Robert K. Merton

Commentary by Dr. Gerhard Falk


Meyer R. Schkolnick (1910 - 1993)

Schkolnick was born in Philadelphia on July 4, 1910 to a Russian Jewish immigrant family. His father, a carpenter’s assistant, supported the family in the kind of immigrant slum that is the common heritage of almost all immigrant families of the early twentieth century.

Even before Meyer reached college age in 1928 he recognized that his name alone would keep him from gaining a higher education, as there were then very few opportunities for Jews to enter any American college or university. All colleges had “Jewish quotas” which prevented most Jews to enter. These quotas were normally 15% of the entire student body, so that the eastern colleges where most Jews lived were closed to them. Jews at that time were much too poor to apply to colleges outside of the east coast cities.

Therefore Meyer Schkolnick changed his name to Robert King Merton. Using that name led to his admission to Temple University in his hometown of Philadelphia and later permitted him to enter Harvard University, whose president, A. Lawrence Lowell, wanted no Jews at all at his Ivy League temple of Aryan purity.

Schkolnick became a graduate student at Harvard in time to study with the young Talcott Parsons and Pitirim Sorokin, the Russian intellectual who chaired the sociology department. Sorokin had been a member of the Kerensky government who overthrew the Czar in 1917, only to be overthrown the next year by the communist leader Valdimir Ulyanov, also known as Lenin. Sorokin was condemned to death by the communists but in 1920 he was expelled from the Soviet Union and fled to the United States, where he became professor of sociology at Minnesota and later at Harvard.

Since Schkolnick was of Russian parents himself, his affinity for Sorokin and vice versa is evident.

Schkolnick began his writing career as soon as he had become a graduate student at Harvard. He began with some articles in academic journals and in 1938 published his dissertation, entitled Science, Technology and Society in Seventeenth Century England. This book is credited with establishing the sociology of science.

In 1950 Schkolnick left Harvard and became professor of sociology at Columbia University, a school which only a few years earlier would not admit Jewish students at all. The change in that strategy came as a result of the Second World War and the entrance of a large number of veterans into the universities whose tuition was paid by the Veterans' Administration. Hurting for students, the bigots at the universities could no longer prevent the entrance of Jews who were veterans. In fact, the government would not let the universities ask the religion of students who were accepted under the Veteran’s Readjustment Act, or “G.I. Bill of Rights”.

When I came to Western Reserve University as a veteran I found that at that time that school had only one Jewish professor and hardly any Jewish students. Today that has changed totally.

Schkolnick was a major innovator in sociology and has sometimes been called “Mr. Sociology” because of his numerous important contributions. He revitalized Durkheim’s functional analysis and called it “structural-functionalism”. He coined the phrase “the self-fulfilling prophecy” and “role model” and, with Paul Lazarsfeld, a Jewish refugee from Austria, wrote Mass Persuasion in 1940. Together, Schkolnick and Lazarsfeld also wrote Continuities in Social Research.

In 1949 Schkolnick published Social Theory and Social Structure, which includes his famous article on “The Unintended Consequences of Purposive Social Action”.

Schkolnick was awarded the National Medal of Science and many other honors for his enormous contributions to social science research. Innumerable major sociologists had been his students when he died at age 92 in 2003.

Levi Eshkol, pirme minister of Israel from 1963-1969, was one of his relatives. Eshkol was born in Russia and his original name was also Schkolnick.

Schkonick’s son Robert C. Merton won the Nobel Prize in economics.

There is an entire literature by Schkolnick and about Schkolnick in the annals of academe. His good fortune was that he lived long enough to write the “festschrift” for many of his former students. His misfortune was that he denied his Jewish heritage all his life.

Shalom u’vracha.

Dr. Gerhard Falk is the author of numerous publications, including Man's Ascent to Reason (2003) & the forthcoming Football & American Identity.

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