April 14, 2009

Sennett discusses third world

Richard Sennett (A.B. '64), a professor of urban sociology at the London School of Economics and NYU, led a wide-ranging student discussion Friday, touching on issues from the environmental impact of developing nations' rising middle class to his own undergraduate days at the U of C.

Gathered with students around a large conference table in Rosenwald Hall, Sennett opened the discussion by reflecting on his days as a student cellist at the Juilliard School and the hand injury which led him to pursue academic life, first at the U of C as an undergraduate studying music, then at Harvard as a graduate student.

"I was never an academic," Sennett said. "I became one by accident."

Sennett's work has largely focused on how people understand the material aspect of life in the city. He has also collaborated with UNESCO and the IMF to help develop infrastructure in Ghana and other West African countries. His work has been used in the Social Sciences Core.

He took questions—and asked some himself—on whether the U of C student body and curricula had changed since his own time here.

"When I came to UChicago in the sixties, this place was a monastery without the arts," he said, lamenting its absence of performing musicians. Noting the distinctive blend of students the school accepted during his college days, he asked the group, "Are you all still misfits?"

Sennett was also quick to point out the benefits of the U of C's distinctive character. "The upside [to the overbearing workload]," he said, "was that this was the only serious university of its kind in the United States."

The discussion, which moved to geopolitical issues near its conclusion, turned lively over whether developed countries should persuade developing ones to curb their industrial activity in order to limit carbon emissions.

Reconciling the two sides, he closed the discussion with a joke.

"I hate to bring it up at a school like this," he said, "but this all gets down to whether we can, like Plato argues, force people to behave virtuously."