The Call of the Social Field, June 12, 1911

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By Miss Jane Addams.

A lady in Boston this morning read my title, "The Call of the Social Wild." She explained her mistake by saying that she knew I lived in Chicago and she supposed we were all wild there, so far as social arrangements went. Be that as it may, in the great social wilderness of every city a certain social order and decorum is beginning to assert itself. Perhaps it has always been there and the situation simply lacked people who could discover it; or perhaps the people who are now discovering the beginnings of social organization are exaggerating their importance. At any rate, the city wilderness does not appear nearly so wild and woolly as it used to appear.

What is the lure of this field? What is it that we would put before eager young people to make them feel the stir, and the pull and the stress of this life in the city wilderness as something worthy of their steel, of their very finest endeavor. I think we can now put it before educated young people on various bases; at least three occur to me. If a young man or woman is interested in the sterner side of life, the side which has to do with industrial arrangements, with the economic basis, we have only to point to the Committee on the Standards of Life and Labor, newly established by this Conference, to show him that he does not need to join the Socialist Party, although he may if he likes; he does not need to become a single-taxer, although nothing is better for the problems of congestion; but can throw all of his enthusiasm for a better social order into the sort of things which this staid Conference of ours is trying to bring about. An American can discuss minimum wage boards and still be a member of the Republican Party; or an Englishman can discuss better methods of taxation and still be a member of the House of Commons.

A young person possessed with a fine enthusiasm for a new social [page 2] program may work side by side with the most careful social workers, who are also pushing it forward. But he must do it all with his feet on the ground. He must not do it from an a priori conception of what society might and ought to be. He must know his congested neighborhood and give reasons for the faith which is in him. He need not mount a box on the street corner and preach a new social order, but he must be able to say to the people about him, in regard to the tenement house which needs to be reconstructed and in regard to the street which needs to be cleaned, that he knows the best method of procedure in order to bring about these reforms. And with that backing of careful neighborhood understanding and with definite relations to the city or state or Federal Government he may be as radical as he likes on the economic side. In those Reports from States given this morning, the speaker from Wisconsin and the ones from Virginia and from Washington mentioned distinctive industrial legislation which they felt to be germane to the purposes of this Conference. For the members of this Conference all know that if a woman is underpaid, if her work is sometimes in her hands and sometimes taken out by the fluctuations of trade, she goes in and out of the pauper class. It is, therefore, a matter of big concern to the charitable people whether or not a minimum wage board shall be established.

Then if an educated young person cares more for the other side of life, for that human history which has to do with its gentler aspects, for that [poetry] which has been embodied in literature, for those softer human qualities which have grown when cherished by similarity of belief or social solidarity, he too can be made most useful in this social field.

Much as we need stern economic study and forceful as is the student of sociology in the problems pressing for solution in the depressed quarters of the city, personally I have discovered that some of the best things are found and put forward by the man or woman who looks at life from this humanistic point of view. Such a young person sees the newly arrived immigrant, for instance, in relation to his past and to the things which his nationality and his race have brought into life; he tries to restore the immigrant to the framework from which he was torn when he came to America. The mind of such a young person nurtures and brings to fruit a certain beauty and culture and human development which would otherwise go to waste. But no one can undertake this humanistic task unless he is willing to bring the fruits of his own culture to bear upon the situation. So to any young person who wishes to go into the social wild and enter it as a field of labor, I would say bring with you all that you can that softens life, all the [poetry], all the sympathetic interpretation. You will need it all; and every scrap of history and language that you know, all of that which has made your own life rich, will be fairly torn off your back as you pass through those crowded city quarters. [page 3] 

Then there is the scientific mind which would apply to the old social problems of the household, to the care and nurture of children to the prolongation of human life and the alleviation of old age, the scientific knowledge of our time. Thus far most of this valuable data has been lavished upon our industries. Our factories estimate to a fraction the amount of power which a certain machine requires; they use every scrap of material, because waste is not only bad business but disgraceful; and when one goes into a tenement house quarter, one longs for a sign that such care is about to be bestowed upon the culture of human beings. When she was the factory inspector of Illinois, I once went with Mrs. Kelley into the Chicago Stockyards; that was years before The Jungle was written. We saw some indescribable things which I have never forgotten. There was a room full of girls handling hot animal material, with the fumes of blood all about them, breathing an atmosphere which was simply unendurable. We went from this room into another which was carefully refrigerated, where the atmosphere was cool and clean, in fact, perfectly delightful. But in this room miles and miles of carcasses were being preserved, for they would go to pieces in stifling hot air. The refrigeration was inevitable. Why all this care for the product and so little concern for the producers?

The business man everywhere is using the best appliances that he may preserve his product and make it valuable. On the other side, what have we, the social workers, done for the producers? If we had the business man's enthusiasm and his ability, if we had adequately asserted the claims of the producers, the community would have been obliged at length to recognize them. Let us not blame the business man for his success, but see to it that he shall act as a spur to the rest of us. Will we belittle human fellowship by having it appear that business enterprise is more powerful? Our deepest morality says we must stand by the weak and the wretched and bring them into some sort of decency of life and of social order. Let us collect our data with care, and not rush into foolish legislation which has to be undone. Let us see to it, on the other hand, that we know our people as we go along, this great immigrant population which is so full of romance and charm and of the lure of human beauty and power, if we only have the ability to understand and to uncover it. Let us not permit America to be behind in the science and art of human fellowship, not a whit behind the remarkable material progress which has been made by our business men. Then the call of the social field will perhaps bring into it the best people which America has, by the hundreds of thousands, not always to be called "social workers," but as men and women who are committed to a mighty task.

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