George H. Mead. Biography


George Herbert Mead Was born at South Hadley, Massachusetts, on February 27, 1863. His father, Hiram Mead, Was a minister who descended from a long line of New England Puritan farmers and clergymen. His mother, Elizabeth Storrs Billings, like her husband, came from a family background in which intellectual achievement had been highly valued
When Mead was seven, his father was called to Oberlin College to take the chair of homiletics (the art of preaching) at the newly founded theological seminary. Mead grew up at Oberlin and went to college there. Although he was to revolt against its pious atmosphere, he was decisively influenced by the mixture of New England Puritan ethics and Midwestern progressive ideas that dominated the college.
Oberlin was founded in 1833 by a militant Congregationalist reformer, the Reverend John Jay Shipherd. Its first president, Asa Mahan, preached a some- what attenuated form of the perfectionist doctrine that later came to full flowering in the communal and sexual experiments of John Humphrey Noyes' Oneida utopian community. Oberlin was one of the first American colleges to admit Negroes and, in 1841, it became the first coeducational college to grant a bachelor's degree to women. In the years preceding the Civil War, Oberlin was one of the chief stations on the Underground Railroad that helped thou- sands of Southern Negro slaves escape to the North and to Canada. Another major social cause, that of temperance, also owes much to Oberlin. The Anti- Saloon League originated there.
While Oberlin displayed most prominently its Christian social conscience, in its curriculum it resembled the narrowness that characterized the New Eng- land sponsored Protestant colleges that had grown up in the Middle West throughout the nineteenth century. Mead's son recalls that his father's education at Oberlin consisted mainly of "the classics, rhetoric and literature, moral philosophy, mathematics, and a smattering of elementary science. . . . Questioning was discouraged, ultimate values being determined by men learned in the dogmas and passed on to the moral philosophers for dissemination." In this respect Oberlin was similar to Carleton College where, it will be recalled, Thorstein Veblen formed his abrasive personality by pitting himself against the narrow theological dogmatism of his teachers. Mead had a like reaction to Oberlin, his robust intellect revolting against the excessive theological fare. The son of many generations of Puritan theologians lost his faith in the dogmas of the church. Nevertheless, he continued to be marked throughout his life by the Christian ethics of brotherhood and the social conscience that he had absorbed at his father's house and at Oberlin.
In 1881 Mead's father died and the family, left with very little, sold their house and moved into rented rooms. The young Mead waited on college tables to earn his board, and his mother taught at the college to make ends meet. (She later became President of Mount Holyoke College.) In 1883 Mead graduated from Oberlin, and for the next half-year taught school amid circum- stances that have a curiously contemporary ring. Several teachers had re- signed from the school because they were unable to cope with a group of row- dies who terrorized teachers and classmates. Mead discharged the rowdies, but was fired by the board of trustees who believed that every child had a God- given right to be taught.
Having given up an earlier dream of starting a literary paper in New York, Mead lived for the next three years in the Northwest, alternating between tutoring and doing survey work for railroad construction. He was on the team that laid out the first line from Minneapolis to Moose-Jaw, there to connect with the Canadian Pacific. In the winter months, when surveying was impossible, Mead supported himself by tutoring and read omnivorously. During this period he seems to have been somewhat unsettled, not knowing where next to go or what career to take up. These doubts were resolved in the fall of 1887 when he decided to follow his close college friend Henry Castle to Harvard and to pursue further study in philosophy.
At Harvard, Mead worked mainly with Royce and James, and both these teachers left a permanent mark on his life and outlook. Having been liberated from his father's Puritanism and Oberlin's Christian pieties by reading Darwin and other "advanced thinkers," Mead was converted to pragmatic philosophy by James. His contact with James seems to have been fairly intimate since he not only did much of his work with James but also tutored his children.
After the year at Harvard, Mead decided, as was very common in his generation, to go to Germany for advanced studies in philosophy. He first went to Leipzig to study with Wilhelm Wundt, whose conception of the "gesture" profoundly influenced Mead's later work. It was also at Leipzig that he met G. Stanley Hall, the eminent American physiological psychologist, who seems to have stimulated Mead's interest in the subject. Later in 1889, Mead went to Berlin for further studies in both psychology and philosophy (I have been unable to find a record of whose classes Mead attended at Berlin, but it is possible he may have listened to an already famous lecturer, Georg Simmel, who had begun to teach there a few y ears earlier.)
On October 1, 1891, Mead married Helen Castle, the sister of his friend Henry Castle, and the young couple left for Ann Arbor where Mead had been appointed instructor in the University of Michigan Department of Philosophy and Psychology. Charles H Cooley, John Dewey, and James H. Tufts were all then teaching at the university and they all soon became intellectual companions. Mead pursued the investigations in physiological psychology first suggested by Stanley Hall and began to elaborate a physiological theory of emotions that paralleled the teleological theory John Dewey was working on at the time.
The Meads' only son, Henry, was born in Ann Arbor in 1892. A year later Mead accepted John Dewey's invitation to join him at the new University of Chicago where the latter had become head professor in the Department of Philosophy. Mead stayed at the university until his death on April 26, 1931.
Chicago, which had been only a small log fort in 1833, had become a major city only sixty years later. Crude, raw, full of vigor and energy, it boasted of spectacular advances in industry and commerce within one generation. It was a major meat-packing center, the "Hog Butcher for the World." South Chicago and neighboring Gary, Indiana, became important steel mill centers where the Lake Superior iron ore shipped down to Lake Michigan joined coal from Illinois fields brought in by rail. Among the major users of that steel was the Chicago-based Pullman Company, which built the sleeping cars for the American railroads and was the location of one of America's most famous labor battles.
Conscious of its phenomenal rise to eminence among American cities, Chicago boasted of its accomplishments. The first steel-framed skyscraper had been built there, the flow of the Chicago River had been reversed, land values had risen with fabulous rapidity, and even the crime rate, partly the result of rapid migration and the attendant disorganization of many slum districts, was spectacular. Soon the city would claim the world championship in organized crime.
The new university, endowed by John D. Rockefeller, opened its pseudo- Gothic doors in 1892 under the presidency of William Rainey Harper. From the beginning it was meant to be another Chicago spectacular. Rainey ruthlessly raided the campuses of Eastern universities and promised those he wanted to attract not only a salary roughly double what they had been earning, but also the prospect of working in a university that would soon be the greatest in the world. He was eminently successful. Within a very few years the University of Chicago ranked among the first in the country. The original faculty boasted no fewer than eight professors who had given up college presidencies to join its ranks. Although ten among the original thirty-one full professors taught theology, thus still continuing the traditional emphasis of American universities upon training men of the cloth, the university soon be- came a major center of secular learning.
One of President Harper's proudest coups was young John Dewey. Soon after Dewey assumed his duties as head professor, he enticed his friends Tufts and Mead to join him, thus creating a department in which the new pragmatic philosophy could flourish, unhampered by the resistance of traditional philosophers who impeded the growth of the discipline in older universities. "A real school, and real Thought, Important thought too"--this was the reaction of William James to the group of philosophers gathered around Dewey at Chicago in the early 1900'S.
In accord with the reforming activism of its founder, the Philosophy Department did not limit itself solely to academic work but wanted to have a part in solving the manifold social problems of the city. Educational experimentation, settlement houses, industrial education, and general social reform were all very much on the minds of Dewey and his associates. They wished to learn by doing good, and they took their pragmatic philosophy seriously.
Progressive education was Dewey's foremost preoccupation, and Mead, though himself not as active as his friend, joined him in many of his educational ventures. He was not much inclined toward writing, but nevertheless managed to write eight articles on educational matters between the time he joined the faculty and the First World War. He was active from its inception in the experimental school Dewey had founded. He was president of the School of Education's Parents' Association, and also for a time was an editor of one of the university's major educational journals, The Elementary School Teacher. He spoke out as an observer, critic, and advocate of new educational policies, and served as a member, and sometimes as chairman, of a variety of committees dealing with educational affairs.
Mead's concerns for reform were not limited to education. He was associated with Jane Addams' Hull House and its pioneering work in the settlement house movement, as well as being actively involved for many years in the City Club of Chicago, an association of reform-minded businessmen and professionals. For a while he served as president of this club.
All this outside activity did not distract Mead from his teaching duties. A man of exceptional strength, he conveyed, in Dewey's opinion, "a sense of energy, of vigor, of a vigor unified, outgoing and outgiving." And so he gave to his lecture audience the same energetic devotion he displayed in his reform activities. He prepared his lectures with care, and they were always well at- tended. His delivery was clear and orderly. Although he had great difficulty in writing down his thoughts, he had no similar impediments when it came to oral delivery.
In particular, Mead's course in social psychology attracted many students from other departments, especially from sociology and psychology. Herbert Blumer has said that he always considered it rather curious that the response to Mead's lectures was invariably bimodal. Some students, among them Blumer himself, were deeply impressed by Mead and felt that he changed their whole outlook. Others, by no means less intelligent than the first group, never under- stood what the course was all about. There were enough men in the first group to spread Mead's renown and to assure him a steady supply of major students, among them, T. V. Smith and Charles Morris in philosophy, and Ellsworth Faris and Herbert Blumer in sociology.
Something of a myth seems to have spread recently, namely, that the members of the Department of Sociology formed a unified Chicago school of social psychology around the person of Mead. This was not the case. For example, although both W. I. Thomas and Robert Park held Mead in high regard, the former pretended not to understand him and the latter claimed not to have read much of his work. While it is easy to conclude retrospectively that Mead should have had a special appeal for sociologists, in fact, the only major link between Mead and the Sociology Department was Ellsworth Faris, Mead's former student now teaching in that department. Mead's ideas, as well as Dewey's, were surely prevalent in sociology at Chicago, and it may even be true that W. I. Thomas gave up his earlier emphasis on instinct in favor of a more social-psychological orientation under the influence of the pragmatic philosophers. But this is a far cry from the myth of a unified Chicago school of social psychology created by Mead. Park and Burgess included none of Mead's writings in their famous textbook. Mead never saw himself as head of a "school." And it might be noted that the term "social interactionism" was never known at Chicago while Mead lived.
In his early period at Chicago, Mead was overshadowed by the more dynamic and outgoing Dewey. Even after Dewey had left for Columbia because he felt that his educational experiments were not given enough support at Chicago, Mead did not assume the eminent position his friend had occupied in university affairs. One reason for this was the sparsity of his publications.
Mead experienced great difficulty in putting his ideas down in writing. He would spend agonizing hours at his table, sometimes verging on tears when he despaired of giving adequate expression to the rapid flow of his thought. "In consequence," writes Dewey, "he was always dissatisfied with what he had done; always outgrowing his former expressions, and in consequence so reluctant to fix his ideas in the printed word that for many years it was [only] his students and his immediate colleagues who were aware of the tremendous reach and force of his philosophical mind.''
Mead's preferred medium was the spoken, not the written, word. He was clearly autobiographical when he wrote: "We do our thinking in the form of conversation, and depend upon the imagery of words for our meanings." "Conversation was his best medium," wrote his student T. V. Smith, "writing was a poor second best. When he wrote 'something'--as he says in one place of another matter--'something was going on--the rising anger of a titan or the adjustment of the earth's internal pressures.' But true of him as of his illustration, what the reader gets is certainly 'not the original experience." That experience he was able to convey and articulate only in the flow of verbal ex- changes and significant gestures.
Quite apart from the objective fact of his scanty record of publications, Mead himself did not subjectively feel any urge to reach for a public role similar to that of Dewey. A most modest, balanced, and harmonious man, he was not much attracted by the prospect of major recognition and always saw himself as only a relatively minor worker in the vineyard. Blumer remembers that in the twenties, when Bertrand Russell was to give a lecture at Chicago and Mead was to introduce him, Mead, then about sixty, was as nervous as a young instructor about to meet with one of the great minds of his discipline.
Mead's humility and diffidence should not be interpreted as a weakness of character. He was a man of principle and could act decisively when the occasion demanded it. When the then new president of the university, Robert Hutchins, attempted to force the Philosophy Department to add to its staff Hutchins' friend, the neoThomist philosopher Mortimer Adler, and Mead's protest seemed of no avail, he handed in his resignation and prepared to re- join John Dewey at Columbia. Only his untimely death cut short the preparations for this move.
Toward the end of his life Mead wrote the sentence that might characterize his own life: "The proudest assertion of independent selfhood is but the affirmation of a unique capacity to fill some social role." In his gentle and unassuming way, Mead had no desire to shine in the limelight. He saw him- self as an ordinary soldier in the battle for social and intellectual reform and did not aspire to lead the troops. His profound devotion to scientific inquiry was always controlled by his desire to contribute his share to the betterment of mankind. "We determine what the world has been," he wrote just before his death, "by the anxious search for the means of making it better." His son told Dewey that the phrase which he most associated with his father when any social problem was under discussion was: "It ought to be possible to do so and so."
Mead died in the belief that he would be known to posterity, if at all, only as the writer of a few technical articles. He seems to have had no inkling of the fact that the impact of his work would grow from decade to decade so that he may now well be reckoned as one among a handful of American thinkers who have helped to shape the character of modern social science.


February 27, 1863 George Herbert Mead born in South Hadley, Massachusetts to Hiram Mead and Elizabeth Storrs Mead.
1867 Family moves to a new parish in Nashua, New Hampshire
1869 Hiram Mead father appointed to the chair of Sacred Rhetoric and Pastoral Theology at Oberlin College, Oberlin, Ohio
1877 Mead meets Henry Castle in Oberlin's Preparatory Department
1879 Mead enters Oberlin College as freshman student.
1880 Henry Castle enters Oberlin College 1880
1881 Hiram Mead dies
1882 Mead and Castle become friends.
1882 Helen Castle, Henry's sister and later, Mrs. George Mead enrols at Oberlin.
1882 Mead and Henry Castle co-edit Oberlin Review.
1883 Mead completes studies at Oberlin.
1883 Mead takes teaching position in Berlin Heights, Ohio.
1884 February: Berlin Heights school closed, Mead "fired."
1884 April: Joins survey crew in northern Minnesota working for Wisconsin Central Railroad
1884 September: Joins survey team for Minneapolis and Pacific Railroad.
1885 January: Begins work as private tutor for boys preparing for college in Minneapolis
1885 Summer Henry Castle leaves for Berlin to study philosophy at University of Berlin.
1887 January Henry Castle enrols in Harvard Law School
1887 September Mead enrolls at Harvard
1887 October Henry and George share rooms at 11 Sumner Street in Cambridge, Massachusetts
1888 January In need of funds, Mead becomes private tutor, and moves out of Sumner.
1888 March Henry leaves Harvard to join his brother Will's law practice in Honolulu.
1888 Mead gets BA from Harvard
1888 Summer Mead hired as tutor for William James Household. Has unhappy affair with James' sister-in-law, Miss Gibbons.
1888 Mead leaves for Leipzig to study
1888 Fall Mead meets Stanley Hall at Leipzig
1888 Mead decides to specialize in physiological psychology
1888/89 Winter Semester Mead studies at University of Leipzig Course taken at Leipzig: Wundt "Fundamentals of Metaphysics' Heinze "History of More Recent Modern Philosophy" Seydel "The Relationship of German Philosophy to Christianity since Kant"
1889 Summer Semester Mead transfers to University of Berlin (April 2 1889)
Courses taken at Berlin Paulsen "History of More Recent Modern Philosophy with Consdierations of Modern development of culture in its entirety." "Psychology and Anthropology; Philosophical Exercises based on Schopenhauer's The world as will and idea' Waldeyer General Anatomy Ebbinghaus Experimental Psychology
1889 Fall Henry Castle Marries Frieda Stechner, returns to Hawaii, founds Honolulu Gazette Co.
1889 Jane Addams founds Hull-House in Chicago.
1890 Summer Helen Castle moves to Berlin
1890 Fall Frieda Stechner Castle killed in accident Winter Semester
1889/90 Ebbinghaus "Psychology with Consideration of Experimental and Physiological Psychology" Summer Semester 1990 Dilthey: Ethics, Presented in its Principles and Particular Explications; Pfleiderer: Philosophy of Religion. Winter 1890/1891 Munk; Physiology Paulsen, Pedagogics Summer 1991 Dilthey: History of Philosophy Paulsen: Philosophical Exercises based on Kant's Critique of Pure Reason : Anthropology and Psychology Schmoller: General or Theoretical Political Economy
1891 Mead meets James A. Tufts in Berlin through his fiancee, Helen Castle
1891 Mead marries Helen Castle October 1 1891 in Berlin
1891 Mead takes position at University of Michigan, Ann Arbor replacing Tufts. Teaches physiological psychology, History of Philosophy, Kant, evolution. Meets John Dewey (departmental chair) and Alfred Lloyd. Franklin & Coydon Ford,
1892 Paper on love from the Jamesian perspective (box X, folder 1) 1892 Tufts hired as into Philosophy Department at University of Chicago Albion Small joins Department of Sociology at Chicago
1893 Spring Mead promoted to assistant professor
1893 Tufts recommends Dewey as new Chair at Unversity of Chicago
1893 Fall Henry Castle moves to Ann Arbor, enrols in University
1893 W.I. Thomas enrols in Graduate Department of Sociology at Chicago
1894 (January) University of Chicago Settlement House founded.
1894 Dewey offered Chair of Department of Philosophy, Psychology and Education at University of Chicago, accepting on the condition that Mead be hired as an assistant professor. James Rowland Angell joins Philosophy Department 1984 Addison Webster Moore joins Department of Philosophy in 1894
1895 January Henry Castle and daughter Dorothy killed in boating accident crossing English Channel
1895 W.I. Thomas becomes lecturer, Department of Sociology, University of Chicago
1900 Edward Scribner Ames joins Department of Philosophy
1902 Mead promoted to associate professor (without PhD)
1903 City Club formed
1905 Dewey leaves Chicago for Columbia University, New York City
1906 Mead joins the City Club of Chicago.
1907 W.I. Thomas publishes Sex and Society: Studies in the Social Psychology of Sex
1908 Mead becomes Chairman of City Club's standing Committee on Public Education
1908 January Mead joins the Board of Directors of the University Settlement (serves on board to 1922)
1908 Immigrants' Protective League formed
1909 Mead serves as vice-president of the Immigrant's Protective League through 1919.
190? Charles Judd joins Psychology Department at Chicago
1910 Chicago Garment Workers' Strike
1910 W.I. Thomas becomes full professor, University of Chicago
1911 - Chairman of the University Settlement Committee on Studies and Publications
1912 Mead elected to the City Club Board of Directors. He remained on the Board in various roles through 1922.
1913 Park joins Sociology faculty as professorial lecturer
1916 Mead chairs City Club Public Affairs Committee through 1918
1917 Mead's mother, Elizabeth Storrs Mead, Past President of Mount Holyoke College, dies in Florida, at home of Alice Swing, Mead's sister
1918 W.I. Thomas leaves Chicago for Columbia
1919 Mead elected President of the City Club
1919-1922 Mead serves as president of the Board of Directors of the University Settlement
1919 Race riots shatter American Cities.