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March 1, 1996
Vol. 53
No. 6

Special Topic / In Appreciation: The Life and Career of Ernest Boyer (1928–1995)

Ernest L. Boyer, who died on December 8, 1995, was a good friend and professional colleague. I will miss our long conversations about schools, teaching, and learning.
Ernie was full of questions, curious about almost everything. He saw no limits to the possibility of schools being important communities of learning and settings where our largest, most democratic aspirations are fostered.
He loved to hear about teachers who found fresh ways to engage students, who made creative connections across curriculum areas, who inspired strong relationships with parents. He was joyful in settings where children were present. He was fascinated with children's language and their sense of outwardness toward others. And he welcomed occasions to converse directly with students and teachers, to hear their stories, to understand more fully their experiences in the schools.
It was clear to those of us who worked closely with Ernie that through the past two decades he has been one of America's most reliable educators. He was the person the public knew would present ideas for constructive change in the schools—ideas that had a real chance of being implemented.
Most of all, Ernie brought those with divergent views together. He sought the common ground. That was his particular genius. And it will be missed greatly. So will his resonant, confident, optimistic voice, which made a great difference in all levels of American education.

A New Conversation

I remember when others tried to make teachers the scapegoats of America's educational failures, and Ernie said with power and conviction that school reform would be impossible without the energy, commitment, and imagination of teachers already in the schools. He helped start a different conversation.
When others suggested various market strategies for reforming the schools. Ernie asked about equity. He always wanted assurance that the least advantaged would be served well.
When others saw parents in urban and poorer rural communities as an intractable problem, Ernie reminded us that parents are children's first and most important teachers. He understood the need to help all parents become teachers and educational partners to their children.
When others made the case for more security systems and harsher forms of discipline in urban schools, Ernie said we should create smaller settings where students could get more personal attention, settings where teachers could work more intensively with students and the community.
When others argued for a narrow curriculum limited to basic skills, Ernie spoke of the importance of the arts and community service.
When others saw the future only in terms of high-powered technology, Ernie encouraged us to maintain a human face in the schools. He knew the importance of books, blocks, and easels.
And when others wanted to put everything aside and start over, Ernie suggested that we keep the practices that work and find a way to let them dominate.
I could, of course, continue this kind of discussion for a very long time. On every education issue that has emerged since the 1970s, Ernie found a way to help shape the debate. That was the mission he set for himself and the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.
Ernie was a pragmatist. He wanted to see results.
His tenure as U.S. Commissioner of Education (1976-79) convinced him that the secondary schools in America were in need of change. In High School, he set forth the directions that those in and around the secondary schools could understand and do something about. He was aware that public policy arguments needed to be understandable and have an historical base that matched people's experience. He knew that any policy changes needed to be seen as practical, without unraveling everything and alienating those central to carrying out the change.

His Most Important Contributions

  • the interim semester, that month between college semesters as a time to focus on a single academic or internship experience;
  • the first major student exchange with the Soviet Union at the height of the arms race, what Ernie called a "step toward new possibilities";
  • the development of Empire State College, the first major adult, non-campus-based college program in the United States;
  • and his seven important books covering several major levels of education (see "Books by Ernest Boyer").

Books By Ernest Boyer

Among Ernest Boyer's major works:

  • High School: A Report on Secondary Education America (New York: Harper and Row 1983).

  • College: The Undergraduate Experience in America (New York: Harper and Row, 1987).

  • Campus Life: In Search of Community. A Special Report (Princeton: The Carnegie Foundation for Advancement of Teaching, 1990).

  • Scholarship Reconsidered (Princeton: The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, 1990).

  • Ready to Learn (Princeton: The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, 1991).

  • School Choice (Princeton: The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, 1992).

The Basic School (Princeton: The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, 1995).

In regard to the books, I think the points he would want remembered include creating a more integrated curriculum, the importance of supporting good teaching, and the need to focus on students. Ernie also knew how imperative it was to involve parents in the educational encounter, and the power of integrating classrooms and neighborhoods so children could learn by interacting with their elders. And few put forward such a compelling case for the early years.
Ernie Boyer was a teacher in every sense. And his students, armed with the power of his ideas, are in every corner of this nation.
Senator Edward Kennedy spoke for many of us when he noted: "Ernie once said he had so many projects to complete, he wished he could live for 200 years. He accomplished more for the nation's students, parents, and teachers in his 67 years than anyone else could have accomplished in 200."

Vito Perrone has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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