Always Agitating -- But Never Agitated | Teachers College Columbia University

Skip to content Skip to main navigation

Always Agitating -- But Never Agitated

In his calm way, Edmund Gordon has helped change the world. In June, TC hosted a celebration of his 90th birthday
In his calm way, Edmund Gordon has helped change the world. In June, TC hosted a celebration of his 90th birthday

By Joe Levine

“The great abolitionist Frederick Douglass once said that the three effective ways to fight for justice are ‘agitate, agitate, agitate.’ Throughout his long, storied and accomplished career, Ed Gordon has agitated fearlessly and brilliantly for education justice throughout the land.”

TC President Susan Fuhrman was among a cast of luminaries who spoke in June at a special 90th birthday event for Gordon, TC’s Richard March Hoe Emeritus Professor of Psychology and Education, and founder of the College’s Institute for Urban and Minority Education (IUME). Headlined “On His Shoulders We Stand: Celebrating the Life-long Work and the 90th Birthday of Edmund W. Gordon,” the event, hosted by Teachers College, included a luncheon at the Columbia Faculty House and an afternoon symposium in TC’s Cowin Conference Center devoted to Gordon’s work.

To enable members of the TC community to pay tribute to Edmund Gordon’s lifelong accomplishments and relationship to the College, we have chosen to establish a Fellowship in his name. The Edmund W. Gordon Fellowship Fund at TC will provide resources in and out of the classroom for the students that study under IUME, supporting students and graduates in the education field who are implementing into practice those tenets proven to give underserved children the assistance they need to soar. To contribute to or learn more about the  the Edmund W. Gordon Fellowship Fund, please contact Janet Egan at or 212-678-3089

The gathering of family, friends and colleagues included Gordon’s wife of 50 years, the pediatrician Susan Gordon; Yale psychologist and TC Trustee James Comer; Marion Wright Edelman, founding president of the Children’s Defense Fund; the education researcher and past AERA president Carol Lee; former Bank Street College president Augusta Kappner; Ernest Morrell, the new director of IUME, who was recently elected Vice President of the National Council of Teachers of English; and many other prominent names in education and other fields.  Gordon received proclamations from New York City Councilman Robert Jackson and State Assemblywoman Ellen Jaffee, whose district includes represents Gordon’s home turf of Rockland County, as well as a Presidential Citation from the American Psychological Association.

Gordon has served the world as a psychologist, minister, community activist, writer, scholar, researcher, and educator. His many achievements include pioneering the street youth worker model in Harlem in response to gang wars; founding (with his wife) one of the first comprehensive clinics serving underprivileged children, work that anticipated current efforts such as the Harlem Children’s Zone; participating in initial analysis of the landmark Coleman report; serving as research director for Head Start under President Johnson and helping to write the first Elementary and Secondary Education Act; founding TC’s Institute for Urban and Minority Education and later serving as the College’s Vice President for Academic Affairs and Acting Dean; being named emeritus professor at both TC and Yale; and holding the position of Senior Scholar in Residence at the College Board.

But regardless of Gordon’s medium, Fuhrman said, “he has always spoken one central truth to power:  that human beings come hard-wired with individual strengths and weaknesses, but they ultimately are products of their circumstances and surroundings beginning with their home environment.”

The home is the primary theater for what Gordon, the son of a physician and a school teacher, has termed “supplementary education” -- the formal and informal learning that children receive through their families, in personal relationships and through community groups and religious institutions.

“In communities blighted by poverty, ill health, violence, ignorance and fear, children are much less likely to receive the supplementary education they need to live full productive lives, Fuhrman said. “As Ed has taught us, society has the responsibility to step in and provide disadvantaged children and their families with the support and resources they need.”  

Comer –Maurice Falk Professor of Child Psychiatry at Yale, and himself a revered champion of educational interventions to serve minority children – called Gordon “my aging role model – if you type in Google and say ‘successful aging,’ you’ll get a picture of Ed Gordon.”

But, Comer said, Gordon’s influence on his own career stretches back much further.

“As a young psychologist, I was working at the National Institute of Mental Health, and I was one of two African Americans among the multitude of professionals – the other was Frederick Douglass’s grandson. I remember the buzz when Ed Gordon came to speak. He was a source of great pride to me, and I felt a little less lonely.”

Comer praised Gordon for his focus on supplementary education; for “preserving and promoting knowledge of the African American experience and diaspora”; but perhaps above all for his singular style of advocacy.

“Ed agitates, but in a way that’s as calm and cool as our president -- or maybe our president is as calm and cool as Ed,” Comer said, to laughter and applause. “A couple of years ago I was very frustrated with the direction in education – the emphasis on test scores and accountability -- and I was about to blow my top. I went in and talked to Ed, and told him I felt the need to say something rude. He said, ‘If you do that, they’ll just make a big fuss and then it will disappear.’ His point was that it’s through persistent scholarship and demonstration that you make a difference. And that’s what Ed has done over the years: to make known what we know and push for applying what we know, as opposed to doing everything except what we know makes a difference.” 

Gordon remains an active figure on the education scene. This past spring he was named to lead a two-year study funded by ETS – the Gordon Commission on the Future of Assessment in K-12 education. Meanwhile, he has just published a “conceptual memoir, Pedagogical Imagination, which distills his major ideas, and which was the subject of the afternoon symposium in the Cowin Center. 

At that event, Gordon said he views the work of his own early mentors, Howard Thurman and W.E.B. Du Bois, not “as dogma but as gemlike products of human thought that inspire me to use my intelligence and my imagination to build upon and to guide my activity through my own human agency.” He expressed the hope that “you will do the same with the ideas that I am leaving behind.”

Published Thursday, Jun. 30, 2011