The Academic Travails of an Honest Man

Glenn M. Ricketts

In July 1966 the Federal Office of Education released Equality of Educational Opportunity, a.k.a. the Coleman Report. Mandated by the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the report was an unprecedented empirical survey of the instructional resources of American public schools, and stands as the signature achievement of its principal author, sociologist James S. Coleman (1926–1995). We offer here a pair of articles to mark the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of the Coleman Report.

In “Challenging Conventional Wisdom: Four Moments in the Research Career of James S. Coleman,” Russell K. Nieli examines the Coleman Report’s impact and enduring influence, and provides an overview of Coleman’s career as a research sociologist.1 As Nieli indicates, Coleman’s rigorous research methods and dogged intellectual honesty often led him to conclusions directly counter to “conventional wisdom.” That was certainly true of the Coleman Report, the exhaustive data of which confounded the settled expectations of federal bureaucrats and education policy experts. The study revealed that expenditures and measurable resources between the racially segregated public schools in the South were not significantly unequal, and appeared to have little influence on educational outcomes. To the contrary, Coleman concluded that family background and parental involvement weighed far more significantly in educational outcomes than did school expenditures and available material resources. That was not welcome news with the education establishment, which responded largely with sulking silence.

As the report’s findings gradually received closer scrutiny, Coleman found himself at the center of an acrimonious public debate—war is probably apt—over public educational policy and the disparate achievement outcomes reformers ardently hoped to eliminate. And while Coleman had initially agreed that busing black school children to predominantly white middle-class school districts seemed to provide a solution, he subsequently reversed his position—once again, it was the data—when he concluded that these policies had backfired by precipitating “white flight” from urban school districts and ironically creating even greater racial segregation.

Many of his academic colleagues turned on him, and in “The Charge of Racism against James S. Coleman,” Jackson Toby examines the often vehement hostility, vilification, and professional isolation to which Coleman was subject, including disruption of his public lectures by hecklers hoisting swastika-adorned placards and demanding his censure and expulsion from the American Sociological Association (ASA). Even more incredibly, this collegial vitriol was directed at a man who had been arrested in 1963 in Baltimore, where he defied municipal segregation laws by inviting black friends to a local city park. That he was subsequently elected president of the ASA and feted with its Sociology of Education Award in 1988 2 did not erase the appalling treatment Coleman had endured, and which followed him intermittently for the rest of his life.

I did not know Coleman personally, apart from a few pleasant, largely perfunctory post-lecture chats with him over the course of a decade. But in spring 1979, while I was pursuing graduate studies in political science at the University of Chicago, I had the opportunity to witness firsthand how this eminently unpretentious, mild-mannered man with a rather halting public speaking style managed to get some people very, very angry at him. The occasion was one of the weekly public lectures sponsored by Woodward Court, an undergraduate residence hall that provided a podium for distinguished Chicago professors whose fields ranged from Shakespeare to particle physics. In 1973, Coleman had been appointed University Professor in Chicago’s sociology department, and although I knew that he had been at the center of controversy at one time, I was unfamiliar with what he had done subsequently, or whether the controversy still stuck.

During his presentation, Coleman offered a preliminary assessment of his current research, which two years later produced another seminal policy study, this one concluding that Catholic schools, on balance, did a better job of educating their students than most public schools. Coleman did not highlight those conclusions at the lecture, but he did cite an unexpected statistic that had emerged from the data—there it is again—his research staff had collected thus far. Black schoolchildren, he observed, consistently posted much higher absentee rates than most white students in equivalent schools, often above 50 percent of the possible days in school, a pattern that began in first grade. That fact alone, Coleman noted, had to weigh very heavily in explaining disparate achievement outcomes between racial groups, whatever influence might be attributed to other variables. Obviously, he concluded, if students aren’t in school, they aren’t going to learn much.

Useful information, one might think. But such hard data, especially if it appears to be irrefutable, often ignites scarlet fury in ideologues: on the spot Coleman was denounced as a “racist” by hecklers who didn’t allow the data to interfere with the tirade they’d evidently come to deliver. By this time in his career, of course, Coleman had weathered far worse. Unperturbed, he continued to field questions from the floor and engaged his detractors with equanimity and detachment. That wasn’t the end of it, however, and for the next week or so the Chicago undergraduate newspaper ran several stories along the lines of “Coleman Lecture Sparks Controversy” and “Coleman Resurrects Racism Charges and Steady Buzzing among Graduate Students in Sociology and Education.”

In light of all this, it comes as no surprise that Coleman was an early member of the National Association of Scholars. Especially fitting: he received the inaugural Sidney Hook Memorial Award at the second national NAS conference in 1990. That particular honor, of course, is named for the late NYU philosopher and redoubtable advocate for academic freedom and intellectual honesty who battled Stalinists in the 1930s, McCarthyites in the 1950s, the New Left of the 1960s, and political correctness in the 1980s.

Coleman was certainly Hook’s worthy successor, and in his acceptance address mentioned the fear of collegial censure and ostracism that produced increasing self-censorship among many academics, especially those without tenure. His remarks on that occasion twenty-six years ago have a depressingly contemporary ring:

[T]he greatest enemies of academic freedom in the university are the norms that exist about what kinds of questions may be raised in research…and what kinds of questions may not be raised. There are taboos on certain topics, taboos which if broken lead to sanctions not primarily from administrators or the general public, but from one’s own colleagues….The taboos that a sociologist is most likely to encounter are those concerning questions of differences between genders or differences between races that might be genetic in origin. Any research on the social factors leading to homosexuality that begins with the premise that homosexuality is less natural than heterosexuality would be under a similar taboo….What interests and concerns me is the defining characteristic of these taboos, and how they are held in place. For it is these taboos on the raising of certain questions, the gentleman’s agreement that certain questions remain unexamined, that constitute one major threat to academic freedom in universities and colleges. What is more, it is a threat that operates not merely through pressures from colleagues, but also through self-suppression.3

Unfortunately, Coleman’s observations proved prophetic rather than cathartic: not only has the list of taboos burgeoned, but if you’re not inclined to suppress yourself, plenty of administrators, hiring committees, professional organizations, foundation grant administrators, student censors, and even government officials stand ready to join your colleagues and pile on. Consider, for example, the experience of Coleman’s latter-day sociological colleague Mark Regnerus, who ventured into the forbidden zone of same-sex marriage and its effects on the adopted children of such unions.4 Worse still is the embattled lot of skeptics who dissent from the “consensus” on impending climate disaster, who have been investigated by an ambitious congressman, and more recently even threatened with legal prosecution under federal racketeering law at the urging of their fellow scientists.5 Obviously, we’ll need to confer the Sidney Hook Memorial Award for the foreseeable future. And we must hope that future awardees measure up to the bar set by James S. Coleman, in every sense a gentleman and a scholar.

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