Allison Davis and the Study of Race, Social Class, and Schooling

By Hillis, Michael R. | The Journal of Negro Education, Winter 1995 | Go to article overview

Allison Davis and the Study of Race, Social Class, and Schooling


Hillis, Michael R., The Journal of Negro Education


INTRODUCTION

When we examine the historical contributions that early African American scholars made to the field of multicultural education, one individual we should not ignore is Allison Davis (1902-1983). Though Davis spent his entire professional life trying to understand the influences of race, class, and culture on educational development, his work has gone largely unnoticed in recent years (Harrison, 1988). Whatever the reasons for this obscurity, this article presents a case for the need to reexamine his work-work that contains important insights for he field of multicultural education.

Allison Davis believed that educational institutions, because they are strongly influenced by race, class, and culture, cannot work in isolation. Through his books, most notably Children of Bondage: The Personality Development of Negro Youth in the Urban South (1940, with John Dollard), Deep South: A Social Anthropological Study of Caste and Class (1941, with Burleigh B. Gardner and Mary R. Gardner), and Social-Class Influences Upon Learning (1948), Davis showed that it is essential to examine all facets of students' lives if we are to adequately provide them with appropriate educational experiences.

This article examines the life and work of Allison Davis from three perspectives: first, it provides biographical information to help place Davis in the context of his time and influences; second, it presents an examination of his three major works and a discussion of their relevance for contemporary educational researchers and practitioners; third, it discusses his contribution to our present understanding of multicultural education by examining contemporary works in relation to his ideas.

A BIOGRAPHICAL PERSPECTIVE(1)

Allison Davis was born in Washington, D.C., on October 10, 1902. He grew up at a time in U.S. history when the country was experiencing economic prosperity and tremendous social change. Having shown an abundance of academic promise while in high school, Davis enrolled at Williams College in Massachusetts in 1920. He continued to excel academically at Williams, where he majored in English and graduated summa cum laude in 1924 with a bachelor of arts degree. Encouraged by his academic success as an undergraduate, Davis applied for and was accepted as a graduate student at Harvard University in 1924, where he received a master's degree in English in 1925.

Between 1925 and 1932, Davis taught English Literature at Hampton Institute (now University) in Virginia and was a research associate at Yale University's Institute for Human Relations. One of his most renowned students at Hampton was St. Clair Drake, who became a noted sociologist. In 1932, Davis returned to Harvard to pursue another master's degree in anthropology. After completing his studies at Harvard, Davis was awarded a fellowship from the Julius Rosenwald Fund that enabled him to study at the London School of Economics under the direction of Bronislaw Malinowski, author of Magic, Science and Religion (1948), and Lancelot Hogben, author of Political Arithmetic (1938).

In 1933, as the U.S. was beginning to recover from the effects of the Depression, Davis and his wife Elizabeth returned from Europe and moved to Mississippi with fellow social anthropologists Burleigh and Mary Gardner to conduct a study on the class and caste system within that state. The Davises collected data on the Black subjects, while the Gardners managed the White subjects. Their findings became the basis for Deep South. After completing the Mississippi study, Davis began a five-year teaching assignment at Dillard University in New Orleans. 1939, he received a second fellowship award, which enabled him to attend the University of Chicago in pursuit of his doctoral degree. By 1940, Davis was offered a teaching position at the university, making him the first African American professor ever to be hired by that institution. From this position, he continued the work he had begun with his studies on class and caste in the U. …

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