Remembering James Q. Wilson

The nation has suffered a great loss.

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When in college a professor encouraged me to go to graduate school. I applied, knowing nothing about graduate study or what I wanted to learn. In an application to one university I said I wanted to study Japanese—this from a person who has absolutely no gift for foreign languages.When in graduate school, a professor told me that if I ever learned to write clear English I might amount to something. "Stop writing what you think is social science," he said. He had been a journalist who wrote like an angel; he was now my thesis adviser. He was a great man and helped me as much as he could to write clearly.Three men over two decades changed my life. If they were still alive, this medal should go to them. The three men were these: Richard Crossan was my high school English teacher and debate coach who somehow saw potential in me. Robert Morlan taught me about politics at the University of Redlands. And Edward C. Banfield was my University of Chicago thesis supervisor and the best teacher I have ever known.When my thesis was published, I was hooked. I had to write more books. But on what? I was trained as a political scientist, so why do I write so little about politics? Because to me, political science is the study of the governed community in all of its aspects: how children grow up, what sustains intact families, the ways in which we manage disorder. And how we acquire our moral sense. In those days political science meant thinking seriously about important aspects of the human condition. That is what Aristotle did and that is what I wanted to do, not with Aristotle's wisdom (no one has that), but with his commitment to understanding the human social condition.And so I wrote about things that seemed important and about which no one had said much: blacks in city government, reformers in local politics, police officers in various cities, the causes of crime and new ways to deal with it, the differences between strong and weak families, and the origins of our moral sense.Today political science is more about regression equations than about describing things. The equations are sometimes useful, but had I been required to learn them, I would have gone back to my father's garage and resumed my struggle with carburetors. This would have been unfortunate since carburetors were soon replaced by fuel injection systems operated by computers. I would have wound up living on food stamps.[ Check out U.S. News Weekly: an insider's guide to politics and policy.]Jim was always modest and determined to share any praise with colleagues such as George Kelling and the late Richard Herrnstein. He didn't write books with preconceived ideas of where they would end up—he wrote them to answer great questions to which he wanted to find an answer. He didn't talk much about the numerous commissions and advisory boards on which he had served.Though so much smarter than the many who are sure of their predictions and eager to impose their policies, Jim, who referred to himself as grumpy but who in fact was eternally optimistic, rested his faith in the wisdom that those things of which we are most sure are often proven wrong, and that the American people, if given time and opportunity, will find their way to a better future.I have lost a beloved mentor and dear friend. Our country has lost a mind of insight, humility, and grace. But Heaven now hears the whoops of the wisest and fastest cowboy it's ever seen. Godspeed Jim.