The roots of my pluralism

With his appreciation of the many good things in life and the conflicting views among people about the best principles for living a good life, and with his advocacy of moderation in the pursuit of various conflicting ideals, Aristotle was perhaps the leading ancient inspiration for pluralism. But prior to understanding Aristotle, pluralist sensibilities were instilled in me.

During the basketball season, the local newspaper ran stories about the upcoming games of the Appleton High School Terrors, and these stories usually focused on a particular member of the team, with his photo accompanying the story. When I was featured, the caption read, “Paul Schumaker, the most versatile Terror.” That seemed accurate, if a bit generous. I certainly was not a great shooter, rebounder, defender, penetrator, or passer, but I could do each of things reasonably well. I grasped “versatile” as a reasonable characterization of my identity. While in college, I encountered the theory that some early success plays a huge role in people’s development, and I realized that being recognized as versatile back in high school had prompted me to want to become more versatile in all things.

In college, I double majored. I was initially an economics major, as I wanted to ensure that I had sufficient marketable skills to live a comfortable life. But then I also became a philosophy major, as Professor Burrell mentored me and stressed the importance of being “a Renaissance man.” He taught the limits of being an “economic man” and having material comforts, and so prompted me to explore various conceptions of the good society and the good life. Just before graduating from Beloit College, I was dumbfounded when a group of faculty congratulated me on being elected to Phi Beta Kappa. How was that possible? I was a good but not a great student, and my GPA was just above the cutoff line for admission to this honorary society. “Well, yes,” I was told, “but you had a very well-rounded set of experiences and interests here at Beloit that we thought merited this recognition.” Sweet, but again, generous.

I had been accepted to pursue graduate work in economics at the University of Wisconsin, but I wasn’t all that eager to focus on economics. Then I learned that it was possible for me to enter other graduate programs at UW, as long as such departments would have me. I spent a couple of days in Madison, visiting with chairs and directors of graduate studies in the departments of economics, philosophy, history, sociology, and (finally) political science. None seemed too eager to have me, until the chair of political science said, “Well, you have almost no background in poli sci, but I like your economics and philosophy. You’d be a good experiment. Why don’t we give it a shot for a semester or two and see how you do?” I did well enough that they offered me full funding as a trainee in methodology beginning the next year. So I became very busy trying to catch up on the basics of American and international politics, as well as trying to master quantitative analysis and econometrics. But I missed philosophy, and thus decided to treat myself by taking one course in political theory every semester, even though I had been led to believe that jobs in theory were scarce and, perhaps, non-existent.

While at UW, I had married and, imbued with some feminist sensibilities, I had promised my wife that I would pump gas if necessary in Lawrence, while she finished her graduate studies at the University of Kansas. But hoping for some sort of academic position, I sent out applications to various universities and colleges throughout Kansas and Missouri, packaging myself as an Americanist and methodologist.  I was invited to interview at KU for, of all things, a job in (empirical) political theory. This was beyond my wildest dreams. Despite believing that no such job was available anywhere, I was being offered a job focusing on my primary interest in my ideal location. During the interview, I asked how they had picked me out given how I advertised myself. The chair said, “Your transcript revealed that you were duplicitous, that your true love was political theory.” Sweet!  My diverse interests again paid off.

Not that the Political Science Department at KU provided an ideal job. The Department was not highly regarded in the national political science ratings. Its faculty was comprised of some very nice folks, but they tended to be pretty focused on their teaching responsibilities and seemed rather parochial. As I was receiving tenure, my wife was completing her Ph.D. and getting a job at KU. In those days, it was unusual for an academic couple to get employment at the same institution, so I realized that it would be better for me to try to improve the department I was in, rather than seek a better job elsewhere. I was asked to be Associate Chair of the Department with most of my responsibilities in the area of faculty recruitment. Within a few years, we managed to improve our faculty significantly, and I was widely viewed as the heir apparent to chair the Department. But after four years of administrative service, I realized I wanted to disperse my energies, devote much more time to teaching, research, and fathering my young sons. I realized that advancing to the higher realms of my profession required specialization and focus, but I saw myself as a generalist who wanted to understand and experience life broadly.

Before turning 40, I knew I was some sort of pluralist, and that this orientation would mark my professional career in teaching, research, and administrative service, and that it would also mark my life beyond academia. It remained to work out more clearly what it meant to be a pluralist. As I began my career, the profession was searching for a comprehensive approach for understanding politics; to be a true scientific discipline it was thought by many scholars in the field that a paradigm was needed, and pluralism enjoyed the status as a leading contender to be the empirical theory of politics. But criticisms of the leading formulations of pluralism were plentiful, and many, if not most, political scientists abandoned pluralism. Given my predispositions and investments in pluralist perspectives, I thought it should be saved, even if that required its undergoing significant revisions.