Remarks for Ed Gordon’s 98th Birthday and School Naming

Ezekiel Dixon-Roman

“I like to think that he taught me how to think.”
These are the words that Professor Edmund W. Gordon stated in a recent interview when talking about his mentor Dr. W. E. B. DuBois. In these simple words, Professor Gordon made a profound statement about pedagogy, how we learn to produce knowledge, and inheritance. Professor went on to expound his statement with the following about Dubois: “He was an analyst and reconceptualizer of the notions behind other people’s work, the context out of which that work had grown, and most importantly the various and multiple meanings of a particular set of ideas. That model is pretty much the model of my mature work.” That question of the meanings of something rather than what something is, what I would argue, was a pragmatist line of inquiry, a concern with the practical application of ideas in a universe that’s understood to be always changing. We see these ideas materialized throughout Edmund W. Gordon’s life and career.
Dr. Edmund W. Gordon was born on June 13, 1921 in the segregated town of Goldsboro, North Carolina. He received his bachelor’s degree in Zoology and Social Ethics in Divinity from Howard University, a Master of Arts degree in Social Psychology from American University, and the Doctor of Education degree in child development and guidance from Teachers College, Columbia University. He has been awarded honorary degrees from Yale University, Yeshiva University, Brown University, and most recently Morehouse College. His career ranges from professional practice, minister, clinical and counseling psychologist, research scientist, author, editor, and professor. Professor Gordon was recognized as a preeminent scholar of African-American studies when he was awarded the 2011 Dr. John Hope Franklin Award from Diverse Issues in Higher Education magazine at the 93rd Annual Meeting of the American Council on Education. As a professor of psychology, he “had a tremendous influence on contemporary thinking in psychology, education and social policy and the implications of his work for the schooling of marginalized youth and children of color, in the United States “.
Edmund Gordon worked with Edward Zigler, Urie Bronfrenbrenner and others to develop the Federal Head Start program, one of the now long standing national social policy programs for addressing the social consequences of poverty on child development. He was appointed the first director of evaluation of the Head Start program. He has stated that getting this job had as much to do with his doctoral studies as it did affirmative action. Gordon has stated that while he believes Head Start has been a success from a government standpoint, the program could have been much more than it is today. His colleagues and he viewed the project as not only a child development project, but also a project to influence and improve the lives of families and communities. The latter part of Gordon’s dreams for Head Start have not come to fruition, despite what he believes to be the overall success of the program.
Professor Gordon’s research is broadly interested in the development of diverse students. He is widely known for his research on diverse human characteristics and pedagogy and the education of socio-economically marginalized populations. His research includes the advancement of the concepts of “the Achievement Gap,” “Affirmative development of academic ability,” “Intellective Competence,” “Supplementary and Comprehensive Education,” and “Pedagogical Troika” – the tricomponential conception of pedagogy of the dialectical relationship between assessment, teaching, and learning – all of which focus on improving the intellective development and quality of academic achievement in diverse learners. For Edmund W. Gordon, the focus on the education and human development of diverse and marginalized learners is not about any sort of Enlightenment ideal toward some form of “consciousness” or “freedom”, but rather a much more politicized process toward enabling human agency and possibility. His publications consist of many, many, many articles and books and monographs. I won’t even try to count as they continue to keep coming.
His current work (at 98 years old!!!) has been an urgent focus on the future of assessment in education. At a moment while much of the field had been deeply suspicious and critical of the dominant use and social consequences of assessment, specifically in a policy context of accountability testing, where standardized testing have been the driving neoliberal mechanism of curriculum, teaching, learning, and the context and culture of schooling. Supported by the past president of ETS, Kurt Landgraf, Edmund W. Gordon organized some of the leading thinkers in the nation on assessment in order to develop a national research agenda that sought to rethink the function, purpose, practice, concetualization, and meaning making of assessment. One of the main findings of the Gordon Commission on the Future of Assessment in Education was that assessment should be for education, not of education. That is to say, assessment should serve the function of informing and enhancing the transactions of teaching and learning. This is a paradigm shift from traditional testing practices of dominate education policy; that is, a shift from the testing of static being of student capabilities to the assessment of student becoming in learning processes; from score generalities for decision making toward more detailed processual information to enable teaching and learning. In his forthcoming volume, Human Variance and Assessment for Learning, to be published by Third World Press (of which we are privileged to have the founder and owner present with us today), is on a long overdue and needed intervention. This is the question of the important role of assessment practices for learning across the variability of the human. Gordon and colleagues consider with a shift from being to becoming in assessment, what might this mean for how we approach questions of equity, diversity, and the ethical? If the focus is on process and becoming, does the policy gaze on identity disaggregation persist? What matters? And, how does heterogeneity in ways of knowing become affirmed and pedagogically engaged rather than violently cancelled out by forces that seek to homogenize human variance?
From July 2000 until August 2001 he was Vice President of Academic Affairs and Interim Dean at Teachers College, Columbia University. He is the John M. Musser Professor of Psychology Emeritus at Yale University, the Richard March Hoe Professor at Teachers College, Columbia University, and founding Director of the Institute for Urban & Minority Education at Teachers College, Columbia University and the Institute for Research on African Diaspora in the Americas and Caribbean (IRADAC) at The City College of New York. Dr. Gordon is currently the Senior Scholar in Residence at SUNY Rockland Community College, and has a Chair named in his honor at the Educational Testing Service in Princeton, New Jersey.
Professor Gordon has long spoken to the importance of influential mentors such as Alain LeRoy Locke, the first African American Rhodes Scholar; Herbert G. Birch, an internationally renown child development and brain injury authority; and W. E. B. Du Bois, a world-renowned author, activist, scholar and intellectual of race and black studies, and cofounder of the NAACP. Each of them profoundly influenced him and his scholarship.
Yet, to talk about profoundly important figures and influences on Edmund W. Gordon without talking about his late wife, Dr. Susan G. Gordon is to miss likely the most important one. Although a small woman in stature she had a strong, radical, and powerful voice. A feminist and fighter for social justice, she was a brilliant and dedicated pediatrician, a longtime professor of pediatrics at Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons, and a Fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics. From 1978-1981, she served as a member of The National Panel on the Measurement of the Program Effects of Head Start. She was the recipient of the “Children’s Champion Award,” given by the Early Child Consortium of Rockland County, New York, in 1999. In 2000, the classrooms and computer center of the Martin Luther King Jr. Multi-purpose Center, Inc. in Spring Valley, NY was dedicated as the Susan G. Gordon, M.D. Education Corridor. In 2006, Edmund W. and Susan G. Gordon were inducted into the Rockland County Civil Rights Hall of Fame.
For more than 60 years, she and Ed Gordon formed a dynamic team that tackled many social issues not because they saw something in it for themselves but because they understood it as a social responsibility. In their social ethics, there was no question, you just did it. Together, the Gordons helped to lead the integration of schools in East Ramapo, NY; founded the Harriet Tubman Child Health and Guidance Clinic in Harlem; created a Psycho-Educational Diagnostic Clinic for children referred to the Ambulatory Pediatrics Division of the Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center; and – most recently – launched the Gordon and Gordon Associates in Human Development and the CEJJES Institute. This was a social ethics and practice that sought more than the recognition of Black lives but to ultimately do what was necessary to enable Black life in all of its potentialities despite a body/flesh that has undergone centuries of sociopolitical violence, leaving what Hortense Spillers has called ‘hieroglyphics of the flesh’ that has been passed down over generations, a body/flesh that continues to struggle against a global project of anti-blackness. Edmund W. and Susan G. Gordon committed their lives, both in their being and becoming, to overturning such a violent system.
On December 15, 2014, The Board of Regents of the University of Texas System approved the honorific naming of the newly renovated and expanded Geography Building as the Susan G. and Edmund W. Gordon & Charles W. and Frances B. White Building, now referred to as the Gordon-White Building.
In 2017, Edmund W. Gordon was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
Returning to the quote that I started with: “I like to think that he taught me how to think.” I opened my remarks this afternoon with this quote, not to center his relationship with Dubois, though clearly important mentor for him intellectually, but more so to what Professor has done for so many of his students and mentees of what has been called the Gordon School or the Gordon Paradigm of Inquiry and Practice. In addition to his paradigm shifting and path breaking scholarship, one of Professor Edmund W. Gordon’s greatest legacies has been by way of mentorship. He has mentored many, from varied disciplinary backgrounds and professions; and, like Dubois for him, he has taught us how to think, how to appreciate and chase the ideas, and how to become a scholar in this rapidly changing world.
The Gordon School and Paradigm of Inquiry and Practice is an assemblage of scholars, scholarship, and scholar/activist practices. The assemblage that makes up the Gordon Paradigm are all a product of the seismic paradigm shifting work that Edmund W. Gordon brought to education and social science research. The Gordon Paradigm represents a shift in research on the education and human development of marginalized groups and the socially constituted “other” or “different”. This has been a paradigmatic revolution away from scholarship that has understood difference to be based on biological determinism, social deficiency, or culture of poverty to a rather Marxist educational and cultural psychological lens on human learning and development of all persons. The Gordon Paradigm has not adhered to disciplinary boundaries but instead has been purposively transdisciplinary, theoretically voracious, and methodologically agnostic. In other words, the Gordon Paradigm has been marked by a particular type of intellectual hunger, habits of mind, and scholarly orientation that is a perspectivist posture toward knowledge production for social understanding, a radical empiricism with the paramount concern for trying to better the lives of the marginalized. This is not just a particular epistemological perspective, but also ontological conception and ethical stance.
As a paradigm shift, this meant the needed work of rethinking how we have understood many areas of educational theory, research methods, and policy. This meant a rethinking of topics such as pedagogy and the diversity and plurality of human subjects that education and social policy are supposed to be responsive to; a retooled conceptualization of the necessity of guided human development in order to enable the possibilities of human agency; a reconceptualizing of equity that is not synonymous with the necessary equality of educational opportunities, but rather equity as a particular focus on social justice and pedagogical conditions; a cultural psychological focus on experience, identity, and pluralism and their implications for human learning and development; a move from compensatory to supplementary to comprehensive conceptions of education that understands education not as that which is particular to the place of schooling but rather as a social process that is ubiquitous to being human; and, with a greater focus in more recent years on the evaluation and assessment not of education but for education.
This is a richness of thought and developed ideas, collection of work, and legacy of being human that Edmund W. Gordon has gifted us. The naming of this school is not just a great honor but even more so a very rich and major inheritance; and, as with any inheritance, a great social responsibility. What better way to honor his intellectual and pedagogical legacy than in the naming of this school. A school that can carry on his Marxist and pragmatist influenced legacy, his will to do what is necessary to be responsive to the variability of human need and development even when it is not what is seemingly popular, and a focus on enabling the marginalized. In sum, in the naming of this school, it becomes an heir of the Gordon Paradigm and inherits the social responsibility and pedagogical tradition of teaching others how to think like Professor Edmund W. Gordon has done for so many of us.

I now would like to turn to the part of the program where you all can hear from others on Edmund W. Gordon. I have asked several colleagues and friends to share a few words about Edmund W. Gordon and their relationship with him. These include Carol Lee, Haki Madhubuti (whom I believe will share spoken word poetry), Howard Everson, Veronica Holly, Paola Heincke, and Ernest Washington.