interest in what I was doing.

In addition to his administrative duties, Walter Sharp also taught the first course in public administration ever to be offered by the department. I found myself intrigued by the process of transforming pronouncements of policy intentions - the wishes of elected officials and the language of legislation - into tangible governmental actions. Indeed, something of a crusading aura surrounded the field in those days; the New Deal and my political hero, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, were under constant attack for alleged administrative shortcomings and abuses, so that learning how to improve administration and entering the public service were ways of defending the faith. The bureaucracy was in the forefront of social and political change; a bit of glamour attached to public administration. Admittedly, Leonard D. White's textbook, which had only recently been revised for the first time, and which was the core of the course, did not capture much of this drama. …

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