Academic journal article Education Next

The Life and Times of James S. Coleman: Hero and Villain of School Policy Research

Academic journal article Education Next

The Life and Times of James S. Coleman: Hero and Villain of School Policy Research

Article excerpt

GIVEN HIS EARLY EDUCATIONAL EXPERIENCES, it is astonishing that James Samuel Coleman became one of the most eminent sociologists of the 20th century and the author of some of its most influential education studies.

Born in Indiana in 1926, Coleman attended school there, in Ohio, and in Louisville, Kentucky--where his high-school education did little to stimulate an interest in academic pursuits. Beyond sports, nothing engaged or challenged him.

After a stint in the military, Coleman earned a degree in chemical engineering from Purdue University, and began working at the Eastman Kodak company. That work, though, did not satisfy his intellectual curiosity. After two years at the company, he enrolled in graduate school at Columbia University.

In a short unpublished autobiography, Coleman later wrote: "I came to Columbia resolving to give the educational system one last chance. It had failed, I felt, through high school and the several colleges I had attended. My teachers had been engaged in transmitting information, but none (except two at Purdue) had been interested in me, in what I might do with the information they had imparted."

In graduate school, then, he took an entirely different direction: "I decided to go back to school, either in physical chemistry, which I had especially enjoyed as an undergraduate, or in social psychology, which I had come to be interested in [while] taking an evening course at the University of Rochester," Coleman said in an interview with the sociologist Richard Swedberg. "I finally decided upon the latter, because regarding myself as relatively indolent, I... chose the area that was of greater intrinsic interest to me, and thus could claim a greater fraction of my attention throughout my life."

Giving that "last chance" to Columbia proved a good bet. Coleman received his doctorate in sociology in 1955 and joined the faculty at the University of Chicago a year later. In 1959, he moved to Johns Hopkins University, where he founded what became the Department of Sociology, and returned to Chicago as University Professor in 1973. Though he is best known today for his work on the massive study that produced "Equality of Educational Opportunity" (EEO), or the Coleman Report, Coleman's intellectual appetite was prodigious.

"Jim Coleman never had a single research and scholarly agenda," said Barbara Schneider, one of his co-authors on Redesigning American Education (1997). "The scope of his interests was enormous, and the range and depth of his intellectual pursuits could only be described as staggering." In addition to his research in education, Coleman launched the field of mathematical sociology, provided new models for understanding power in societies, and constructed a theoretical framework for human behavior amenable to both economists and sociologists.

So what of that "failure" of his earlier education? His father was a teacher and coach, but he left education for manufacturing and moved his family frequently. In the summer following Jim's freshman year of high school, the Colemans moved to Louisville. At Male High, the city's college-preparatory school for boys, the admissions deadline had passed, so Jim enrolled at duPont Manual High, a vocational and engineering school where football was king. He joined the team, though he later conceded, "Arguably, my comparative advantage lay elsewhere." Looking back on those days, he remembered "wanting to make a pact" with the teachers "by saying, 'Look, I don't care if you don't teach us anything. Just leave intact the curiosity and inquisitiveness we had when we came to school.'"

He graduated from high school in 1944, and that June, the battlegrounds of World War II expanded to France, where thousands of Allied soldiers began landing on the shores of Normandy to reclaim the country. Coleman started college in the fall, but soon left to join the U.S. Navy. In and out of the military and educational institutions during these tumultuous times, Coleman completed his bachelor's degree in 1949. …

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