The Demo Man

November 01, 1989 7 min read
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The slides he projects--charts, diagrams, lists, and pictures--evoke a range of reactions: He has the audience laughing one minute and squirming uncomfortably the next. More than anything, a Hodgkinson lecture forces people to think about some provocative, often unpleasant, demographic realities. He does this not simply by spewing important bits of data, but by drawing unexpected connections between often familiar facts.

The content of Hodgkinson’s lectures varies depending on the group, but each one touches on four general topics--social class, race, equity, and geography. He describes an increasingly complex and diverse America. “What is coming toward the educational system is a group of children who will be poorer, more ethnically and linguistically diverse, and who will have more handicaps that will affect their learning,’' Hodgkinson wrote in a report published several years ago. “More important, by the year 2000, America will be a nation in which one in every three of us will be nonwhite. And minorities will cover a broader socioeconomic range than ever before, making simplistic treatment of their needs even less useful.’'

Implicit in all of Hodgkinson’s facts and figures is a compelling message: If the nation’s schools are to be effective, educators must understand the changes ahead and prepare for them.

The 58-year-old Hodgkinson has been on the lecture circuit for six years and is generally regarded as the nation’s foremost education demographer. His center has prepared in-depth demographic studies for 16 states, and five others have commissioned reports that are now in the works. That educators and policymakers have become increasingly attentive to the changing nature of the nation’s student population is regarded by many as a testament to his tireless efforts.

“The long-term economic and social health of the nation is dependent on finding ways for disadvantaged youngsters to be much more successful academically,’' notes Arnold Shore, president of the Council for Aid to Education and former executive director of the Exxon Education Foundation. “The individual who has done the most to help educators and policymakers come to understand this basic fact is Harold Hodgkinson.’'

Says Gary Marx, associate executive director of the American Association of School Administrators: “Bud Hodgkinson is one of the most thoughtful and admired of today’s educational leaders. He is able to cut through a myriad of demographic data and help us very clearly see trends, directions, and bright spots, as well as rocks in the road.

“He has helped us see complex demographic information in context,’' Marx adds. “That’s especially helpful when you consider how very busy local school administrators are. To have a social interpreter, such as Bud Hodgkinson, is invaluable.’'

Administrators are not the only ones in school who can benefit from Hodgkinson’s wisdom. Teachers won’t hear much concrete advice for the classroom, but a greater familiarity with demographics offers them a broader outlook on education.

“I don’t try to say, ‘This is how you should teach algebra because now you understand demographics,’' says Hodgkinson. “I tell them, ‘These are the factors that are going to change your profession, and you’d better be in on the policy side or you’ll lose professional status.’.... I think their discipline and control will be a little better if they understand the backgrounds the kids come from, but the main thing is to get them to be policy analysts.

“I try to tell people that the more they know about their own unique environment, the more sophisticated their approach to the solution will be,’' he adds. “I try to give them tools, and when they’re through with me, they can use these tools on their own.’'

Someone once told Hodgkinson that demographers are people who like to work with numbers but don’t have enough personality to be accountants. In other words, a lecture by a demographer isn’t likely to generate much excitement. So why then does Hodgkinson, with a going rate of $1,500 per presentation, get more speaking requests than he can possibly fill? In part, it is because of the trends he talks about. But it is also the way he talks about them.

Laced with heavy doses of understatement and wit, Hodgkinson’s fastpaced lectures appear casual, almost unplanned. But that isn’t the case. He may spend up to six hours sifting through his vast collection of slides to prepare an appropriate program for the day’s group. His audiences are diverse--they might be high school principals on Monday, morticians on Tuesday, and state legislators on Wednesday. But regardless of who is sitting in the darkened room, one thing is assured: Hodgkinson will grab and hold their attention.

“People get so bored with numbers, and they get bored with ideas that are not presented in terms they can understand,’' he says. “What I try to do is present at least 60 ideas in 60 minutes. If you don’t like one idea, you’ve only got to wait 50 seconds before another one comes along.’'

Having presented hundreds of these lectures, Hodgkinson has become adept at reading his listeners. “What they laugh at is a very nice indication of how sophisticated they are, what they know,’' he says. “And if you learn to look at body movements carefully, you can tell when people are taken aback by something. When they’re interested but not threatened, they lean forward. But when they’re taken aback and something shocks them, it may only be a sixteenth of an inch, but you can see 500 people moving a sixteenth of an inch backward.’'

Before Hodgkinson can project a convincing picture of the future, he must track down the supporting data. His sources are as varied as the statistics he presents. They include books, reports, unpublished government studies passed on by friends, items from former students, and masses of information from the U.S. Census Bureau’s on-line computer program, which he can tap into with his home computer. “I haven’t been to a library in two years,’' he says.

Once he has the data, it’s a matter of analyzing all the numbers, spotting significant trends, and figuring out ways to present the information effectively on a screen. “I have a peculiar quality,’' Hodgkinson says. “I’m able to figure out what something would look like visually. A lot of my best visuals are ones that come out of a stream of numbers. I’m able to see a picture in my head. Then sometimes I see a picture and say, ‘Gee, that’s just the picture I want.’

The “certainty’’ of demography with its diagrams and numbers is what attracted Hodgkinson to the field. “My training is in sociology, which is a next-door neighbor,’' he says. “My father was a physicist, and he liked a kind of certainty. I went into the social sciences looking for the same thing. But sociology has very little certainty.’'

At the same time, demography’s certainty is frequently the focus of his low-key humor. During his presentations, for example, he often lists his five “rules of demography’': If you weren’t born, you don’t count; some people have more kids; some people live longer; some people move more often; and today’s kids become tomorrow’s adults. The rules are so obvious that they bring the intended chuckles from the audience. But Hodgkinson is dead serious when he points out that too few people have learned to apply these simple rules to schools. Instead of looking at the people who move through the educational system, the demographer says, policymakers almost always make the mistake of focusing on the system itself.

Given Hodgkinson’s current prominence and extensive background in education--he has been the dean of Bard College, dean of the school of education at Simmons College, director of the National Institute of Education, and a fellow at both the American Council on Education and the Institute for Educational Leadership-- he would seem ideally positioned to make policy recommendations. But he avoids that role, preferring instead to stay on the sidelines and dispense information that can help his audiences understand long-term trends.

There is, however, one noteworthy exception. Every time Hodgkinson talks about education, he includes a push for early childhood programs, particularly Head Start.

“It’s the ounce-of-prevention notion,’' he says. “If you get a kid in school at grade level in grade 1, you’re going to spend a lot less money and have a much more productive person than trying to undo all that miseducation in grade 10.’' He laments the fact that only one in every six eligible children is enrolled in Head Start and that significant increases in federal funding for the program are unlikely.

Although Hodgkinson is approaching the age at which many stop working, he isn’t ready to ease into retirement. The missionary drive remains too strong for him to turn off his overhead projector. So he will continue to travel from city to city to tell people about the demographic forces that are shaping their future.

“I’m really quite dedicated to doing this,’' he says. “I really believe people have got to understand these changes if we’re going to remain a pluralistic democracy.’'

A version of this article appeared in the November 01, 1989 edition of Teacher as The Demo Man


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