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A Life's Journey
(2005, 110 min. Written and directed by Gale Largey)
This 110-minute film describes in detail the life and ideas of Lester F. Ward—the founder of American sociology and the first president of the American Sociological Society. The viewer is taken to Ward's birthplace in Joliet, Illinois, to creeks he walked as a young boy near Chicago, to the actual fields he plowed in Iowa, to Bradford County, Pennsylvania, where he taught in a country school, and to the battlefields at Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville, where he survived after being wounded three times. Through it all, one gains a sense of the impact of social settings in the ultimate formation of Ward's sociological thought.
After the Civil War, Ward became a noted botanist and served as the chief paleontologist of the U.S. Geological Survey before finally turning to the emerging discipline of sociology being fostered by philosophers Comte and Spencer. The film takes note of Ward's intense insistence about equal opportunity in education, his vigorous advocacy of the women's movement, his staunch opposition to the classism and racism inherent in the early eugenics movement, and his recognition of the need for applied sociology in the functioning of government. In fact, the highly respected historian Henry Steele Commanger later referred to Ward as “the architect of the modern welfare state.”
The film underscores that Ward was highly respected not only in the United States, but also in Europe. In 1900, he became the first American to be elected president of the Institut International de Sociologie, and five years later, he was elected the first president of the American Sociological Society.
In 1906, Ward was invited to become a professor at Brown University and he served in that capacity until his death in 1913. Living in the dorms, he was a beloved professor. In fact, in 1912 Brown students dedicated their yearbook to him.
The documentary is presented in the first person with Jack M. Wilcox speaking as a very believable “voice of Lester” reflecting on his life and ideas. In addition, throughout the documentary there are “voices of other notable figures” offering insights about Ward and his ideas. Those “voices” include John Wesley Powell, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Ludwig Gumplowicz, and Edward A. Ross—each of whom dedicated one of their books to Ward.
The documentary incorporates many excerpts from Ward's diaries; and perhaps its most notable strength is the extensive use of the actual words/quotes of Ward. Visually, one sees a range of images of Ward, from age 19 until shortly before his death. In addition, drawings by the artist Jon Laidacker provide a special touch of added understanding.