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An alumnus of TC’s Minority Postdoctoral Fellowship believes education needs to respond to students’ cultural orientations


As Eric Hurley sees it, too much of the current conversation in the United States about students of color and the achievement gap is “completely backwards.”

“So much is framed around this idea of ‘fixing’ minority children,” says Hurley, Associate Professor of Psychology & Africana Studies at California’s Pomona College. “We’re always trying to figure out how to tweak their motivation, change their outlook, make them fit into this image we have of the ideal student. We’re not meaningfully considering how to make education fit the children.” School should focus on accepting children for who they are and on educating them by building on what they bring to the table, Hurley says. “The overwhelming majority of the children are fine, I promise you, and learning at an alarming rate. They may not be learning the things we want them to learn, but that’s on us, not them.”

Hurley, who spent 2001-2002 as a Minority Post-Doctoral Fellow at Teachers College, has devoted much of his career to studying African-American culture and more broadly, to investigating whether culture-based orientations can predict attitudes and behavior. At Pomona, he teaches a course called Culture and Human Development: African Diaspora. He also mentors a group of 10 students from Chicago through the Posse Foundation, a merit-based scholarship program that helps students stay in college by placing them in supportive cohorts.

In a 2009 article in Cognition and Instruction, Hurley, Winston-Salem State University’s Brenda Allen and Howard University’s A. Wade Boykin, document how communally (as opposed to individualistic) configured elementary math class benefitted African-American children, who are often socialized to value groups even as their schools emphasize individual effort and competition.

“When you require students who are oriented toward collaboration and helping one another, to learn in highly individualized or competitive classrooms, you have created an extra and unnecessary hurdle,” Hurley says. “On top of that, educators often also convey a not so subtle message that what minority children bring to the table, who they are even, is simply not worthy or welcome at school. So we shouldn’t be surprised if sometimes these students decide they are unwilling. We can disagree with their choice but should not mistake it for not valuing learning or education.  I call that what it is: defending their identity and their sense of self. Some will choose to play along, but some will say, ‘no thanks.’”

Minority Postdoctoral Fellow Spotlights

Hurley's more recent work finds that many of these same issues remain at play in higher educations settings. "Its related to the nationwide protests that were/are occurring on college campuses for about the last year or more. Black and other minority students are finding their voices, and what they have to say is that they are have had enough of feeling like unwelcome visitors at institutions whose job is to serve them." 

Almost 15 years after TC, Hurley is able to put into perspective the role the fellowship played in developing his career and helping him land at a highly-ranked institution. Even after earning his PhD in developmental psychology at Howard and winning a dissertation award from the American Psychological Association, “I wasn’t finding the doors as open as I had hoped,” he recalls. The fellowship opportunity came at just the right time.

Hurley says working in TC’s department of Human Development helped him find time to delve into serious academic writing, producing half a dozen “solid drafts” of articles that would later be published. He also worked with the noted educational psychologist Edmund Gordon, founder of TC’s Institute of Minority Education, and fellow post-doctoral fellow, Erica Walker, now Professor of Mathematics & Education at TC, on research on dynamic pedagogy and assessment in education. “I made great connections with people like Ed Gordon and many others. It’s not a secret that such networking matters much in this world."

After leaving TC he held visiting professorships at Smith College and the University of Massachusetts at Amherst – and soon enough the doors were indeed bursting open. Hurley turned down job offers at two top-tier research universities to take the job at Pomona in 2007, and is more than happy with that decision. By then I'd figured out that I care a great deal about work-life balance, so I’d have to say this is about the best gig I could have landed.”

“When I look back at my TC experience, it was a time I was really able to mature as a scholar, as a thinker, and as a writer, and it helped me up my academic pedigree to some degree too,” he says. – Ellen Livingston

Published Friday, Jan 22, 2016

Eric Hurley
TC Minority Postdoctoral Fellow alumnus Eric Hurley with students he mentor at Pomona College through The Posse (Photo courtesy of Eric Hurley)