EDMUND W. GORDON
Edmund W. Gordon is a developmental psychologist with a distinguished record of publications and substantial experience in the academy and in the field. He was one of the founders and the first research director for Head Start. He designed the prototype of the National Educational Resources Information Centers (ERIC). He helped write the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, commonly known as Title I or Compensatory Education. He has designed and conducted education experiments in New York City and a half-dozen of the major cities of the U.S.A. His experience in the field has informed his scholarship in material ways. So it is for example that, in speaking of persons who are "at risk," he says that at risk status is a function of the inappropriateness of developmental environments to the needs of the person and that a focus on these deficient environments may be more productive than a focus on the characteristics of the persons.
Gordon's preparation for his profession began at Howard University, where he took a Bachelor of Science degree in 1942 and a Bachelor of Divinity degree in 1945. In 1950 he received an M.A. degree from American University. He began his career as a parish minister, then for five years was assistant dean of men at Howard University. He earned the Ed.D. degree at Teachers College Columbia University in 1957.
From 1960-68 Professor Gordon held appointment as professor of psychology and education at Yeshiva University in New York, where he was also professor of pediatric psychology in its Albert Einstein College of Medicine. In the late 1960s he moved to Teachers College Columbia University where he taught psychology and guidance and assumed several administrative responsibilities. While at Teachers College Dr. Gordon became editor of the Annual Review of Research in Education and editor of the American Journal of Orthopsychiatry. He was appointed to what was then the most prestigious endowed professorship in educational psychology - The Richard March Hoe Professor of Education and Psychology. It was also at Teachers College where he founded and directed the Institute for Urban and Minority Education.
Along the way he became active in national professional associations related to his discipline. As a result of his outstanding scholarship he was elected to membership in other organizations where membership is extended by invitation only based on demonstrated achievement. In 1978 Professor Gordon was elected to the National Academy of Education, in which membership is limited to the 100 most accomplished educational research scientists in the world. He is a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. He is a fellow of the American Psychological Association and fellow of the American Psychological Society. He is a life member of the Association of Black Psychologists. He was twice nominated as president of the American Educational Research Association and is a life member and fellow of the American Orthopsychiatric Association.
In 1979 Professor Gordon accepted appointment as professor of psychology at Yale University, where he taught in Yale College, the Graduate School and in the College of Medicine. At Yale Dr. Gordon also held appointments as professor of African American studies, professor of epidemiology and professor of pediatric psychology. Yale University honored him with his second appointment to an endowed professorship - The John M. Musser Professor of Psychology. With that appointment Professor Gordon became one of the very few people in the world to hold endowed professorships at two ivy-league universities. Retiring in 1991, he is the John M. Musser Professor of Psychology Emeritus and continues his work as an independent scholar.
His most recent book, (Education and Justice: A View From the Back of the Bus, Teachers College Press, ISBN 0-8077-3844-1) demonstrates his continuing interest in and contribution to pedagogical theory and the practice of education of the low status populations. It also provides insight into the empathy which Edmund W. Gordon has for the poor and the bypassed. This book demonstrates his commitment, not only to the conceptualization of strategies for improving the education that they receive, but for developing modalities for implementing effective educational programs for the purpose.
The book title and cover photo constitute a metaphor for the point which Professor Gordon makes in this book. The children, black and white go to school on the same bus, arriving there at the same time. But once the bus gets there the children often go to separate classes where the development of their teachers has not been given priority. As he says, "Teachers who, often within their first year of teaching, fall below a certain threshold of performance seldom reach a level of success in the classroom that would enable them to learn from interaction with their students." The students of these teachers end up at the symbolic back of the class, which is more lastingly hurtful than was their ride to school at the back of the bus. The book is replete with insightful metaphors and observations such as this.
The record shows that as far back as 1957 Professor Gordon published on the subject of equalizing educational opportunity for the disadvantaged. Certainly, he began his study of the problem long before that year. Indeed, the case could be made that Professor Gordon was one of the first, if not the first in mainstream academe to stake out a claim in the frontier land of the education of the disadvantaged. Moreover, it can be demonstrated that he did so from some of the most prestigious chairs in the academy at Teachers College, Columbia University, Harvard University and at Yale University.
Eight of his assistants worked with Professor Gordon in fleshing out several chapters of this book. It is his practice to give credit in his publications to the young people who work with him. In addition, he acknowledges the contributions of his pediatrician wife, Dr. Susan G. Gordon, as not only cogenitor of their four children, but of many of their ideas. Readers who know of her work as a member of the East Ramapo Board of Education, which is of the largest non-city school district in New York State, can appreciate the level of contribution by this partnership in Gordon and Gordon Associates.
Gordon's assessment of the failings of the 1989 study A Common Destiny is a tangible demonstration of his commitment to applying his knowledge of theoretical constructs to the reality of the world of the black community. His views regarding this Jaynes & Williams' study constitute a case in point. Without oversimplifying, Gordon has three criticisms of this study. First, he says, the dimensions of status and the conditions of black people are not adequately addressed. Second, and this is an important consideration, Gordon says that the information is reported in the "objective," almost sterile tradition of the "scientific" community, which leaves this treatment of one of the nation's most recalcitrant problems devoid of passion and any sense of urgency. Finally, he says, after more than two years of study, of reviewing and organizing information, this group of some of the nation's most talented scholars, did not also analyze the information critically and contemplate solutions.
The author of Education and Justice: A View from the Back of the Bus is no isolated ivory tower academic. His work for the Head Start Project and at the Institute for Urban and Minority Education, to mention but two, make this clear. Perhaps the greatest contribution that he made to black higher education was that which he made to the Black Studies department at the City College of New York.
In July 1992 the Black Studies Department at CCNY was in disarray. Dr. Leonard Jeffries, its chairman, was stepping down. Dr. Bernard Harleston, the black president of CCNY had "resigned" under conditions that many associated with differences that he had with Dr. Jeffries. Dr. Gordon, who had recently retired from Yale University, agreed to head the Black Studies department at CCNY on an interim basis . The sniping began immediately.
James Smalls, an associate of Dr. Jeffries, took to the air waves and launched a campaign to discredit, and perhaps even to frighten, Dr. Gordon. First, Smalls suggested that at his advanced age of 70 Dr. Gordon should not be taking this position at CCNY. Moreover, "being independently wealthy," Smalls argued, "Gordon didn't need a job." Further, Smalls said, Dr. Gordon "should be heading for the ancestral resting place." His taking the position here might anger the Gods, "and the ancestors might strike him down." Others spread a rumor that the Black Studies department at City College would soon be dismantled or merged with other departments.
Professor Gordon responded with clarity. He said that the department was not to be dismantled, but rather was to be expanded. He announced that he was seeking new faculty positions in African-American women's history, philosophy, ethnomusicology, sociology and literature. He delivered on his promise by appointing David Levering Lewis (Du Bois biographer) as Visiting Professor of History and Black Studies; Bell Hooks as Distinguished Professor of English and Black Studies; Colin Palmer as Distinguished Professor of History and Black Studies; Deborah L. Coates as Professor of Psychology and Black Studies; and Frederick Dunn as Assistant Professor of Education and Black Studies. Furthermore, he outlined his plans for a council of elders, fellows, and visiting scholars and said that he was awaiting word from the Ford Foundation on a research institute he had proposed. The following year he founded the Institute for Research on the African Diaspora in the Americas and the Caribbean. To his critics who said he was too old, he replied that he was old, but that his mind was still sharp. To those who said that coming from the ivy league he would not fit in, he replied that this was just what was needed around CCNY. To those who said that he had no background in Afrocentric thought or black studies Edmund W. Gordon replied that his bibliography was stocked with pertinent books and articles. He cited his critique of A Common Destiny which had just been published in Psychological Science and his book Compensatory Education.
Three years later, in July of 1995, Dr. Myoibi J. Amoda was selected as the chairperson of the Black Studies department at CCNY. During the period that Dr. Gordon administered it, no race-charged rhetoric emanated from it. It was strengthened and set on a scholarly course. The Gods were not angered. The ancestors did not strike down Edmund W. Gordon. In June 1999, Professor Gordon celebrated his 78th birthday. He continues to study the problem of educating the poor. Currently he is working on three books to be entitled Defiers of Negative Prediction: Success Against the Odds; Teaching and Learning in Urban Societies; and Supplementary Education: Learning beyond the School House. On Sunday, July 4, 1999, Professor Gordon's current research was the subject of the lead article on the front page of The New York Times. It involves a study which he is chairing which seeks to find an explanation for the gap in the academic achievement of black middle-class and upper-income students and that of whites of comparable socioeconomic status. "Dunbar on Black Books" will revisit Dr. Gordon and this subject in a subsequent issue.
Note: This review is adapted from that which this reviewer published in African American & Caribbean Voices, Pomona, N.Y.
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Copyright © 1999 by Harry B. Dunbar. All rights reserved.
Dunbar on Black Books