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February 1, 1995
Vol. 52
No. 5

A Portrait of Ernest Boyer

“To give knowledge to students but also to channel knowledge to humane ends,” says Ernest Boyer, are our most compelling obligations as educators.

Formerly U.S. Commissioner of Education and Chancellor of the State University of New York, Ernest Boyer is one of the great humanists of our time. I talked with Boyer, who is now president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, the day after he visited the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., and he was still under the spell of that chilling experience. “Even `educated' men can listen to fine music and read great literature in their homes in the evening,” he said gravely, “and the next morning go to the camp to slaughter their fellow human beings.”
Boyer and I spoke in his commodious office at the Carnegie Foundation, surrounded by books and photographs of himself with such political leaders as Jimmy Carter, George Shultz, and Ronald Reagan. The Holocaust Museum remained with Boyer as we began to speak of education and his career. “Many of those perpetrators of ultimate evil held advanced degrees,” commented Boyer, “so the questions that came to me once again are those I've asked for 40 years: What are the most essential aims of education? What is the relationship between education and ethical behavior? Are we, in fact, educating toward evil if we fail to place knowledge in a larger moral context?”

Early Lessons, Compelling Questions

Throughout his career, Boyer has always raised large questions, pondering such issues as aesthetics, ethics, and the environment as he thought about curriculum or political change. The bedrock of Boyer's humanism is an intense engagement with people.
Born in Dayton, Ohio, one year before the onset of the Depression, Boyer witnessed the privation of that era, but was fortunate to escape its personal touch. Ernie, his mother, and two brothers worked in the family greeting card and office supplies mail-order business. From his father, a successful businessman, he learned “lessons of persistence and diligence and hard work,” but it was his paternal grandfather William H. Boyer, a minister, who directed him toward “a people-centered life.” He admired his grandfather's compassion, especially toward children, as well as his ability to listen and to ask good questions.
Throughout his schooling, Boyer was consistently drawn to teachers who emphasized language and the exhilaration of learning. Miss Rice, his 1st grade teacher, kindled Ernie's interest in language and writing. Later, a high school history teacher, Carlton Wittlinger, showed young Boyer that “history was not frozen but in the making,” Boyer said. Wittlinger also told Ernie that he could be a good student, an affirmation that helped Boyer rethink who he was and where he was going.
Boyer took his newfound confidence to Greenville College, a small liberal arts school in Illinois, where he became engaged in debate and college politics. Debate, said Boyer, inspired his “interest in the whole field of language.... and taught me how to manage ideas and words.” In addition, his election as president of the student body at Greenville, an affirmation by his peers, had a profound influence on Boyer, who had never before thought of himself as a leader.
In graduate school, literature and speech dominated Boyer's interests, ultimately leading to a doctorate in speech pathology from the University of Southern California and a postdoctoral fellowship in medical audiology at the University of Iowa Hospital. Boyer's view of language as “an interactive reverberating system,” although always fascinating to him, soon ceased to be the central focus in his career.
After teaching at Loyola University in Los Angeles, Boyer became academic dean at Upland College. From then on, his commitment was to educational administration. At Upland, he introduced a program where the mid-year term—the month of January—became a creative study time. This 4-1-4 plan has been emulated by hundreds of other colleges. Boyer held two more administrative posts in California. At the first, which was sponsored by the Western College Association, he focused on the question, “What does it mean to be an educated teacher?” The goal of the second, at the University of California-Santa Barbara, was “to connect the university with surrounding schools.”

A Time of Growth

In 1965, Boyer headed east to become executive dean at the State University of New York. He remained at SUNY until 1977, seven years as its chancellor. Reflecting on those years, Boyer remarked, “New York is a great place to work. The politicians play hardball, but they know the rules, and Rockefeller was one of the most remarkable public figures I've known.”
This period was one of enormous growth in the SUNY system and also a time when Boyer generated one new idea after another. For example, he established Empire State College, a noncampus college where adults studied with mentors through contracts. “The system is still in place,” added Boyer, “and all the data show that it works at least as well as traditional education.” The concept institutionalized the notion of flexible, lifelong learning and gave it credibility. In addition, Boyer launched an experimental three-year Bachelor of Arts program, in response to a question he had often pondered, “Why four years and not three or five?”
Another approach Boyer took to personalize the huge SUNY institution was to reach out to faculty and administrators. The summer institutes and retreats he initiated were on a human scale and served as seedbeds for ideas. From establishing a five-year review of presidents, to creating the new rank of Distinguished Teaching Professor, to approving statewide student government— the ideas kept coming.
Boyer also had an enduring interest in international education. In 1976, SUNY signed the first agreement between the Soviet Union and the United States for undergraduate exchanges. SUNY also signed a similar agreement with universities in the State of Israel. “My goal as chancellor,” Boyer said, “was to emphasize the human side of organizations, the creative side, the international side of organizations.”

The Move to Washington

In 1977, President Carter invited Boyer to become the 23rd Commissioner of Education. At first, Boyer resisted the Washington job offer, partly because at that time the education office was buried in the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, and partly because the bloom was not off the New York job. Ultimately, he found the Washington experience to be invaluable. As he expressed it, “I became informed about the issues of public education, got involved in discussions about excellence and equality, and confronted more directly the crisis that may overwhelm us in the end: the gap between the haves and the have-nots.”
One of Boyer's first tasks was to redirect the discussion about equity. His predecessors in the '60s and early '70s had focused on equality of opportunity, a long overdue issue that Boyer wanted to reintroduce. Boyer was the first commissioner to implement the new Education for All Handicapped Act, and he became acutely aware of the plight of Native Americans. As commissioner, he redirected effort and funds to this group that had historically been “so scandalously neglected.”
Boyer found Washington to be more challenging than New York, but he managed to secure federal funds for education—cumulatively receiving a 40 percent increase in three years. He also created the Horace Mann Learning Center in the U.S. Office of Education to promote lifelong learning—and miraculously it lasted 10 years. That program was the exception, however; Boyer found that “federal agencies don't have continuity of leadership.” Permanent job holders were reluctant to pledge loyalty to any idea or leader because it or the person would soon be replaced.
Boyer did all that he could, therefore, to focus on the largest idea he believed the federal government was duty-bound to pursue, morally and constitutionally: to bridge the gap between the haves and have-nots and overcome the handicaps that come out of economic disadvantage and social prejudice. Toward the end of the Carter administration, Boyer received an offer from the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, and he left Washington for a career that mixed contemplation with activism.

“The Best Education Job in the Country”

The Carnegie Foundation was formally chartered by Congress in 1906. The currency of the foundation is words based on ideas, irresistible to Boyer, who had been a member of the Carnegie board of trustees. Over a period of decades, through dozens of reports, books, and seminars, the foundation had built deep credibility in the education community: “When the foundation reports are released, people take notice,” said Boyer. Now in his 13th year at Carnegie, Boyer is certain he made the right move: “It's the best education job in the country.... I work on ideas I think are consequential and try to shape the debate.... I am in an organization that is 90 percent ideas and 10 percent hassle.”
One of the first things Boyer did was broaden the foundation agenda to include the public schools. In 1980, he asked the board to launch a study of the American high school. In initiating his first proposal, Boyer cautioned the board, “You can't have good colleges if you don't have good schools.” The result was the highly influential High School (1983), completed just before the release of A Nation At Risk. The book insisted that teachers be at the vortex of any reform and called for community service—a new Carnegie unit that would give young people purpose beyond self-satisfaction. Community service was a concept not mentioned in A Nation At Risk.
College: The Undergraduate Experience followed logically in 1986. This book emphasized excellence in undergraduate college teaching, as well as attention to social and cocurricular experiences, which are so important during the years between between adolescence and adulthood. “The attention that's been given in the last five years to undergraduate education and to good teaching have been strongly stirred by the priorities we have been pushing here,” said Boyer.
In 1991, Scholarship Reconsidered, a report that has received more response than Boyer ever imagined, set priorities for a college faculty, which include discovering knowledge through research and then integrating and applying that knowledge in useful ways. Scholarship Reconsidered will soon be followed by Scholarship Assessed, which will evaluate the role of the faculty.
Boyer's resolve—through the debates, speeches, and reports of the past 10 years—has been to shine a beacon on undergraduate education and, as he put it, especially to inspire faculty to recommit themselves to teaching. A recent report, Ready to Learn, describes how the nation can respond to that education goal.

The Big Picture

A conversation with Ernest Boyer moves recursively among the importance of the humanities, the centrality of language, the need for larger purpose, the role of a nonsectarian spiritual element in education, and the foundation of his life: his wife and four children. About his wife Kathryn, he says, “I have drawn more inspiration from my wife of 43 years than any other person on the planet.” His children are all involved in varied careers of service. One son is a chaplain, his daughter followed his wife's career in nursing, and two sons are involved in cross-cultural education—one in Belize, who works with Mayans, and the other in Maryland, who edits a journal on American Indian education.
Ernest Boyer's achievements and influence are vast. He holds honorary degrees from 123 colleges and universities; was designated Educator of the Year in 1990 by U.S. News and World Report; was named to national commissions by Presidents Carter, Nixon, and Ford; is a member of the Board of Directors of Lincoln Center, and was a recent recipient of one of the Charles Frankel Prizes for humanities presented by President Clinton—to name just a few honors and achievement. But it is his clear-sighted humanistic view of education in an era when science, math, and testing have been in ascendance that makes him a treasured spokesperson for the spiritual and human center of the great education enterprise. For 40 years, Ernest Boyer has been resolute about what matters. As he expressed it: To increase test scores or to be world class in math and science without empowering students or affirming the dignity of human life is to lose the essence of what we and education are presumably all about....In the end, our goal must be not only to prepare students for careers, but also to enable them to live with dignity and purpose; not only to give knowledge to the student, but also to channel knowledge to humane ends.... Educating a new generation of Americans to their full potential is still our most compelling obligation.

Mark F. Goldberg, Ph.D.

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