The Importance of Being Ernest

By Ann Bradley — May 24, 1995 23 min read
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Two grade school girls recently paid Ernest L. Boyer, the president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, a visit in his impressive office on the campus of Princeton University. It was “Take Our Daughters to Work Day,” and the children--the daughter of a foundation staff member and her friend--were investigating just what adults in the elegant French-style stucco building did all day.

Boyer showed the girls proudly around his quarters, with its thick carpeting, polished wood furniture, drapes in hues of mint and terra cotta, and two-story desk nook. On one wall, they saw the colorful quilt fashioned by Boyer’s mother-in-law from the academic hoods he received along with his dozens of honorary degrees. Nearby, they scrutinized framed photographs of Boyer with a parade of U.S. Presidents, including one with Bill Clinton and his wife, Hillary. They noticed stacks of reports issued by the Carnegie Foundation, a force in American education for nearly a century. Crystal awards honoring Boyer’s contributions to the field glittered on bookshelves and table tops.

In response to their questions, Boyer explained that he was indeed the boss of the place, that he wrote weighty reports, and that he had worked with Presidents. But the girls’ last queries were the toughest: Had he met George Washington? And could he fix things, like computers, when they broke? And in answering no to both, Boyer chuckles, he clearly fell short in their eyes.

“That really tests your talent at a fundamental level,” he says. “In the end, that is probably the most important question: Can you fix things when they’re broken?”

The girls, who were about 8 or 9, were thinking in concrete terms, but during his 16 years at the Carnegie Foundation, Boyer has been very much in the business of trying to fix things. With the release in April of “The Basic School: A Community of Learning,” a blueprint for successful elementary education, Boyer has now put his distinctive imprint on every level of schooling, from children’s earliest years through college. In the process, the former chancellor of the State University of New York and former U.S. Commissioner of Education has become a bridge between the vast, often confusing educational enterprise and the outside world.

Boyer’s work, distinguished by his lucid prose, returns time and again to his favorite themes: the need to clarify the mission and goals of education; the importance of forging connections between levels of schooling; the centrality of language; and the need for a coherent curriculum. He was an early proponent of community service and strongly believes schools should pay attention to developing children’s characters. In higher education, he has tried to redirect the tug-of-war between scholarship and teaching. Boyer’s common-sense recommendations are rooted in his conviction that public education is the glue that holds our diverse nation together.

“If there weren’t an Ernest Boyer, one would have had to be invented,” says Arthur Levine, the president of Teachers College, Columbia University, who worked with Boyer in his first years at the foundation. “We live in a time in which education is being questioned by policymakers, by the public, by the press, by foundations, by government. Ernie Boyer has had the unique role of making education comprehensible to America. He has been to education what Carl Sagan has been to science.”

Boyer has achieved such status, in part, by the shrewd use of a formidable platform. The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching was established in 1905 by the industrialist Andrew Carnegie to develop a common faculty-pension system for higher education and to set standards for participation in the free system. To help colleges raise admission standards, the foundation established “Carnegie units” to standardize the number of hours high school students spend studying a subject. In 1910, the foundation issued the Flexner Report, which moved medical education from barber shops into universities. Later, the foundation had a hand in establishing the powerful Educational Testing Service. Starting in the late 1960’s, under the leadership of Clark Kerr, the foundation generated some of the first scholarship on higher education itself.

When Boyer took the Carnegie Foundation’s helm in 1979, after serving as the last U.S. Commissioner of Education under President Jimmy Carter, he set out to do two things: broaden the scope of the foundation’s work to include K-12 schooling and disseminate its message to a wide audience. After a brief time in Washington, he chose as his permanent headquarters a defunct student eating club that Princeton administrators offered the foundation. Today, the foundation, with an endowment of some $75 million, is Ernest Boyer’s bully pulpit.

“To help shape the debate is at least half the battle,” explains Boyer. “Defining the right issues to discuss is the first step to achieving responsible change.”

While he has devoted his career to education, Boyer, 66, is at his core a rhetorician. His love of language--with its power to inform, persuade, motivate, inspire, and uplift--is just as strong as his devotion to the subject about which he writes and talks.

“The only thing that matters, in the end, is language, which is really the way we empower a profession in terms of ideas,” he says. “That’s why if I have any compulsion about my work, it’s the fact that we have to choose the right issues, the right ideas, and then, above all, the right language. I say repeatedly, ‘We’re in only one business around here, and that’s words.’”

In addition to standing out as an unusually clear writer in a profession plagued with jargon, Boyer is a rousing speaker who routinely pulls audiences to their feet. He projects a warm-hearted charm, telling stories about his encounters with students and paying tribute to his wife, Kathryn, and their four children. He even credits his 1st-grade teacher, Miss Rice, with starting the love affair with language that has shaped his life.

His moving address to the National Association of Elementary School Principals last month was no exception. Although Boyer’s speech formally unveiling the Basic School report came near the end of their annual meeting in San Diego, so many principals turned out to hear him that the association had to scramble to have hotel room dividers removed. The principals gave Boyer a standing ovation.

The report was major news in papers across the country. The Washington Post ran a front-page story. The Charlotte Observer of North Carolina praised the report’s “sensible, workable” proposals; the St. Paul Pioneer Press called it “refreshing” and “on target.” “A map for open-minded educators and parents to make schools better,” said USA TODAY. “Just do it,” urged The Huntsville Times of Alabama.

The report’s enthusiastic reception was no accident, says William H. Kohlberg, the president and chief executive officer of the National Alliance of Business and a trustee of the foundation. “It’s not only the wisdom of what he has to say, it’s the skill with which he markets that wisdom,” Kohlberg says of Boyer. “He does an excellent job of media relations and of giving speeches that get his wisdom out before the people who can do something with it.”

Boyer has an “uncanny ability to ride the surf and catch the waves of interest growing in an issue and channel them into some constructive paths,” observes Russell Edgerton, the president of the American Association for Higher Education and another foundation trustee.

Until three years ago, when he was diagnosed with lymphoma--for which he is now undergoing chemotherapy--Boyer spent between half and two-thirds of his time on the road, writing on weekends and during the summer. Now, he has been forced to cut back a bit on his speaking schedule, but he still keeps up a brisk pace. His audiences are diverse: governors, teachers, patrons of the arts, administrators and curriculum coordinators.

“Ernest Boyer is completely dedicated to what he’s doing, and part of that is the enterprise of being Ernest Boyer,” says the noted sociologist David Riesman, an emeritus professor at Harvard University who has written several reports for the foundation. “He is not an invisible man.”

Boyer was born in 1928 in Dayton, Ohio, where his father ran the C.W. Boyer Company, a wholesale greeting-card company, and owned a retail typewriter shop. His grandfather Boyer, a major influence, was a Brethren clergyman who seemed to have all the time in the world to listen to small children.

“He was probably the best listener I ever knew,” Boyer says. “If he would go into a room, he would focus on little children as much as the grown-ups. That’s rare in our society. We’re too busy and inattentive. The issue of listening--and teaching listening--instead of talking to little children is an absolutely important climate to have in the classroom.”

Boyer’s interest in language and listening eventually led him to earn a doctorate in speech pathology and to study deafness during a postdoctoral fellowship. He began his academic career at Loyola University in Los Angeles, working his way up to administrative positions at the State University of New York. In 1970, he became the chancellor of the system, the world’s largest institution of higher education. In 1977, President Carter, who had pledged to create a Cabinet-level education department, appointed Boyer Commissioner of Education within the Health, Education, and Welfare Department. Throughout his career, he has been a dedicated supporter of the arts--another form of communication.

Although he held administrative posts, Boyer says he never thought of himself as solely, or even primarily, an administrator. “That takes on a technical aura,” he says. “I have never been interested in organizations in a narrow sense.”

Instead, he spent his time trying to make connections: between curriculum and assessments, students and teachers, schools and communities, preschools through colleges, and the United States and other nations. As commissioner, he also tried to bridge the pernicious gap between equity and excellence in education, which during the 1960’s and 1970’s had come to be seen by many as mutually exclusive ideals.

What was then called the U.S. office of education was lodged in a unwieldy bureaucracy, recalls Martin Kaplan, a producer at the Walt Disney Company who was Boyer’s executive assistant at H.E.W. and later worked at the Carnegie Foundation. But Boyer skillfully managed competing agendas and personalities, Kaplan says. And he campaigned forcefully against the use of bureaucratic language.

“He quickly discovered that the reason people took three paragraphs to say something was that, in fact, there was nothing at the core of what was being said,” Kaplan remembers. “He became quite evangelical and gave a number of speeches at internal functions pleading for clarity of language and clarity of thought, particularly at an agency whose role was education.”

Boyer has a reputation for being difficult to work for. He is a tireless rewriter who is often several drafts ahead of his collaborators. It is telling that only one person has remained with Boyer throughout his tenure at the Carnegie Foundation: Robert Hochstein, his public-relations liaison, whom he met at the office of education.

Boyer knows his work style is draining. Given the foundation’s clout, he says, it’s imperative to deal with words in a careful--even reverential--way. “We have to defend our work,” he says. “Others might shape policies based on this. I do feel an obligation to try to do this as carefully as we can.”

“Ernie is in many ways a perfectionist, and that has its up sides and its down sides,” Kaplan says. “The down sides have to do with the gremlins in the trenches, and the up sides are the people who benefit from the outcome.”

The Carnegie Foundation’s trenches are occupied by some 25 employees, most of whom take a definite back seat to Boyer. His visibility has made him virtually synonymous with the institution.

“The foundation is organized as a pyramid, with Ernie at the top of that pyramid,” observes Thomas Toch, a journalist who was on the Carnegie Foundation’s payroll for two years in the mid-1980’s while researching his own book on the education-reform movement. “All of the work flows upward and through him out to the public.”

In 1983, with the release of High School, Boyer achieved his goal of broadening the foundation’s work to include precollegiate education. The book, begun in 1980, came out at a perfect time--a few months after the landmark A Nation at Risk report. The public’s attention was firmly focused on the plight of schools and teachers. Boyer hit the speaking circuit, aiming to capitalize on what he thought would be a relatively short-lived movement. He never imagined it would last more than a decade.

In fact, the press for reform has now spread to higher education, where institutions are wrestling with how to strengthen undergraduate teaching while continuing to generate research. Boyer has produced two influential works that have helped shape the debate. The book College (1987) examined the undergraduate experience. In the 1990 special report “Scholarship Reconsidered: Priorities of the Professoriate,” Boyer called for an expanded view of scholarship that would include the integration of knowledge, application of knowledge, teaching, and the traditional discovery of knowledge.

Edgerton says the report, which at 35,000 copies is the foundation’s best-selling special report, has had “an enormous impact” on the field by reframing what had been a sterile argument. Boyer is now at work on a follow-up, “Scholarship Assessed,” that will recommend how colleges and universities can measure this broader definition of scholarship.

Boyer himself, Edgerton remarks, is a model of the new type of scholar he is advocating. “Speaking and writing to larger publics,” Edgerton explains, “is not what academicians do.”

Boyer uses the foundation’s resources to bring together experts, who then fan out to study schools and classrooms. He also examines research and conducts surveys. This method gives his recommendations “more credibility than a whole lot of reports on school reform,” says Eugene Wilson, a longtime admirer of Boyer’s and the president of youth development for the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation in Kansas City, Mo. The Kauffman Foundation has given the foundation $1.5 million to support a network of elementary schools that will adopt the Basic School principles.

“Ernie isn’t a solo player, even though an awful lot of the publicity is reflected on him,” Wilson says. “He really goes out and collects ideas from others as well, and that validates his own thinking.”

In working with Boyer, Levine says, he was amazed at his ability to cut to the core of an issue under discussion.

“I sat with him in meeting after meeting after meeting and watched as staff members inarticulately--me included--stumbled through ideas, spoke at cross-purposes, and generally managed to obscure and confuse any issue one could imagine,” he remembers. “And then I heard Ernie summarize the meeting, taking out of it a clear direction that incorporated many of the points that each of the people had made, and weave them into an intelligent, creative, and articulate tapestry that elucidated whatever issue we were talking about.”

Partly because he does synthesize material, Boyer’s books and special reports have a middle-of-the-road tone that disappoints some reformers.

“I think the whole structure of schooling needs to be torn down and built back,” says John I. Goodlad, whose book, A Place Called School, also helped fuel the reform movement in the 1980’s. “He does tend to work within the existing fabric.”

In “Scholarship Reconsidered,” Goodlad says, Boyer was on the right track but didn’t take it all the way to the station. “I’ve been in discussions with a number of people in higher education who agree with me that he probably didn’t hit hard enough,” Goodlad says. “There are still a lot of mid-range universities insisting on research when they’d be better off to allow their faculty to be more relevant to the field.”

On the other hand, Goodlad adds, Boyer’s intimate knowledge of higher education and his disposition surely influenced his recommendations. “He is at his best in areas where he feels particularly passionate, and this comes through most clearly in his work on early-childhood education,” Goodlad observes. “You sense a real love of children and a deep concern for their future.”

The visits and studies that go into Boyer’s reports also tend to “blunt the outrageous ideas” that might be proposed without careful analysis, notes Frank Newman, the president of the Education Commission of the States and a former senior fellow at the Carnegie Foundation. “He says, ‘Around the country, here’s what we’ve done, and here are the things people are struggling with, and here’s what ought to happen,’” Newman says. “You can argue with it, but it’s all common sense. Common sense is always bold. If you look at what makes good sense, it is always at odds with what we’re actually doing.”

Boyer’s tendency to be moderate, rather than sharply critical, is an integral part of his being. A practicing Quaker for the past 40 years, Boyer is constitutionally incapable of school-bashing. His religious convictions, he says, are “almost inseparable” from his choice of professional life. A meeting of the Religious Society of Friends, he explains, “is nothing but speaking and listening to individuals.” There is no clergy to deliver a body of truth; rather, people talk--or remain silent--as they wish. The Boyers worship in a Princeton building that has been used as a Quaker meeting place since 1720.

“I would rather celebrate the good, identify the strengths, and make the diagnosis as carefully as possible,” he says. “I believe there is profoundly rooted goodwill and determination to want to make schools succeed. That also goes to the philosophy of life I have. I have long believed that more people would rather win than lose, they’d rather succeed than fail, they’d rather be kind than mean, they’d rather work hard than slough off. That’s my view of human nature. If I didn’t believe that, I’d sell ties at Macy’s.”

“Schools are feeling the impact of pathologies that inevitably impose on that institution,” Boyer adds. “That doesn’t mean you take any comfort in that. That only means you can’t sit back and say, ‘Well, if the schools would only pull up their socks and start getting serious about it, we’d see excellence in education.’ I think it’s not that simple.”

“Why engage in an enterprise where you feel most people are trying to cut corners, most people are trying to cheat, most people would like to see kids fail? I don’t believe that’s true. So I can’t look at 1,000 teachers and say, ‘Why are you doing these bad things to kids?’ I gain most inspiration, frankly, by talking to teachers.”

“The main way you achieve change is to help people think differently about who they are and what they do,” he says. “That’s all change is. You don’t change a system. You change people’s attitudes and behaviors and sense of hope.”

His optimistic outlook doesn’t mean that Boyer is complacent. In general, he says, the reform movement has lacked focus because the debate hasn’t been clearly defined. School governance, he believes, continues to be a major problem. He has dispatched a former newspaper reporter to Britain to examine that country’s efforts to decentralize education. The trend toward assigning social services to schools also worries him.

“We have to be careful not to define the mission so broadly that schools become a surrogate parent without the community taking on responsibility,” he warns. “How to strike that middle ground is an important part of the debate.”

The national climate for education reform has changed markedly since the early 1980’s, he believes. A resurgence of individualism and privatism threatens to undermine the institution of public education and its historic function of unifying a diverse people. Part of what is driving those sentiments, he says, are little-discussed race and class divisions that are polarizing the United States.

Throughout the early part of his life, Boyer notes, the nation was united by a sense of common purpose. People pulled together to overcome the hardships of the Great Depression. They fought the good fight during World War II. They celebrated the American spirit during the boom times of the 1950’s. And they banded together during the Cold War against the external threat of Communism.

Now, in the post-Vietnam, post-Watergate, post-Communism era, the bonds that united Americans are fraying. And Boyer is puzzled and alarmed by the growing suspicion of government that apparently led to the bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building.

“Students should have much more experience in the business of communicating with care orally and listening with care and discernment, or else we are really made vulnerable to propaganda and overpowered by those who are aggressive speakers, but perhaps shouldn’t be fully trusted,” he says. “The way the word ‘rhetoric’ has emerged over the years would cause Aristotle to turn over in his grave. We’re big talkers, but that should not be confused with clear thinkers.”

Although he supports freeing schools from bureaucracy, Boyer is disturbed by the popularity of the charter-school movement in state legislatures. He fears it could undermine the larger civic and social purposes of education. “The great experiment of nationhood and the great experiment of education are hand in glove,” he argues. “Any proposal to diminish access has to be worrisome, precisely because we’re calling into question our own sense of nationhood. When I entered this business, that was such a given. But now I find that, increasingly, you have to go back to what I thought were bedrock assumptions that were so well established that one wouldn’t have to reargue them.”

A New Jersey lawmaker recently told him that the entire legislative session in the state this year would likely be devoted to charter schools. “What happens to those students who are not given alternatives?” Boyer asks. “Do we still believe there’s a fundamental public commitment to be made?”

The lawmaker asked Boyer what strategy he would recommend for systemic change. Boyer mentioned that reducing class size to 17 students in the primary years--seven to 10 students fewer than occupy most New Jersey classrooms--has been proven to enhance learning. The legislator’s response, Boyer says, was “‘We know that. But there’s no talk about that.’”

“We also know that time for teachers to work together in a school makes it more effective than if they don’t,” Boyer adds, “and yet most schools, in their budgeting and programming, provide little or no time for teachers to work collaboratively.”

In “The Basic School,” Boyer has a chance to address these gaps. Ideas for educating young children had been percolating in his mind at least since 1979. The impetus for the report was strengthened by his 1991 report “Ready to Learn: A Mandate for the Nation,” which called for numerous changes to prepare young children for formal schooling.

But if all children should be ready for schools, Boyer believes, then all schools must be ready for children.

“My point in the Basic School report is to say, ‘Let’s try to bring ourselves back to the agenda that we know would make an effective school and find a way to reaffirm that agenda for schools that are not working very well.’”

In many ways, the Basic School report is the most personal of all Boyer’s works. It is the product, he says, of the enormous influence over his thinking of his wife, a certified nurse midwife. Kay Boyer delivered seven of the couple’s 12 grandchildren, some in the jungles of Belize. Her concern for young children, and the Boyers’ close family bonds, make the report a heartfelt document, not just a policy tome.

“In a very real sense,” Boyer says of his wife, “she is the co-author of the report. She has been the co-author of my life for 45 years.”

The Basic School emphasizes four points: the school as a community, a curriculum with coherence, a climate for learning, and a commitment to character. In choosing priorities for schools, drawn from successful schools across the country, Boyer, in his characteristic way, tried to set limits and focus their missions.

The heart of a Basic School is its curriculum, covering eight “core commonalities": the life cycle, the use of symbols, response to the esthetic, membership in groups, a sense of time and space, producing and consuming, connections to nature, and living with purpose.

The Carnegie Foundation has established a network of 13 schools that are putting the Basic School concepts into practice. “It’s a major and important departure to support the follow-up interest in ways that go beyond my going out and speaking,” Boyer says. In addition, the foundation is working with the American College Testing program to devise assessments and with the National Association of Elementary School Principals to connect with practitioners.

Kay Boyer has been named the director of the new Basic School Center, which will serve schools interested in the principles. One idea under consideration is a self-assessment schools could use to measure themselves against the concepts. “They want to be signed on right away,” Kay Boyer says. “They already think they are a Basic School. We will not put a seal of approval on them. It’s a continuing conversation.”

Samuel G. Sava, the executive director of the elementary principals’ association, says the report has struck a deep chord with his members. “He has cut through all the clamor and gotten down to the basic issues that children need to master and understand,” Sava says of Boyer. “What it’s been up to now is someone coming out with this method, or that method, but no one has ever come up with a comprehensive process for how to build a community for learning.”

Just as elementary educators welcome Boyer’s guidance, he has great admiration for them. “I’d rather be at a meeting with a group of elementary teachers than any other people I know,” he says. “There is more hope, more belief, and more enthusiasm than in any other group I meet with. They’re not working with paper--they’re working with little people.”

In working on the report, Boyer achieved the ultimate synthesis of his personal interest in children and his policy work in education.

He is clearly proud of his four children, all of whom are pursuing socially responsible careers. His oldest son, Craig, runs a school in Belize and is married to a Mayan woman. On an extended visit to the United States this spring, the couple and their four young children lived with the Boyers in their spacious, one-story home in Princeton while waiting to move into their own lodgings. Boyer put his love of the arts into practice by designing additions to the house, which has a California look and feel.

Another son, Ernest Jr., is a chaplain at a Cambridge, Mass., rehabilitation center and is completing his doctorate in theology at Harvard. Beverly is a nurse, like her mother, and active in a Princeton Waldorf school, where the arts are an integral part of the curriculum. Stephen is the editor of a journal for Native American tribal colleges.

Over the years, members of the family have played active roles in Boyer’s work. Stephen’s current job grew out of his research for a Carnegie Foundation report. Beverly is now working part time with her father to develop the curriculum for Basic Schools.

As he reaches his later years, Boyer says, he has become comfortable with being “absolutely forthcoming about who I am and how I feel.” He deliberately has begun talking more about the connections he has made in his life between his religious beliefs, his love of family, and his dedication to education and its promise for empowering people. The people who most influenced his life, he says, were those who were open and authentic about themselves.

“We make a great mistake as educators if we live in separate worlds of the academic and the personal,” he says. “All of us really blend them. We need to let our students know that we are human beings. We owe it to our students to let them know that life can be integrated.”

A version of this article appeared in the May 24, 1995 edition of Education Week as The Importance of Being Ernest


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