Education Opinion

Celebrating Seymour Sarason

By Michael Fullan, Andy Hargreaves & Ann Lieberman — February 16, 2010 6 min read
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The beginning of the second decade of the 21st century sadly marks the passing of a visionary giant of psychology and education in the 20th. Seymour Sarason died on Jan. 28, 2010, at the age of 91.

Seymour wrote more than 45 books, in areas as diverse as community psychology, mental disability, educational change, teacher education, teaching as a performance art, the theory of relativity, and (now in press) life in nursing homes. He helped shape the field of community psychology; championed a new role for academics that valued working with and learning from real problems in the community; and was one of the earliest, most original, and most outspoken writers and thinkers in the field of educational change.

The three of us are among the many who have been influenced, inspired, and emboldened by his remarkable contributions to understanding educational change and advocating for positive visions of it that address and include the cultures of the students and teachers whom reform is meant to serve.

Ann first met Seymour when she was a new professor at Teachers College and invited him to speak at a conference she was organizing. He rocked the place with his insights about schools as cultures and impressed everyone with his deep humanity, understanding of the lives of teachers, and caring for the betterment of the human condition. This was the start of a long friendship with a man who possessed and also gave us the courage to forge a path that was as much about teaching, organizing, advocating, and working with people as it was about doing research.

Andy met Seymour just once, as part of a hugely attended tribute to his work, but he enjoyed corresponding with this great thinker and human being after being asked to write a biography of him for a book on great living educators, and then a preface for the second edition of Sarason’s 1993 book Letters to a Serious Education President.

Seymour’s work had always been among the first Andy turned to when writing his own books on cultures of teaching and educational change. Reading practically everything Seymour had written, Andy learned much about the man himself: He was someone who had used his own suffering and marginalization to lift up others around him and give them a chance; an academic who endured the scorn of colleagues for working across the academic/practitioner divide; a public intellectual with an incisive mind and compassionate heart who was never co-opted by governments or bureaucracies and who could never be bought; a man who saw the inanities of imposed reform that tried to change schools through regimes of force and fear rather than cultures of hope; and an advocate for students, for the nobility of the teaching profession, and for those who struggle all their lives with mental and physical disabilities.

Seymour became Michael’s mentor even before he met him. Starting in 1968, as a rookie assistant professor at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto, Michael had a general degree in sociology with no grounded focus. Reading Sarason’s The Culture of the School and the Problem of Change (1971) was a profound, career-converting experience that literally defined the next 40 years, a whole lifetime of work for Michael. Sarason was the first to uncover the neglect of school culture. He did it in such a provocative and deeply insightful way that linked the big picture of massive curriculum projects to day-to-day realities. Michael’s book The Meaning of Educational Change is a direct descendant of Seymour’s work.

Sarason’s Jewish-immigrant roots, the fact that he was on the leading edge of the first Jewish cohort to be appointed to the faculties of major American universities, and his experiences of physical handicap as a result of contracting polio as an adolescent all influenced his sense of what it meant to be culturally different, shaped his preoccupation with American identity, and turned him into an advocate for excluded underdogs and outsiders.

Unusually, Seymour Sarason worked in just one university for his entire life—moving in 1945 to Yale’s department of psychology, where he worked for over 45 years.

Two extended episodes during Sarason’s long career at Yale are especially significant. One was a long-term relationship initiated by Burton Blatt, the incoming chair of special education at nearby New Haven State College in the mid-1950s. Through this relationship, Sarason was able to solidify his emerging interest in education in the real worlds of activism and teacher education that Blatt valued. Together, they wrote The Preparation of Teachers: An Unstudied Problem in Education, published in 1962.

The second such episode was the decade that Sarason called his “Camelot years,” when he founded and ran the Yale Psycho-Educational Clinic, a new setting of action, intervention, observation, and reflection that he wanted to abate his sense of restlessness and put an end to “running a research factory.” The clinic was distinctive in the way it took staff members out to create or alter real community settings such as schools, to understand them and assist those within them, and to do so with sensitivity to their unique cultural and historical characteristics. Sarason’s experience of creating and running the clinic formed much of the experiential basis for his groundbreaking book The Creation of Settings and the Future Societies (1972).

In his 50s, Seymour Sarason began to produce a stream of impressively controversial analyses of educational change that have left a profound intellectual legacy. The Culture of the School and the Problem of Change presented a powerful critique of large-scale innovations such as new math in the 1960s and their failure to address the deep-seated and historically arbitrary “regularities” of schooling. Ignore the culture of the school, he showed, and efforts at change would never meet with lasting success. This book became a bible to a whole generation of educators working to understand how to improve and transform schools.

In 2006, he wrote a cogent and caustic critique of President George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act, which, he said, would “ultimately disappoint him and everyone.” This and many other pieces of federal legislation, he argued, represent just one more case of “Papa knows best,” wherein “reform is the prerogative of those at the apex of authority” who “do not want to hear criticisms about their cherished ideas,” and in which “people in the trenches have nothing to contribute.” His 1998 book Charter Schools: Another Flawed Educational Reform? is a further example of Sarason’s bold determination to challenge the powerful and go against the grain of policy fashion.

The style through which Sarason raised issues was consistently critical, courageously provocative, and even iconoclastic. He challenged endless conventional wisdoms by reflecting on a wealth of practical experience and on the world around him. In his own words: “I was far more interested in ideas than I was in research. I was more a critic than I was an investigator. I was more a philosopher than I was a psychologist.”

When we look at what Seymour Sarason had to say in his autobiography about his own intellectual mentors—John Dewey, William James, and Sigmund Freud—we gain a clue as to what he aspired to, and in our view achieved for himself. What the three had in common, he wrote, were “a restless cast of mind, a generalizing cast of mind, and a kind of courage that enabled each to undergo dramatic changes in thinking and outlook.”

“The extent of their knowledge of human history was awesome,” he continued, “to someone like me utterly humbling and a source of envy. They could see a past and envision a very different future. And they wrote—did they ever write—in the endeavor to make their ideas public and influential. In the case of each, the world had difficulty pigeonholing him.”

So, too, was Seymour Sarason: public intellectual, committed man of action, and immensely gifted writer. He opened our minds, emboldened our actions, and challenged our souls. He will be sorely missed.

A version of this article appeared in the February 24, 2010 edition of Education Week as Celebrating Seymour Sarason


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