Jack Martin on Becker at SFU

By Daniel Liechty

Jack MartinOf Recent Interest… is the major article published this month in the Journal of Humanistic Psychology, written by Jack Martin, “Ernest Becker at Simon Fraser University (1969-1974),” (JHP 54(1), pp. 66-112). This will be viewed for many years to come as a very important contribution to Becker scholarship, and is thus far the definitive narrative for those final years of Becker’s life.

The opening pages of the article present the background for Becker’s intellectual development in the years prior to the invitation to join the faculty at Simon Fraser. Here Martin relies heavily on established sources, but adds to our understanding of these sources through personal interviews with people who knew Becker during those years, especially psychiatrist Ron Leifer, Becker’s wife Marie Becker-Pos, and also a small group of personal friends and acquaintances who socialized with the Beckers in a non-professional capacity. The basic facts of Becker’s life during those years have been covered before, by Ron Leifer in his entry on Becker in the Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences, and by me in the opening chapter of my book, Transference and Transcendence, which is also the basis for the summary that appears on the EBF website.  Martin enhances these basic facts with interview material such that we really start to get a “feel for the man” who was struggling through the issues of family background, creating his own way in the world, and the rocky issues Becker faced in trying to get his academic career off the ground.

Naturally, other readers would focus on elements different from myself, and maybe even I would be struck by something different if I read this again in a few years. But this initial time through Martin’s narrative, what I picked up on most strongly was Becker’s confusion, frustration, wounded pride and finally also a prominent streak of professional resentment at the fact that he was considered to be a “hot commodity” on the academic lecture circuit, invited for special lectures and presentation on a regular basis, but was then passed over repeatedly when it came time to fill solid, tenure-track positions in the respective faculties.  It is probably true that in many ways the very flair and edginess that made Becker such a sought-after figure on the lecture circuit also made him a risky element when selecting a day-to-day colleague who would fit in nicely with other faculty members and find satisfaction in committee work and grading endless piles of undergraduate papers. Even after Becker found his stable place in a faculty position at SFU, we see hints of this tension in some of the remarks Martin includes here from Becker’s fellow faculty.

Becker arrived in Vancouver in September of 1969. He had recently published one of his major works, The Structure of Evil, and two books of collected essays, Angels in Armor and The Lost Science of Man. Thus even before his final trilogy of books for which he is best known, Becker already was known among his colleagues as a clearly prolific writer and creative thinker. Martin is an especially good guide for this topic, because he knows the inner workings, the atmosphere and culture, of Simon Fraser University (he is on the psychology faculty there himself). He has relatively easy access to the departmental and university archives, and to those colleagues of Becker who still live in the area. He also has a strong and natural sense of the “place” of SFU in the wider Vancouver cultural scene that would be very difficult for a non-native to pick up on simply through written texts or even interviews – for example, the relationship between SFU and nearby University of British Columbia.

One thing that I was not aware of was that Becker made a significant move within the university after two years. He was hired in to be part of the Education faculty, and only later moved to the interdisciplinary Department of Political Science, Sociology and Anthropology (PSA). I found this very interesting because my sense has always been that it was Becker’s widely interdisciplinary perspective on sociology and anthropology that made him attractive to SFU in the first place. However, this may indicate that it was his work in educational philosophy (presented in a few articles and then summarily in his book, Beyond Alienation) that caused the stir of interest in his work that led to his invitation from SFU. Just as a personal aside, I also learned that a close colleague of Becker in the ed faculty, who also moved to the PSA along with Becker (Martin suggests this was at Becker’s insistence) was a fellow named Karl Peter, who later wrote some of the fundamental texts on the economy of Canadian Hutterite communes. I had met Peter at a conference I attended related to this topic back in the 1980s. I had no idea at that time there was any “Becker connection” at all and so I realized in reading Martin’s essay that I missed a grand opportunity to discuss Becker with someone who knew him well.

One of the most important relationships Becker had during this time was with a man named Sol Cort, who was a professor at UBC. In his capacity as the Director of Continuing Education there, Cort was able to bring in a wide array of scholars for lectures and presentations, and would often be in charge of entertaining these people during their stay in Vancouver. Thus the Beckers, who had both professional and social connections to the Corts, were frequent dinner guests in the Cort home along with these speakers (including, among others, Theodor Roszak, Alan Watts and Fritz and Laura Perls, who had moved to Vancouver a year earlier.) It is significant to recognize that these were people with whom Becker was conversing intimately during the formation of those ideas that would fill the pages of his final trilogy. Martin correlates some of these meetings with changes Becker made in his course syllabi, rightly noting that very often a new reading assignment could be traced back to discussion that took place around the Cort family table.

Martin does not paper over the conflicts Becker had at SFU. As noted above, not every one of his colleagues was so appreciative of his personal style and general aloofness toward others, and Martin presents a balanced “warts and all” perspective. I do think, however, it would be fair to say that some of the characteristics that alienated Becker from important colleagues at previous universities, such as his flamboyant lecturing style, were mostly very much appreciated at SFU, and that fellow faculty there understood well how devoted Becker was to the education of students. Much can be forgiven when that basic level of professional respect is present.

In another context, I made note of how sociologist Peter L. Berger ‘s reputation was affected by the fact that many of his students and readers understood his work as pointing in a politically radical direction, and they were shocked and disappointed to realize that Berger himself did not share the radicals’ views, and even abhorred their confrontational tactics. I mused that if Becker had lived to old age, it seems entirely possible that he may have suffered the same fate. Material Martin presents here confirms the fact that while Becker (like Berger) was a strong supporter of the civil rights movement and was against the Vietnam War, he had very little in common with the wider radical criticism of the American system of that time, and was a strong supporter of social institutions such as the family and schools/universities. Had Becker’s lectures been continuously interrupted (as were Berger’s) by anarchist-leaning radicals, it is not difficult to imagine that he would have reacted much as Berger did.

According to Martin, Becker arrived in the fall of 1969, and the last semester Becker  actively taught a full load was the fall of 1972 (at which time he took a sabbatical, which was extended into sick leave, from which he never recovered.) That is, if I figure correctly, seven semesters in total. It is interesting to note that by that time, Becker had already experienced a significant disappointment. His plan for organizing the faculty around a strong emphasis on teaching an integrated curriculum, with generalist research aimed mainly at support for the teaching, was more or less roundly rejected in favor of increasing disciplinary specialization in which teaching takes a back seat to research and specialists pay little attention to anything outside of their own little sphere (in other words, what is the more or less standard university program.) In reaction, Becker was already putting out feelers for moving elsewhere.

Download Jack Martin’s article here.