A Cultural Odyssey

By Debra Viadero — March 22, 2005 11 min read
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A half-century ago, the noted psychologist Edmund W. Gordon and his physician wife, Susan, opened a children’s health clinic here in central Harlem. For as little as a quarter, poor families in the community could go to the Harriet Tubman Clinic for Children on St. Nicholas Avenue to get a child a checkup or vaccination.

Now, in his ninth decade, Gordon is back doing good in Harlem.

Edmund W. Gordon reads a report on the sofa in his office in Harlem, where the noted psychologist plans to nurture children's intellect through enriching out-of-school activities.

This time, he has even bigger plans for the community. He wants to saturate children living here, starting first in a 65-block-or-so radius from his office, in what he calls “supplementary education.” By that phrase, Gordon refers to the whole gamut of out-of-school educational experiences that shape children’s intellectual development—the hours parents spend reading to their children and engaging them in dinnertime conversations, the programs run by the Boys and Girls Clubs and the YMCA, school-based after-school programs, tutoring services, music lessons. In middle-class families, Gordon says, such experiences are often taken for granted, abundant and invisible like the air children breathe. For some poor and minority children, many of them living right here in this stretch of poverty-pocked real estate, they don’t exist.

What happens outside of school, Gordon has now come to believe, may be the key to closing the achievement gap separating African-American and Hispanic children from their higher-achieving white and Asian-American peers. “I’m convinced that we know enough now to educate most of the people we’re worried about,” the 83-year-old professor says. “Yet, even if we were to do that perfectly, I don’t think it would reduce the achievement gap.”

The longtime researcher gives this explanation on a snowy February day from his new offices at the Institute for Urban and Minority Education. He founded the institute at Teachers College, Columbia University, in 1973, but has long wanted to move it closer to Harlem. The college took him up on that desire last year, when it launched its own initiative to become actively involved in serving the public schools of New York City’s regions 9 and 10, a broad swath of the 1.1 million-student school system that includes Harlem, parts of upper Manhattan, and some of the South Bronx. Called the Teachers College Education Zone, the project has taken Gordon’s “supplementary education” initiative into its fold. The project will begin moving other Teachers College offices to the neighborhood later this year.

So here Gordon sits now, on the eighth floor of the Theresa Towers Hotel on Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard. Once known as the “Waldorf Astoria of Harlem,” the landmark hotel in its heyday provided temporary quarters for entertainers performing at the Apollo Theater down the street. Now, the building houses mostly offices and day-care centers. But, from the octogenarian’s perch here, he can still make out the street where the Tubman clinic stood long ago.

With younger scholars Beatrice L. Bridglall and Aundra Saa Meroe, Gordon has put down his ideas on supplementary learning in a new book, Supplementary Education: The Hidden Curriculum of Academic Achievement.

Though Gordon is credited with coining the term “supplementary education,” the notion that poor and minority children will become better citizens if they are given better educational and life opportunities outside of school is not a new one. Another prominent scholar, Dr. James P. Comer of Yale University, makes similar points in his 1997 book Waiting for a Miracle: Why Our Schools Can’t Solve Our Problems and How We Can.

“There’s an assumption out there that everybody gets these activities at home, and they don’t,” says Comer, who was a longtime colleague of Gordon’s when the latter was a full-time professor at Yale. “I think we have really tried to bring that into the mainstream.”

To Comer, Gordon evokes the bunny on the Energizer-battery commercials, still working to sow seeds that will sprout supplementary education in the apartments and playgrounds of Harlem. As part of its multipronged campaign, the Teachers College institute is opening storefront education centers for parents, giving parent workshops at schools, running an after-school program at PS 200, offering tutoring services, and training the coordinators who serve as liaisons between the public schools and parents. It is also drumming up funding for a development bank that would provide start-up money for, say, a local Baptist church or a Salvation Army center that wants to begin its own youth program.

Gordon’s institute is not going it alone, though. Besides being part of the Teachers College Education Zone, it has partnered with another local party to enrich children’s lives in Harlem. That venture, the Harlem Children’s Zone, is an even more ambitious project begun in the 1990s by researcher Geoffrey Canada. Employing 650 people, the massive initiative has even built its own charter school for prekindergartners to 6th graders. Gordon has adopted Canada’s 65-block zone to start with, but hopes to expand his reach to include the regional school districts with which Teachers College is working.

“We want to help Geoffrey as much as we can,” Gordon says as he strolls up 125th Street to show off the $44 million nerve center that Canada’s work has built.

Gentle, even courtly, the diminutive Gordon belies the descriptions that colleagues and younger scholars give of him. They use words like “giant” and “towering figure.” He is 5 feet, 8 inches in his sandals, which he wears even on this wintry day.

Ninti Alfred, 7, hugs teacher Judith Socarras at the Harlem Episcopal School's after-school program with which Gordon's institute works.

Over a lifetime of scholarship, the psychologist has penned more than 200 books and articles and earned seven honorary degrees. In addition to his Teachers College professorship, he is a professor emeritus at Yale. He has also taught at City University of New York and earned degrees in zoology, social ethics, social psychology, and child development and guidance.

And, along the way, he played a founding role in Head Start, the federal program for disadvantaged preschoolers, and served as an assistant dean of men at Howard University and a part-time Presbyterian minister. He took the former job in 1965, six years after he and his wife closed their clinic. Another husband-and-wife team, the eminent child psychologists Kenneth B. and Mamie Phipps Clark, had started their own child-health clinic in Harlem, and it soon became clear, Gordon says, that there wasn’t enough business to go around.

The academic is the first to admit that he and his siblings never lacked for a rich home life. Though born in segregated Goldsboro, N.C., Gordon led a privileged life compared with the other African-American children in his town. The son of a physician and a schoolteacher, he remembers that his father held on to his West Indian passport all his life because he felt that foreign-born blacks were treated better than native-born African-Americans. His American-born mother and the rest of the family were the only blacks in town permitted, one day a week, to borrow books from the local library and to shop at Weil’s, the town’s premier department store.

“There was almost no summer, even during the Depression, that we didn’t travel or go on vacation,” Gordon recalls. “I can’t remember a period when there weren’t books around or that we weren’t expected to read them. We had regular mealtimes and weren’t allowed to gulp our food and leave the table.” The scholar says he and Susan G. Gordon, his wife of 57 years, have since carried on those traditions with their own four children, two of whom have followed their father into academia.

Still, when Gordon attended Howard University in Washington, he found himself struggling. When he failed to keep up with his studies, he was asked to leave. On the way out of the dean’s office, he met Alain L. Locke, a philosopher noted for nurturing and promoting young black artists in the first half of the 20th century.

“He said, ‘Young man, you have to leave now but, when you come back, the first thing you do is you come and see me,’ ” Gordon recounts.

Locke eventually became a mentor, teaching Gordon how to navigate tough academic waters. Gordon found an even more famous mentor years later in W.E.B. Du Bois, the black activist, educator, and editor. Living in New York City at that time, Gordon was among a small circle of younger African-American scholars with whom Du Bois met regularly.

In the 1960s, Gordon joined another group of young academics who were working with the sociologist James S. Coleman to produce a report for the federal government. The resulting 1966 document, which came to be known simply as the Coleman Report, was considered a research landmark in part for its controversial finding that background characteristics—factors such as family income and parental education levels—were more important than schooling in predicting children’s academic achievement.

“People tended to ignore that troublesome finding,” Gordon says. “I wouldn’t say I’d forgotten it, but I did tend to ignore it as well.”

Like many thinkers, Gordon ascribed to the idea that the cultural backgrounds of underachieving minority populations were not deficient, as some other theorists had made them out to be. Rather, they were simply different. The differences needed to be recognized and celebrated, not replaced by the cultural norms of middle-class white society.

“I have no difficulty these days in insisting that black kids learn standard English,” he says now. “Black English shouldn’t be demeaned, but one wants to make [black children], in a sense, bilingual.”

Gordon’s change of heart came in the 1980s, when he began a study with L. Scott Miller exploring the career trajectories of black engineering students. The students he followed, though intelligent and hardworking, failed to distinguish themselves in either college or the workplace.

Further examination showed the pattern was not limited to black engineers. On almost any measure, there were achievement gaps separating black and Hispanic students from their white and Asian-American counterparts. More disturbing to Gordon, the gaps widened the higher up the income ladder he looked. While racism might explain some of the disparity, he began to suspect that other factors, cultural learning factors, might be at play as well in determining minority students’ lack of success.

“Being black and middle-class doesn’t mean you’re like white middle-class people,” he says.

When Gordon called attention to the situation, however, colleagues accused him of playing into the hands of theorists who believed that blacks were genetically inferior to whites.

But Gordon pressed on and directed a series of studies exploring why some racial and ethnic groups were more academically successful than others. What factors contributed to Asian-Americans’ school success, for instance? Why did black immigrants from the Caribbean do better in school than their native-born peers? How did some minority children beat the odds against them?

That work led Gordon to develop a theory of “affirmative development”—the idea that, rather than provide affirmative action to correct racial imbalances in education and the workplace, the nation should do more to nurture minority and poor children’s intellectual development. Improving the learning-culture web that envelops them, the professor further posits, is one way to do that.

A Howard University researcher whom Gordon has mentored for 30 years, A. Wade Boykin, says that kind of intellectual evolution is what marks Gordon as a quintessential scholar. “Some people get stuck in the paradigm of their era,” Boykin says. “But, even at almost 84, he continues to shape the field.”

Gordon reviews marketing materials with consultant Pat Hurlock at the institute he operates in Harlem.

And endure the criticism. The prevailing current in the national education agenda, for instance, is to fix the schools first. To proponents of that idea, Gordon’s focus on supplementary education may seem like a wrongheaded way to go about closing the achievement gap.

“I’m not opposed to what he’s doing,” says Abigail Thernstrom, a co-author of the 2003 book No Excuses: Closing the Racial Gap in Learning and the vice chairwoman of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. “My problem is just that he’s writing off the hours children are in school, and saying basically that parents have to make up for what’s going on in the school day.”

Then there’s the question of what “fix” represents the safest bet for reformers. Studies on whether after-school programs can help improve children’s academic achievement have yielded mixed results so far, scholars agree.

But, Gordon, for his part, thinks the right studies just haven’t been done. In his book, he marshals some evidence in support of his idea from a study involving 480,000 college-bound high school students. In the 1995 study, researchers Howard T. Everson and Roger Millsap found that, all other things being equal, the degree to which students were able to take part in extracurricular activities was a more powerful predictor of their SAT scores than their prior academic achievement.

“Kids who attend schools that have basically no extracurricular activities are disadvantaged probably by 100 points on the SAT math and the SAT verbal test compared to kids who go to high schools with a rich array of extracurriculars,” says Everson, who is also the chief research scientist at the New York City-based College Board, which sponsors the college-admissions test.

Gordon and his colleagues at the Institute for Urban and Minority Education acknowledge, though, that the “sell” for supplementary education may be harder than it may first seem.

To gather advice and help build community support, the institute has put together a 60-person task force that includes national experts as well as community activists. With their help, Gordon hopes to devise a social-marketing campaign that will be ready to launch later this year.

Now that all those wheels are in motion, Gordon himself says he wants to try to retire—again. (He took a first stab at it after leaving Yale in 1991.) He has four more books to write and, he fears, time is running out.

“I don’t want to be like George Foreman,” he says, referring to the boxing champ who came out of retirement for an unsuccessful fight. “This is too important an initiative to rest on the shoulders of an 84-year-old man.”

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