This Oral History is copyrighted by the Interviewee
and the Samuel Proctor Oral History Program on
behalf of the Board of Trustees of the University of
Copyright, 2005, University of Florida.
All rights, reserved.
This oral history may be used for research,
instruction, and private study under the provisions
of Fair Use. Fair Use is a provision of United States
Copyright Law (United States Code, Title 17, section
107) which allows limited use of copyrighted
materials under certain conditions.
Fair use limts the amount of material that may be
For all other permissions and requests, contact the
SAMUEL PROCTOR ORAL HISTORY PROGRAM at
the University of Florida
Interviewer: David Ashwell
Interviewee: Rodman Webb
Date: February 22, 1995
A: My name is David Ashwell, Jr. I am here in plush Room 1411 of the new
Norman Hall on the campus of the University of Florida. It is about three o'clock
in the afternoon. I am interviewing Rodman Webb. We are going to talk about
his life. First of all, I want to thank you for doing this. I know you are a busy guy.
I am interviewing you because I am interested in your life and also because you
were and are a great professor. I continue to learn from you. Thank you for
W: It is kind of you to say so. I am pleased to do it.
A: [I would like] to start off by getting into your past of your family. From where does
the name Webb come? Is there any significance to that name?
W: I do not know what the derivations of the name are. We now are beginning to do
our own family tree and are trying to figure that out. That is the kind of thing you
do after your parents die. You say, "Oh my goodness. There is stuff we should
have asked, and we did not. There is a tree we should have done." The Webb
line goes back to about 1700. We think we can go back [further], but there is a
connection we cannot find yet with a Jonathan Webb in New York City. We are
at work on that.
A: Did these folks come from England?
W: Yes. That line came from England. We are not sure what the English
connection is. We have prowled around in England following Webbs, but we
cannot figure that out yet. We cannot prove anything yet. My father was a man
[who was greatly interested in history] and also had a great imagination.
Sometimes imagination filled in where facts would not. So we are not clear really
on some of that stuff yet. Though in other things he was very good, and left us
with some pretty clear notes.
A: So this is a New York family essentially?
W: He came in at that area we think and then migrated west to Colorado. Then he
migrated back east. The generation of my father was the generation that
migrated back east.
A: Why did they come back east? Was it business interests?
W: Yes. His father was in the railroad industry and was going where the railroads
A: What was the name of your grandfather?
W: Jean Francis Webb.
A: And the name of your father?
W: Jean Francis Webb.
A: And your name? [Laughter]
W: The name of my older brother is Jean Francis Webb. My older brother is Jean
Francis IV. He decided that anything more than that was cruel and unusual
punishment to children. So he did not pass [the name] on.
A: So your father Jean Francis Webb was raised in New York City or the state?
W: He was raised in Colorado, but then moved east. [He] went to high school in
White Plains, New York.
A: Did he meet your mother in New York?
W: Yes. She came east. She was in Hawaii. She came east from Honolulu at
twenty. [She] met my father. Both of them were writing at the time. I guess
when he met her, she was probably not writing yet. She was working for
newspapers selling ad space.
A: What was the name of your mother?
W: Nancy Bukeley was her maiden name. She [became] Nancy Bukeley Webb.
A: You mentioned that they were writers. What sort of educational background did
your parents have beyond high school?
W: My mother went to Punahou School in Honolulu, which is a preparatory school.
Somewhere in there, [she] spent a year in Switzerland. [She] had more
schooling there [and] went back and finished in Punahou, but never went beyond
that. My father went to Anderson College.
A: I have heard, I think, from you and from others as well that there was some sort
of involvement on the part of your parents with The New Yorker. Is that
W: That is not quite true. They were in New York at the time when there were a lot
of writers and a lot of stuff was happening.
A: When was this?
W: This was 1929, 1930, or 1931. If I had known you were going to ask me those
kind of questions, I would have pulled that stuff out. I have forgotten exactly
when dad graduated from college. I ought to be able to figure this out. He was
born in 1910. He was sixteen when he went to college, so it was 1930 when he
graduated. He hit New York right then. He was doing work for New York City
and writing up a storm.
A: What kind of writing were your parents doing?
W: Anything that would make money. He was one of the few people in the world
and the United States who made his living totally by writing without any other
income from doing any other thing. I guess there was some acting at the
beginning of his career and some other stuff. For the most part, he did nothing
but write. I suppose there are not 2,000 or 3,000 people in the United States
who do that. He wrote whatever he needed to write in order to put potatoes on
the table. At that time, he was very interested in mystery writing, and had done a
couple of mystery books. [He] had done a lot of pulp fiction. My mother was
writing for radio. Both of them started to write for radio.
A: Was your mother also interested in mystery writing?
W: She never did mystery writing, although she wrote mysteries for the radio. She
was one of the authors of Chick Carter, Boy Detective.
A: Which still is played.
W: That is Nick. This was Chick. Chick was his son or something. Blackstone, the
Magic Detective was one I remember from the early days. They would have
crews of writers. There would be three, four, or five in a crew to knock these
things out. They were sometimes daily shows. You were writing madly all the
A: What kind of family life did you have with these inveterate writers? [Laughter]
W: There was a question about The New Yorker on that. This kind of ties into the
kind of family life. We were all living in New York City. My older brother was
born in 1941; he is four years older than I. Then eight years later, a younger
brother [was born]. Four years later, another brother [was born]. I will give you
their names. My older brother is Jean Francis Webb IV. I am Rodman Bukeley
Webb, catching my middle name from the maiden name of my mother. My next
brother is Morrison deSoto Webb. My youngest brother is Alexander Henderson
Webb. We used to give prizes to people who could do all the naming. We
always thought dad was doing it with a view of what would look good on the
nameplate of the office of a [company] president.
So we got The New Yorker here, and we have to got to finish up on it. There
were just a number of authors who were around and working and who, of course,
knew each other. There was a lot of interplay. In fact, I do not know what
authors from The New Yorker they knew, if any, at that time. They were very
good friends later in their life with Robert Benchley Jr., who was the son of
Robert Benchley. He was part of the Algonquin Round Table activity. He
certainly had acquaintances who were in that round table, and always had stories
about the round table.
A: Just for those of us who are among the uninitiated, give us some background
about the Algonquin Round Table. What was that?
W: They were a bunch of very witty, very productive, hard drinking, young authors,
some having to do with The New Yorker, and some having to do with other stuff.
Dorothy Parker was among them. Robert Benchley was among them. They
would gather at the Algonquin Hotel in New York and have great lunches in
which they would entertain one another with their wit and cynicism. There are
wonderful histories of this and biographies of these people. It was a kind of a
golden age in New York for people like that in the 1920s to the 1950s.
A: Were your parents happy people doing this?
A: This was a satisfying life for them?
W: Sure. They were by nature happy people. There is no doubt about that. They
had wonderful senses of humor. They loved parties and their friends. They had
friends who lasted their whole lifetime. They certainly loved that. They also were
financially strapped folks working as they were in this kind of activity. They made
sacrifices for the family. They made a few sacrifices of great significance for their
sons. The first one was, at least by Webb lore, that my brother toddled home
from an outing from Central Park, Washington Square, or something. He said,
"Gee, is there any place where you can walk on the grass?" My parents looked
at each other and felt an obligation to move out of the city to the country, which
they did in a rather interesting community in upper Westchester County where it
was largely farmers, writers, and artists who did not have to commute every day
into New York City. Sixty miles was a long commute in those days by train.
There were all kinds of [people who lived in that area]. Lawrence Beall Smith,
who was a very good painter, lived in that area. Dick and Francis Lockridge, who
wrote the Mr. and Mrs. North series of books, movies, and other things; Faith
Baldwin, who wrote romance novels for years--all of them lived close to us in
those areas. It was a very interesting area. It was miles from the city, and my
parents were urban people and scurried back to the city as soon as their four
boys were out of college. The other sacrifice they made was sending all four
boys to boarding school and college. We had scholarships, and we all worked.
It was an immense expense for people on a limited income of writing for money.
[They] were writing sometimes for a penny a word.
A: It was lucrative then.
W: Not necessarily lucrative stuff.
A: So what boarding schools did you go to respectively, you and your brothers?
W: All but Toby, who was my brother Morrison, went to Trinity Pauling School in
Pauling, New York. Toby went to Exident (PLEASE VERIFY SPELLING).
A: It sounds like it was a pretty lofty, intellectual climate in the Webb household.
Were you encouraged to read as a youngster? Did you develop an appreciation
of the written word when you were out with these people?
W: It was a very adult atmosphere. My parents just worked that way. They were not
child-centered in the sense of, "Let us figure out how the children think." They
simply went on just doing their stuff and invited us to take part in it. As
youngsters we used to like to sit first on the outside, and as we grew older we
moved closer and closer to the circle of people who would be sitting and talking
because interesting things were ongoing.
A: What are some of your earliest memories of notables with whom you rubbed
elbows? Because of your parents having the friends they had it maybe
influenced your thinking.
W: I think there probably were notables, but the ones I remember are not folks of
great importance. There were people moving in and out. Campbell, for example,
long before he was known for doing his myth stuff .
A: This is Joseph Campbell?
W: Yes. [He was] in proximity because he married a friend of my parents who had
been a bridesmaid in their wedding. There were people like that around. I do not
know that we stopped and said, "We have really got to attend to [them]."
A: You did not get the autograph of Joseph Campbell? [Laughter]
W: No. It did not occur to us to do so. Bill Blass was an acquaintance who would
take us to the circus on occasion and things like that. There were people like
that. I do not know that we were ever tied up with much of it. My parents were
interesting in that they had friends like that. They had other people in the
community who were not famous at all. One of their great friends was a square-
dance caller in the area. He turned out to be very famous and kind of
As a matter of fact, Allen Sheen (PLEASE VERIFY SPELLING) picked him up
for the square-dance ballets that he did. When he started and when we first
knew him, he was a gardener. As a matter of fact, one of my earliest memories
was bringing the family getting him the New York Times review of his debut,
which was just raving. They thought it was just a wonderful ballet. We could not
get him because it was his day to work on the lawn of somebody. He was
mowing a lawn for somebody.
A: This was a guy who thought a lot of himself. [Laughter]
W: He was very secure in all that he was. He was many wonderful things.
A: Do you remember his name?
W: Alizia Keeler. He lives in Florida now. So do I.
A: Tell me about this barn that your parents renovated.
W: My parents, especially my father, was an incurable romantic. He was interesting
in many ways, but one of the things that [made him] interesting was that he was
very uncoordinated. [Laughter] [He was] exceedingly uncoordinated, so much so
that he used it as an excuse for never learning how to drive a car, which made
life a little bit difficult for my mother. Though he was so uncoordinated he could
not drive a car, he thought it would be very nice to remodel a barn. We were
living in a house in Cross River, New York, that he decided we should sell. He
worked sometimes selling. He moved us, lock, stock, and barrel, into a huge
barn. [It] was a pre-revolutionary barn built into a hill. By the time we were done
with it, it had four stories in it from cellar to top. If you are going to do that, it
would be good if you knew a little something about carpentry, about which my
father did not have a clue. He would read, but he just did not know.
Quite literally, we drove out. We got everything from our old house piled into a
van and drove to the barn. [We] drove past the hay that was being emptied out
of the barn to make room for us, and drove our belongings into the front door of
the barn and unloaded them. We then started to remodel. By this time my older
brother was in prep school, so he was free of the agonies and ecstasies of this
grand experiment that was going to last for the next twenty years.
We moved in, I guess, in the mid 1950s or before, and unloaded our stuff. We
began to build around this. We did some interesting things. It meant that the
boys had to learn carpentry very well. If we did not, my father was going to be in
deep, deep trouble. I suppose we were in deep, deep trouble.
A: Even more so. [Laughter]
W: We would get things just by happenstance. A friend was dining in the Oak Room
at the Ritz. It was about to be torn down. He turned to somebody there and
said, "This is just a terrible thing. We spend so much time in this great old Oak
Room and now it is going to be gone. I wish I had something to remember it by."
As the story goes, he left for Europe, and when he came back, all the oak
paneling had been delivered to his home. His wife was less than pleased. My
father was more than happy. So we moved the oak paneling from the Ritz into
our living room. That made the walls of the living room. We had to build a roof,
and put in a one-hole furnace that we would stand on in the evenings trying to
keep warm. [We] were driven out by the winter on the first winter. We came
back. In slow evolution, blocked the place around, never quite finishing it, but at
least getting it to the potential that two young men bought it and put an immense
amount of money into it. It now stands as something of a monument to creativity.
A: Put nicely. You say that your father was something of a romantic. What were
the politics of the Webb household?
W: It still surprises me given his friends and the kind of life he lived. One would think
that he would have been quite a liberal kind of guy. He was not at all. He was
immensely conservative. He prided himself on not carrying Roosevelt dimes in
his pocket. He asked people if they would not mind giving him two nickels. I do
not know from where that all came. It never made a whole lot of sense. It was
not all together consistent, but it was deeply felt on his part.
A: Was your mother conservative as well?
W: No. I think her inclinations were quite liberal though she never made much of
that. Politics were not particularly interesting to her.
A: In that connection, were you as a family very sensitive to the goings on of the
time politically as you moved into the late 1950s and the 1960s? Were you
aware of desegregation of the South as a youngster? Was your family attentive
to these [issues]?
W: We certainly were attentive to the issues that you raised because race was an
issue of great importance in our family. It really came from my mother being
raised in Honolulu, that being not only a multiracial society and culture, but by
any comparative standards immensely successful. Her friends from birth on
were just a wonderful mix of cultures and races. That was always an ideal in our
family. I think that carries on in all the sons. It was an important part of things.
Insofar as people paid attention to it, they did so through the daily politics. They
talked about presidential elections and those kinds of things. As far as I know,
my parents never were involved in political parties or activities. They never
canvassed for anybody.
A: You mentioned your mother had an interest in people of different cultures,
ethnicities, and things like that. Do you think you had an impact on you in terms
of what you have gone on to do? It seems that you do study a myriad of social
environments and cultures. That is part of your expertise now as an
ethnographer. We can talk more about that later. Do you think that had an
impact on what you became?
W: I do not know if that particularly did. It certainly was there in the mix. One of the
things that writers do is watch and try to figure out what is [happening]. My
parents were great storytellers. Their stories were observations about what was
going on around them. Everything was dissected through a specific lens. It was
the lens of storytelling for them and narrative for them. It presupposed great
observational skills. That became something that was natural. I do not know if
any of us thought about it. We wholly expected any party that they had gone to
to be talked about, rehashed, and reformed; and every family event to be talked
about, rehashed, and reformed. There is a sense in which that comes naturally.
That kind of work would come quite naturally to anybody in our family, I guess, if
they decided to turn in that direction. The only difference in the work I am doing
is that it uses other structures of relevance. There are other ways of organizing,
structuring, and disciplining. My parents did it simply for fun. The human animal
A: And also for the small [amount of] cash you mentioned.
W: Right. I suppose that is true, but their writing was not be of a quasi-sociological
sort of Tom Wolf or something like that at all. Dad wrote histories. He did write
some histories of the last born queen of Hawaii. He wrote The History of the
Shakespearean Theater of the United States. Most of his work was mysteries,
potboilers, romance, romantic novels, and bodice rippers of one sort or another.
He did a lot of that. I should mention for the record that when we were cleaning
out his library, we started to think carefully about what we were going to do with
his rather large Hawaiianna collection, we decided to give it to the University of
Florida Libraries. In fact, there is a Jean Webb collection there, this odd
conglomeration of Hawaiianna. They had a collection because dad was
interested in Hawaii, and of course my mother was interested in Hawaii. They
did some of those books together.
A: So I guess to move toward your education and get you to UF, would you
characterize your childhood on the whole as a happy one?
W: Oh yes. Certainly so. [It was] not traditional by any matter or means. We lived
and hung with wealthy folks, but we were living in a barn. So we always were
eccentric and always seen as eccentric. Sometimes people would see us as
eccentric and worry about us and come talk to my parents about the boys and
whether they were being cared for correctly. Others saw us as interestingly
eccentric. My brother had an occasion recently to talk to Bobby Reich, who as a
child lived in our community.
A: This is Robert Reich, who is now secretary of labor for the Department of the
Treasury, who is also been a noted professor at the Kennedy School of
W: [He is] a lawyer and an economist at Harvard. My brother was talking to him,
and they were on business together. They had an occasion to talk about
childhoods because they came from the same community. In fact, [they] knew
each other as kids. I remember Bobby Reich, but I was older than he was. We
went to the same grade schools. Bobby Reich had the occasion to say, "I always
looked at your parents as wonderfully different. They had the nerve to be
different in the community." So we had all the advantages of difference, and I
suppose, all the disadvantages of difference. I think the advantages outweigh
the disadvantages by quite startlingly over time.
A: Was there any religious climate in the household? Were you raised in any
W: The answer is no. Dad told us we were Episcopal. I think he just chose that,
frankly. We, at one period, did begin to gravitate to a very small Episcopal
church with a wonderful minister. It was a very small congregation. He was an
itinerant minister. He hit about four churches on a Sunday. We particularly liked
this guy. My parents started going to church. One day when we walked into that
church, which was my first memorable experience of church, coming, as was not
unusual, late to the meeting. The Webbs doubled the congregation.
The minister was reading a lesson. The lesson had the words, "And God said let
there be thunder." At which point, there was a crack of thunder that turned the
attention of this young man, for at least a short time, to religion. [Laughter] So
we all were baptized and confirmed in the Episcopal church. We all went to
Episcopal schools, but not because of its religious affiliation. Toby went to an
academy. Trinity Pauling was an Episcopal school. I do not know that we could
say that it took in a heavy way, except for my younger brother, who is now an
Episcopal priest. He would not attribute that to my parents. My parents, though
pleased by his choice, were bemused that a child of theirs would turn to the cloth.
A: Which brother is this?
W: Alexander Henderson, known in the family as Henry.
A: Is there any residual influence in your own life?
W: No, I suspect that I am just a bit further away from organized religion than any of
my brothers, though I certainly take these things very seriously.
A: Do you think that is important because of your later academic work?
W: Yes, I suspect that is true.
A: Although you did work with Peter Berger and we will talk about that in a while. I
guess to wrap up the home-life thing, you seem to me to be a highly literate
person. I realize that comes, in part, from your schooling, especially your
advanced work. I guess what I want to know is what was your childhood like?
Were you reading early? Did you read a lot as a kid? Were you one of the first
television kids or a radio addict?
W: I was a radio addict. My earliest memories are not of books, but of radio and
listening to the radio at what was late for a young kid. [I was] listening to the
mystery stories and the literary talk that was around my parents. There was a
library of hundreds and hundreds of books in my house. Certainly reading was
something that was emphasized throughout my life, and it was something that
one was expected to do. We [were read to a lot] starting with Grimm's Fairy
Tales and moving all the way through. Certainly that is true. That was a heavy
part of our lives. I do not know if it hit me as early on as it hit my brothers. It hit
us all eventually. We would all read a lot. We enjoyed it, though I suspect that
we all wished we had more time to read.
Before we move on, I think I have given short shrift to my mother, who early in
the 1950s stopped writing and working when the kids began to accumulate under
her feet. [She] went back to work in the early 1950s when it was very much out
of vogue to do so. We were sixty miles out of New York City, so she had to
commute into Canaan, Connecticut, which was a twenty-mile drive by car. Then
it was one and one-half to two hours into [the city] by train. She was up at 6:30 in
the morning and she was not back until 7:30 at night. It was a huge grind for her.
She worked in advertising and public relations, but mostly public relations. She
wrote cookbooks. She did a lot of things for the American Spice Trade
Association and other things, so that we could all go to school, and they could
keep body and soul together.
A: They must have emphasized learning in general to work that hard to send you to
these private schools.
W: That perhaps was misplaced because there was a pretty good school system
right where we were, frankly. Nevertheless, it was seen as exceedingly
important by my parents. In that sense yes, there was a clear message that
academics and the life of the mind was important.
A: We talked a good bit about your family background. One more question about
family. What about your own immediate family now--your wife, children, and the
sort of things you have passed on to them. Who is your wife, first of all?
W: Elise Turrell was her maiden name. [She was] from Ridgewood, New Jersey.
We met during the college years while working in marketing research.
A: You were doing marketing research?
W: We will get to that in the complexities of education, but yes, I was. We have two
children. We were married in 1964. We have two kids: Lindsey deSoto Webb
and Laurie Benedict Webb.
A: What does your wife do?
W: She was the person who really brought me into education, as a matter of fact.
She now directs one of the co-owners and one of the co-directors of the
Gainesville Country Day School.
A: So her background and her educational training is in education?
W: Originally in college her degree was in international relations. She studied at
Elmira College in New York state, and did some work (PLEASE
IDENTIFY) university with the United Nations. She came out. They said, "That
is wonderful, can you type?" That was kind of an adjustment experience for her.
Then she studied education and got the credentials to become a teacher.
A: So she runs the day school here?
W: Yes. It started as Three Bears House on University property. The University of
Florida had to give that property up for wonderful reasons, so that the Ronald
McDonald house could be moved onto that property. They did so at the end of
our lease with the University. It was then a nursery school. My wife tried to
figure out what the next step would be. What she did was get together with
Nancy Childers, her partner, and they built a school. The business she bought
into served twenty kids. It now serves 350 families. It has forty employees. It is
a large operation.
A: Is there anything special we ought to know about the school in terms of
pedagogy or anything like that?
W: Yes. My wife worked for some years in the public school system with a particular
interest in children at risk and kids from poverty neighborhoods. She worked in
Waimanalo, Hawaii. She worked in New Jersey. She worked with kids in
poverty areas and was very successful at it. I have said that she is the best
teacher that I have seen ever. [I] have learned a lot from watching the kinds of
things she did. She also got more and more interested, over time, in making
schools work. She believed that it was possible to make schools work, and that it
was possible to make schools focus on the development and learning of children
and good teaching. She decided she wanted to build a school that really would
work. It started because our kids were going to Three Bears House, and they
needed a teacher. They asked her [to teach]. It already was working. She
made it work well and continued that. It just expanded, [which] answers the
question that it is possible to do really exceptional education.
A: Backtracking a little bit, you met in New York. What attracted you to each other?
Was it your common interest in marketing? That romantic subject. [Laughter]
W: [Laughter] It might have been our common disinterest in marketing. I ran out of
money and had to stop college for a while. I got a job in a Park Avenue firm in
marketing research. It was a wonderful firm with some very good people in it.
They taught me a great deal, not only about marketing research, but about
humane business and trying to do things well. They were a very humane
company. When I was hired there, I was talking to the person who was
interviewing me, and this, of course, was at a time when I was out of school and
the rumblings of the Vietnam War just were beginning. I said, "I am, of course,
the type of person who is going to be drafted if I stay out of school very long.
This is in no doubt going to have an effect on your decision." She turned and
said, "How could that possibly have any effect? If you are drafted, you are
presumably doing something for the country. How could a business not attend to
your skills?" So that was important for me, but it was indicative of the kind of
philosophy that this company had.
I did very well at that and stayed in that work for a little while. I went back to
school, and came back to that company after we graduated. I met my wife
during one of the summers I would come back. In the summertime, it was
vacation and I would work. I was, at that time, in charge of a department. She
came in as a temporary worker in that department for the summer. At the end of
the summer, we decided that it was a bad idea that she take off in one direction,
and I take off in another. We stayed in contact with one another. Two years later
we were married.
A: That is wonderful. Did you mention the name of the company you were working
W: Crosley Stuart Dougal Surveys (PLEASE VERIFY SPELLING) was the name
of this particular company.
A: So once you hook up with your wife, where did you go from there? How did you
end up in Gainesville?
W: It is a little complex here. Maybe we should back up a little bit. I graduated from
Trinity Pauling. I moved from Trinity Pauling to the University of Hawaii for my
undergraduate work. I was the only Webb who had not been out there. It
seemed like a very romantic thing to do. Much to my surprise, now that I look at
it from the perspective of a parent, I would have been aghast if my kid said, "I
want to head half-way around the world to go to college." My parents allowed
that without any problem. I stayed out there for two years and then ran out of
money. I came back to the mainland and worked for a year. Then I went to
Boston University and finished up at BU. In that interim, I met Elise, and we were
married after we graduated.
She was working for Young and Rubicon after that in marketing research. I was
working at Crosley. We referred to ourselves as "young, promising folks on the
way down." It just did not seem to us [that it was] what we really wanted to do.
So we conspired in dream-like fashion (that would have pleased my father, I
think) what we could do that would be different. We decided to pool our money,
save it up, and as soon as we got enough money that we thought we could move
responsibly to Honolulu, we did so. Six months later we had $1,000 and we
thought that ought to do it. We moved out to Honolulu. At that time, we said
both of us will apply for work and see who can get employed. The other one will
go to school.
A: When was this?
W: The winter of 1965.
A: Did you say your wife also went to Boston University?
W: No, she went to Elmira.
A: That is right.
W: It turned out that I was employed first with the Hawaii Employer Council. Elise
went to the University of Hawaii, and took the credits she needed to become a
teacher. I was looking forward to joining the political science department for a
master of science degree. The first course I took, after Elise graduated and I
started school, was a statistics course working with the very computers I had left
at Crossly. I thought, "This is just not what I want to do." I moved to American
I was drawn there by a wonderful, kind of eclectic group of faculty. There was
Reuel Denney, who with David Eastman wrote the Lonely Crowd. He was on my
committee. He had this wonderfully eclectic mind. There were some very good
historians. There was a presidential scholar, whose name is Stuart Garry Brown.
It turns out, although I did not know this until three years back, that he graduated
from Amherst the year before my father did. He was a presidential scholar of
some note. He was very helpful to me. [There was] a historian in education
named Ann Keppel (PLEASE VERIFY SPELLING) who was very good. Another
presidential scholar named Walter Johnson did the Stevenson Papers. There
were a group of people there who were just very influential on my work.
Coming in as a novice to the social sciences, I was just rolled over by these folks.
As I did that, my wife was working in Waimanalo, which was a poverty
community on the windward side of Oahu. It had within it this wonderful eclectic
stuff. It had a Hawaiian-homestead area. Some people from the other side of
the island commuted over, and there was a guy named Pryor, who ran the
Bushiantic (PLEASE VERIFY SPELLING) Institute. Gregory Bateson was
there, this unbelievable mind. He kept bringing people out to study dolphins with
him, including Paul Goodman. So here we are in this community and we live
there. I commuted to school.
Elise was working in this poverty school with these wonderful children. We got
more and more interested in the history and lore of these kids, where they are
from, and the sociology of all of that. She got me interested in teaching, which
was not what I was planning to do. I started to think I wanted to teach, and went
to the public school system and said, "I will teach anything to anybody,
anywhere, anytime. I want to get into classrooms." They turned and said, "You
have got to get your credentials, and these are the courses you are going to
take." My wife had taken those courses. I knew what that was about, and I did
not want to do that.
So I started looking into private schools in Hawaii. I wrote letters and did not get
any response. A friend of the parents of my wife came to Hawaii and took us out
to dinner. We were talking about future plans. Her married name was
Auckenglass (PLEASE VERIFY SPELLING). Her husband was working,
volunteering in Vietnam (he was a doctor) to help folks in villages that were being
maimed by the war. She said, "Well, where have you applied?" By that time, I
had started to apply on the mainland, too. In Hawaii, I had applied to the lolani
School. She said, "Oh, I know the headmaster there, he was the chaplain at
Yale." He was a marvelous guy. She called him, and he called me the next day
for an interview.
I got the job, which taught me something about who you know, rather than what
you know. It was a wonderful school. Because Punahou was the largest private
high school west of the Rockies, lolani and Punahou served largely, but certainly
not exclusively, upper-middle-class and upper-class clientele. lolani served the
children of Hawaiian citizens who had gotten the GI Bill and had been able to
finance their way out of manual labor and into professional work by getting
college degrees. [They] wanted to send their kids to good schools. These
students were very, very focused.
The data on lolani was good then. It is absolutely outstanding now. The number
of national merit scholars that come out of that one school is awesome and
would challenge any school. Anyway, I started to teach at lolani with a wonderful
group of people. Then I started to move the interests of lolani into serving other
populations as well. So we started experimental schools out in Waimanalo
during the summer for kids to have a little transition to high schools and middle
A: That would seem particularly pressing in Hawaii given the problems the natives
have in education.
W: Yes. While we were there, my wife and I both were very interested in what the
impediments to learning were. We had a number of questions about what we
thought academic study ought to be able to supply. There ought to be answers
in academic work. I decided I wanted to go on for a doctorate. I thought what I
would do is study education through an American studies program. I started
those applications. Somebody came out from Teachers College, visited our
school, looked at what we were doing, and talked with us. [He] said, "You really
ought to think about graduate school." We said we were. He said, "What are
you thinking about?" I said, "American studies. That is the kind of approach I
want to bring to this." He said, "Have you ever thought about the sociology of
education?" I said, "What is that?" [Laughter] It was in our discussion that I
discovered the foundations of education.
A: Who was this person? You said Teachers College. Is that Teachers College [at]
Columbia University? Do you remember who this person was who pointed out
that there was such a thing as sociology of education?
W: I am going to have to go back and get his name. He was at the East-West
Center and he was in comparative education. I cannot pull [his name] up.
A: Did this excite you, this discovery that there was something scholarly?
W: It interested me. Then I went to the bookstore to look for a book on the sociology
of education, which is not necessarily easy. I came upon Sociology of Teaching
by Willard Waller [which was] done in 1932. It just has been reissued. I picked it
up and was transported. It was [and is] a graphic analysis of school systems,
how the system works, why people behave the way they do, social forces, and all
this. Waller was an interesting man. He himself was a son of a superintendent.
It had affected his view of education.
A: So you were in Hawaii, you had discovered the sociology of education, and you
were looking toward further study. What happened?
W: I sent out a bunch of applications. I still remember teaching at lolani. It was
Vietnam time. A friend of mine and myself had organized a group for teachers
concerned about Vietnam, war. [The group was] trying to learn more about it,
how to teach it, and the ethical problems with which it confronted teachers. That,
of course, had been very controversial. We had not meant it to be, but it turned
out to be in a state where there is a large military population. It was a staging
area for that kind of stuff. It became quite political, even at lolani. It was a
particularly hot political time when I got a wire from Rutgers University in
Keppelhead (PLEASE VERIFY SPELLING). It occurred to me to apply to
Rutgers because a fellow named Jim Wheeler was chair of that department and
a UV scholar. I thought I would do well with him. They accepted me and offered
me an assistantship that was going to pay me more than I was getting as a full
teacher. I wired it back. [Laughter] I left the meeting, went home, and wired an
A: Just so I am clear, to recap, you started your studies at the University of Hawaii
specializing in anything?
W: In American studies.
A: Your bachelor of arts degree?
W: No, I am sorry. When I went out there, I was straight liberal arts.
A: This is just general studies?
W: General studies. I moved to Boston University, and graduated there in
communications. I had very little interest in communications, I must admit. It
was a program that allowed me to do two things. It allowed me to transfer in
credits rather easily. It allowed me to do a lot of writing. It did have a very good
writing program--writing for publications. It allowed me to take lots and lots of
courses at the university. I had very few required courses in that program, so I
was able to take the equivalent of a major in political science. [I had] a lot of
history courses and some philosophy courses. I could not have done that quite
as broadly in two years if I had gone in as a political science major.
A: What most impressed you about these studies? What was it that you were
drawn most to at that point in your life?
W: I think those two years were where the academic world became fascinating. It
was always kind of interesting, but they competed with other interests at that
point. It just was fascinating. The questions were the questions I wanted to ask.
I do not know exactly what it was. I think it was the topics in general. I just had
begun to find a social science home, and that had moved me along and excited
me. Writing was an interest. I was seeing progress in that area and that excited
me. Other than that, I do not have great loyalty to the educational process of BU
because it was just so huge and gave me the freedom I wanted. It was perfect
and it was in Boston, which was wonderful. I do not think the teaching there was
exceptional. I certainly got better teaching elsewhere at some other places.
A: When did you finish up this bachelor of arts degree?
A: Then you studied American studies for your master of arts degree at the
University of Hawaii?
W: At the University of Hawaii, I get an master of arts degree in American studies.
A: When was that?
W: It must have been 1967 or 1968.
A: The year I was born. [Laughter]
W: Do not depress me. [Laughter]
A: [Laughter] So now you and your wife were headed to Rutgers and you have
discovered the sociology of education, or at least you think you have.
W: I discovered that it exists.
A: You mentioned you knew of a scholar at Rutgers, before [you went] to Rutgers,
who was a specialist in Dewey?
A: So you had an interest in Dewey.
W: Yes. Ann Keppel had moved me to Dewey early on.
A: This is John Dewey?
A: Tell us a little bit about John Dewey in brief for people who do not know.
W: [He was] an American philosopher of the late nineteenth and all the way through
the mid-twentieth century, who not only helped develop pragmatism in very
significant ways, but did so in ways that made it intelligible to lots of different
groups. It really popularized and gave access to philosophy for a lot of
A: I know pragmatism is a complicated movement. Essentially what is pragmatism
and what is the significance of the pragmatism of Dewey for education?
W: I would argue the standard answer of that is, "Well, do we focus on learning by
doing?" It gave teachers a way of approaching education. Do we confront
questions of the nature of discovery and truth? [He] provided a view of truth. It
certainly was not unique to him, but he did it in a very systematic way. It gave us
a way of identifying problems, coming to solutions on problems, and then
realizing that it is truth until further notice--until we get more evidence. The
second thing he did was drive education and all social science to investigation of
human experience itself. In that sense, he is fundamentally a humanist, and at
the heart of liberal arts and humanistic studies. [He provided] a way of
investigating human experience. So I was drawn to him for those kinds of
I went to Rutgers with some knowledge of Dewey [and] I found James E.
Wheeler, who was chair of that department and actually had built that
department. [He was] an engineer from a little country town in Texas. He
became an engineer and a chemist. He went to NYU for some reason for a
summer. The Lynds found him--the people who did the Middletown studies.
They said, "You have got to come to Columbia. You have got to do this work."
He was very tempted to join that group, but somebody at Yale found him. How
nice to have people out there kind of mining for you. He was an exceptional
young man. He went to Yale and studied philosophy. I do not know exactly what
his pattern was, but he got to the University of Alabama, and then was hired by
Rutgers as chair of the foundations department. He very much had his stamp on
it, and built his department around his notion of foundations, which was a very
duly and pragmatic notion.
So I was there studying pragmatism with him and with J.J. Chambliss, a student
of his at Alabama, who, is arguably the best in my view. [He is] a classic
philosopher of education. It was just a wonderful thing for me to be doing. I had
this opportunity me to be reading Aristotle, Plato, Quintilian, and all kinds of
S(PLEASE IDENTIFY). I was with J.J. Chambliss, reading
pragmatism with Jim Wheeler, and studying sociology. The second semester I
was at Rutgers, Peter Berger came to their sociology department. The sociology
department just was amazingly strong. I did not know that when I went. I did not
go there because of that. I went there because of Wheeler. Had I known, I
would have been doubly joyous.
It was an eclectic department. On the far left it had Irving Lewis Horowitz. His
political position may have changed since then. [It had] a group of sociologists,
kind of urban sociologists, at Livingston College, part of the Rutgers complex.
Harry Bretemeyer (PLEASE VERIFY SPELLING) was chair of the department
and a exchange theorist. Jackson Tobey (PLEASE VERIFY SPELLING) was a
student of Talcot Parsons. Certainly, [he] was a follower of that approach. Peter
Berger came. They imported a couple of symbolic interactionists for particular
courses. So there was a great array of very interesting sociologists there. I was
able to get into those courses while taking sociology of education courses also in
the College of Education. It is called the Graduate School of Education.
A: Did you say you were in the Department of Foundations there? Did they have
W: Yes. It was a Foundations of Education Department.
A: What is foundations of education, what is the idea there, and where did it start?
W: The idea grew largely out of Columbia and largely out of the response of
education to the Depression. [It grew out of] an effort to figure out what the
social forces were that were bearing on the country, bearing on schooling, and
what those forces suggested schools should be. It grew out of a notion that
schools were the kind of crucible for the future of the nation, and that schools
could change the direction of the nation. It has evolved out of that to include
much more, and perhaps hope for much less.
A: Using that original concern with schools as the lever for social change--is that
coming from the influence of Dewey and the pragmatists?
W: Certainly it is not only Dewey, and it is not only pragmatism, but yes, those forces
were at work. At Columbia, a journal called The New Frontier started, which had
people like Morrel Curty (PLEASE VERIFY SPELLING) on its board. It had
Boyd Boda (PLEASE VERIFY SPELLING), who came to the University of
Florida at one time to teach a course, it seems to me. [It had] Dewey and others
who were very much involved in this kind of radical movement in education.
They had terrific influence as the far right still remembers and talks about still. It
gives them great credit for capturing the hearts and minds of American
educators. In fact, they need not have worried.
A: Also, what is sociology of education? What are the particular concerns? When
you were learning at Rutgers, what did you find that a sociologist of education is
looking at and in what way?
W: Sociologists of education generally are looking at the sociological forces that
impinge upon individual students, groups of students, classes of students, ethnic
groups, and also the organizational structures of schools. So you have a wide
array of sociologists, and some are interested in demographic studies and large
head-count studies. Others, like Coleman, are very interested in large
correlational studies. Still others are interested in classroom studies. The
sociology of education in terms of approach is as wide as sociology itself.
A: You mentioned James Wheeler and Peter Berger. Who of the two of them had
the bigger influence? Was it Berger in terms of your development as a scholar?
Or was it sort of a mixture or combination?
W: Wheeler chaired my committee, and he had a profound influence on me, in terms
of scholarship, Dewey, pragmatism, and how to do that kind of work. We had
that special kind of personal and academic relationship that grows a few times in
ones academic career and always is exceedingly important, at least to the
student. It certainly was to me. Wheeler did not write much, much to the agony
of his students. Almost every time he spoke, you had a greater sense of the
needs students have, [and] that you were listening to terribly important things
[which] somebody ought to write down. You were [afraid] you would forget it, and
your forgetting was not just an unfortunate thing for you, but a sin against
humankind to not collect this stuff.
Berger was also on my committee, but I did not know him well. I was in there
with large groups of students. His classes always were packed. He attended to
my work, and would write me long letters on what I was doing. He was generous
in his response to my letters. Even when he was busy, I would write him letters
and he would write back. He just would jot notes on the side of my letters and
send my letters back. They always were helpful. His legacy to me is this vast
literature to which you can continue to [refer]. The influence is very different. It is
just a very, very different kind of relationship. How you measure the importance
of one versus the other, I do not know. I feel obligated in some of the kinds of
work I do to mention both of them.
A: Just outline the career of Peter Berger because I know him to be extraordinary,
basically because I trained under you. [He was] an extraordinary sociologist, and
I believe someone who had done some work with Alfred Schutz. Could you talk
about that and lead into the connection between the pragmatism of Dewey a la
Wheeler, and the connection of Berger to Schutz and phenomenology preview. I
know that is probably a pretty complex, compound question. [Laughter]
W: I will do it quickly. Berger went to Wagner College, I think. He was the son of
immigrants and, indeed, was an immigrant himself. He came over here in his
teens. [He] got into college, and decides to go to graduate school. [He] ended
up at the New School of Social Research, where he got to study with a number of
wonderful people. I rather like the article I did with Nattanson (PLEASE VERIFY
SPELLING) on the New School because it traces some of the history of those
people. Berger was there in the absolute heyday of the New School sociology
A: In case we did not cover it, this is the New School for Social Research in New
York City, a university in exile, which had benefitted from people fleeing Germany
W: It was a university designed for adults and older folks coming into [the country].
As the war moved across Europe, there was this vast exodus of scholars. The
president of the New School was wise enough entrepreneurially and generous
and wise enough academically to realize that there was a terrific potential for
bringing these people together. So he brought many of them into this one place.
They went across the country teaching all over the place. [It] brought a
significant, critical mass to the New School. The New School sociology and
philosophy departments became very powerful academically because they were
introducing continental philosophy and social science to the United States. That
was the major conduit for this work. Nobody was more responsible for that, but
there were certainly others as responsible as Alfred Schutz. Berger studied with
him and with some of the others.
A: Who is Alfred Schutz, and what is his phenomenology? These are easy
W: [Laughter] Yes, you are doing well. Alfred Schutz was this phenomenal guy who
was trained as a lawyer and studied philosophy. [He] was part of several Vienna
circles in which he read with people like Hyack and Dramessis (PLEASE
VERIFY SPELLINGS) to name two of the people on the radical right, but also on
the left. He became more and more interested in phenomenology [and]
discovered whose roles work. He found a way to connect whose roles work [his
role being arguably a founder of continental phenomenology] to the sociology of
Max Weber. Weber was interested in studying sociology from human experience
on up, as opposed to studying it from institutions on down. Schutz believed that
he had found in Hoocero (PLEASE VERIFY SPELLING) a way of filling in the
foundations of sociology and wrote a book in which he tried to do that. [He] sent
the manuscript to Hoocero said, "You are one of the few people who have
penetrated my philosophy. Please come study with me." I think that was in
reaction to his book. It may have been in reaction to papers he had written about
the work of Hoocero. He could not do that because he was raising a family, etc.
He was also working in international banking in the law end of the area. He was
the secretary of a large multinational banking corporation. He was doing this
philosophy writing on the side. He was in Paris doing some work on The Night of
the Broken Glass. His first child, a son, was born. He began to understand what
was going on, and he got his family to Paris. He then got his family and himself
to the United States, where he continued to do international banking work in a
New York branch of this same corporation.
While here, he got tapped to teach at the New School. He pursued his interest in
music that is, I am told, nearly concert level. He was nearly a concert-level
pianist. [He is] a very eclectic minded man. [He] continued to do banking by day
and philosophy by night. [He] did philosophy, teaching, music, child rearing, and
all the rest by night. Throughout this whole period, he was working very hard at
introducing a very absolutely foreign approach to sociology into philosophy to an
American academic population profoundly uninterested and uneducated in these
ways of the world. Of course the war interrupted the opportunity to study those
kinds of things by Americans. We could not zip off to Europe and study this stuff.
It was difficult. He was very serious about it, and tried to find ways into the
American mind and so began to study philosophers and social scientists in
America. [He] began to read the pragmatists, for example. He was very moved
by, as Hoocero was, by William James. He read Dewey, though I do not believe
extensively. People, Nattanson to be specific, disagrees with me on that, though
he admits he never saw him writing about it and never heard him talking about
any of the writing of Dewey. He does not specifically footnote, but he just thinks
that Schutz would have read a lot of Dewey. I disagree, but nobody is going to
answer that question.
A: And Nattanson is?
W: Nattanson is a philosopher now at Yale who did his second doctoral dissertation
A: His full name?
W: Maurice Nattanson.
A: So Schutz is at New School. Roughly what period would Berger have studied
W: In the late 1950s, early 1960s. I do not know when exactly he got his degree. I
would imagine it was the early 1960s.
A: I did not mean to cut short what you were saying. Have you told us fully what
W: No, and I am not inclined to try. It, too, is very interested in human experience,
but it moves the level of analysis down to what makes perception possible and
what makes mind possible to the fundament of these kinds of issues. So Schutz
began to see some kind of parallels here that he could draw on and use
productively as a way to get Americans to better understand phenomenology.
Not that pragmatism and phenomenology were the same--they were not. They
had a certain commonality of interest, and a certain complimentarity. When I say
use them, I mean that in a deeply scholarly way, not in an easy, vulgar,
A: Berger studied under Schutz. Would you characterize the sociology of Berger as
very influenced by that phenomenology?
W: Yes and no. He is very influenced by phenomenology in the sense that it drives
his work and interests in the sociology of knowledge. He is interested in religion.
The sociology of knowledge is a great way into religion and other matters. In that
sense, he is very interested in Schutz. In another sense, he never becomes a
phenomenologist. He has said of his own work, "I have never quite got my
phenomenological house in order. I have cleaned things up in that area. I
probably should do so if I had an unlimited amount of time." Fortunately or
unfortunately, Berger has a limited amount of time, but in unlimited areas of
potential interests. So he continues to choose to move his study out from a
kernel of understanding to greater applications, rather than diving into a deeper
understanding of the kernel effect. If I am not getting too tired and not making
any sense--if that makes sense to you. He moves out and radiates out, rather
than implodes, and goes deeper and deeper into phenomenology itself. So he
got what he needed from Schutz, but did not become the kind of devotee that
Nattanson was or Horet Rodner (PLEASE VERIFY SPELLING) was, or some
of the other students of Schutz, even Richard Zaner (PLEASE VERIFY
SPELLING), who really tried to extend phenomenology itself. Berger has tried to
extend the sociological application of that. In my view, nobody has done that
A: So in your study under Wheeler and Berger, what did you do as a young student,
as a developing, original scholar with pragmatism and phenomenology? What
did you make of this?
W: It started on parallel tracks. Actually, it started before phenomenology. I was
sitting in courses in the sociology department, studying structural functionalism,
and thinking there was something terribly wrong here, but I did not know exactly
what it was. I was studying Parsons, others, and this sort of top-down sociology.
At the same time, I was doing a lot of reading in James and Dewey. I remember
one night doing homework assignments and readings in both areas, and saying,
"Wait a minute. The answers are clearly here. What we need to do is bring
pragmatism to sociology and start a different approach to sociology." I went into
Wheeler the next day with that kind of giddy feeling one has upon discovery,
saying, "I think I have cracked an important nut here, prof. What do you think?"
With imminent patience, he just said, "Well Rod, actually, if you look at it, you will
find that sociology at the University of Chicago drew heavily on pragmatism when
you start reading Mead." While I thought I had this great insight and discovery,
others of course had studied and figured it out long, long before me. It was very
important for me nevertheless because it gave me a way of correcting some of
the problems I was seeing in this top-down approach. I sensed [this] immediately
in this top-down approach, either because I had profound and deep insight for
somebody my age, or because it just felt wrong. From my background, it just
was not the way I thought sociology ought to be done. I did not know what I
meant when I said that.
When Berger came in the very next semester, I took basic sociological theory
from him. I read Durkheim, Weber, and Schutz for the first time in a deep way.
Through his lens, he would give these absolutely wonderful lectures--nobody
else spoke. It was a total Berger lecture. It was very well prepared, very well
thought out, and not a reproduction of anything he had ever written that I could
find or have ever found. I certainly have the implications for that. From then on, I
just took everything. In fact, he offered no matter where it was or what it was. I
did the same thing with Wheeler. I just took anything deciding on any course he
A: What did you end up doing for a dissertation?
W: Luckily, my dissertation, though I did not plan it this way, came out with the
question with which I came into sociology. I tried to find what Dewey and Schutz
had in common, and what the implications were for social science, trying again to
figure out what is the ground of sociology and what is the right way to do it. It
was an audacious dissertation, audacious in the sense that a committee allowed
me to do it. As Wheeler said, "Somebody at a deanly level might turn and say,
'But this dissertation never mentions education'." It was a dissertation about the
philosophy of social science. That is simply because they do not understand that
this dissertation is only about education. We are talking about the way
knowledge is constructed and how to figure these kinds of things out. It was
audacious that they let me do it, and audacious that I felt like I could, especially
because I left Rutgers before I had the dissertation topic clearly in mind to come
down and teach here. I had to do so much of that work on my own.
A: So you left ABD--essentially all but dissertation--to come down here?
A: Why was that? What on earth got into you? [Laughter]
W: It was just fortuitous. It was December. Hal (Graham) Lewis (Distinguished
Service Professor of Educational Foundations, appointed 1976), who was then
chair of this department, had come up to see his son, Gray Lewis, who was a
professor in the Rutgers Foundations Department. While he was there, he said
to Jim Wheeler, "(Robert B.) Bob Primack (associate professor of education,
appointed 1973), who is a professor in this department, is taking a leave to go
teach in Australia for six months or a year. He has this opportunity, and we
ought to let him do it. Do you have anybody here who could come in and teach
some social foundations courses for us?" Wheeler said, "Yes. Webb has
finished his coursework. Why do you not ask him?" We met one afternoon. He
offered me the job that afternoon. I went home and talked to my wife. She said,
"Where?" I said, "But it is cold here, and it is warm there." I flew down a week
later and started to teach classes. I drove back up to New Jersey to pick up my
wife, and I brought the family down.
A: So you came here initially as adjunct ABD?
W: Without a degree and only to teach a course--a semester or two.
A: That was in social foundations of education in the College of Education. This
W: Right. Winter of 1972.
A: Describe the sorts of courses that were taught when you came here in social
foundations. In general, what did the curriculum consist of in social foundations
W: It looks in structure and content surprisingly like it does now and like it did ten,
fifteen, or twenty years before. The department was influenced heavily by the
general social-foundation views that came out of Columbia and maybe the
University of Southern Illinois. Hal Lewis got his doctorate at Columbia and
studied with Kilpatrick and those kinds of people. He and Vynce (Albert) Hines
(professor of education and chairperson of educational foundations, appointed
1972) really constructed this department. Hal [moved in] initially, and then Vynce
moved in next to him in this department and moved in next door to him in
Gainesville. It was a team that just did not break up until the death of Vynce last
year. It was an amazing and fortuitous combination of strengths and
The courses that were available is one difference. There were undergraduate
courses in the history of education, the philosophy of education, and the social
foundations of education. Undergraduates could choose which they wanted to
take, but they had to take one. Many would take a course and then decide to
take others. The department was very much the intellectual center of the college
at that time. At the graduate level it had the same departmental structure, but it
had many more people, and it was a time of lots and lots of research work. Ira
(Jay) Gordon (graduate research professor of education, appointed 1971)
headed an institute here that brought in millions of dollars. He was graduate
research professor at the University. The college never has had another
research graduate professor since that time. He had a group of cognitive
researchers and folks like Ed Syke (PLEASE VERIFY SPELLING), with a few
people from social foundations mixed in. I was happy to be involved in that
group. They did a lot of family research and that type of thing. There was
another part of the department, indeed a camp. The department was divided into
camps of again Ed Syke people who were out of the humanistic tradition. Art
(Wright) Combs (professor of education, appointed 1956) was at the center of
that. I was very pleased to come into this fortuitously thinking again I had been
tossed up by accident against phenomenologists, because he had written a
textbook that actually had used the word phenomenology, and talked about Ed
Syke that way. I very early learned that Art really knew very little about
phenomenology at all. I was both disappointed in that and bothered by it,
thinking that somebody from that area doing the kind of work he did had some
kind of special obligation to know what this field was about and how rich it was. I
remember bringing in a history of phenomenological psychology to him, and
showing him that he was mentioned in it. This was the History of the
Phenomenological Movement [by] Steigleberger. I realized that he just did not
know anything about that. Not only that he was not in it, but [he did not know]
who else was in it and what they said. As I grew older, I realized that was the
compassity of youth. In fact, what he was able to do uninformed by that literature
is perhaps much more impressive than what one might have done being
informed by that literature and just kind of carrying it out in some kind of
extensive form. He did a lot of very original work. He deserves a lot of credit for
that. It was a divided department in that interesting sense, but it had very strong
offerings and a lot to offer students. At one point, when Hal was chair, we had
something like eighty graduate students [who were] supported throughout the
University in one way or another.
A: This was in the 1970s?
A: Wow. Halcyon days.
W: Just about the time I came in, we had a number of students following, and a
number of students who had gone on to very good [schools].
A: What specifically did you teach when you came down here as ABD adjunct?
W: I taught all undergraduate social foundations courses. Primack was teaching and
I was hired to teach. I did that for a couple of years. As I worked on my
dissertation, Hal would say, "I think we can find you a place here. Let us get this
finished up. Let us work on that." In fact, that is what we did. In time, they did
offer me a position. Even though Primack came back, I kept going. Then Hal
one day called me into his office, and said, "I am going to turn something over to
you for a little while. I want you to know I built it. It is mine, and you must take
good care of it." I asked what that was. He said, "It is the socioeconomics
foundations of education." I started teaching that course when he was not and
then sometimes in tandem with him. I moved into that area, and branched out
into that area for some time.
A: I know that you anonymously, as is your way often, wrote a piece for the Alumni
Magazine in the last academic year in which you talked about Hal Lewis. In the
opening of that piece, you described a young student who had just come to UF
working under Hal Lewis in that socioeconomics foundations course. I figured
that was probably you. Could you talk a little bit about those experiences?
W: Yes, certainly. There was a time when Hal and I did some team teaching of the
undergraduate course. Sometimes we even got four or five classes together, did
lectures, and then did small group discussions. One time Hal and I were working
a class together, and I was talking about the elongation of youth, education, how
we have stretched all of that out, age segregation, how that all worked, and how
the average age for a doctorate now is thirty-three.
A: That is good news. [Laughter]
W: [Laughter] You feel better about that now? [Laughter]
A: That is very encouraging.
W: It is somewhat older in education, but that is another story. At some point, Hal
came walking in. He looks like John Dewey. He sauntered up to the front of the
class very quietly. He came beside me and said, "If you want to know how long a
career is, it is the distance between Rod Webb and myself." He was then coming
to retirement age. Blissfully, he did not retire for some time after that. He could
have, had he wanted. That was very much the way he taught. His mind always
was working, and he always wanted to find the right example. He was a
wonderful soul. He recently was awarded a civil liberties union award for lifetime
service to civil liberties issues. He was absolutely devoted to civil liberties issues
in Gainesville at a time when to do so risked career, relationships with friends
and neighbors, and the rest. That did not slow him down. He was always so
generous and open in his approach to human beings. I think people even in
great opposition to him never felt themselves having to get too hot under the
collar with him. He had a real gift I think, and that is one from which we all could
A: You learned a great deal from him, especially early on when you first came here
learning how to teach these courses?
W: Yes. How to teach, what content, what he taught, what he would show me, and
the content of courses in his graduate program. I never had taught a social
foundations course. In fact, I had taught philosophy of education and history of
education at Rutgers, but I had not taught specifically a social foundations
course, which was slightly different than sociology.
A: Would you say he was your principal mentor here as you became a full-fledged
W: [Laughter] Yes, no doubt. [He] was certainly the most important person in the
department for me in terms of that kind of guidance. I certainly have had people
influence me in other ways. Rob (Raymond) Sherman (professor of education,
appointed 1977), as you know, had a great collegial influence on me, but in that
great kind of mentor role. He in the department, and T. (Thomas) Walter Herbert
(professor of English, appointed 1957) outside of the department [had a great
effect on me]. T. Walter Herbert was a Shakespearean professor. He was a
person absolutely devoted to education as an enterprise of teaching. The only
time he ever got angry with me was once when he had misunderstood something
I had said. He had misunderstood me to mean that I thought research was the
most important thing in a university. He very quickly let me know that teaching
was what universities were about. It was the heart and soul of universities, and I
best not forget it. I assured him that I believed that to be true. [Laughter]
A: Who else besides Hal Lewis and this fellow?
W: Vynce Hines certainly was [a mentor to me] in his own way. Vynce was this
wonderful mind who was painfully shy. That in not true. He was painfully silent.
He simply did not talk. You got influenced in different kinds of ways.
A: Osmosis? [Laughter]
W: [Laughter] Well, when he spoke, you listened. [Laughter] He had important
things to say. He certainly directed the department very carefully and in
A: So you finished your doctorate when?
W: I think 1974 is when that degree came.
A: And you had been here for a couple of years?
A: I have heard a story--and this is one of those departmental stories--that Robert
Sherman--I am going to get into him because I know you have had a long, fruitful
relationship with him--played some sort of role in helping you get the
professorship here. Is that accurate?
W: I suspect that is true. I honestly do not know what the internal politics of that
move were. I am sure that Rob was influential in that. Whatever those workings
were, they came to be. I have much to be thankful for, for Rob Sherman. The
job is the least of it.
A: Let us move to that because I know that you two have done a great deal of work
together. You know the chronology. Walk me through it in terms of the
qualitative journal that the two of you edited, the collaboration on books, in
particular the Qualitative Methods book that the two of you produced and
Schooling and Society. It seems as though the two of you found something
rather good in each other and a lot has come out of it--scholarly products.
W: It was a great pleasure to find yourself in a department with really great minds
working, people who take their work seriously and the obligations of citizenship in
the University community seriously. There were a number of things that drew us
together in our work. First of all, we came from the same university. Secondly,
we studied under the same professor. Wheeler was the chair of both of our
A: But Robert Sherman is primarily interested in the philosophy of education.
W: The philosophy and history of education, primarily philosophy, but he has been
working in history as well. He was a student of Wheeler because of that direct
line. There were sociologists and anthropologists in our department at Rutgers,
but I was a student of Wheeler even in the sociology area because of my interest
in getting to the philosophical foundations of sociology and social science.
A: But the two of you share interests in that connection in epistemology--the origins
of knowledge and the nature of the mind.
W: Because of who he is, because of the way he works, because of the education
he has had, and because of his grounding in pragmatism, his approach to issues
of education through philosophy and history is very compatible with my approach
to education through sociology. There is a useful complimentarity in that. Also,
the University was growing immensely when we came. It was evolving in a want-
to-be-a- great university--still trying to do that. There was a great question as to
how you could do it. There was a lot of entrepreneurialism in the University that
was a force against a top-down structure in the University. Let us push us into
greatness or push us into whatever area that the central administration wanted
us to go. In reaction to that, there was a faculty movement for unionization. I
believe that the early moves for unionization here really were moves for
community, for the protection of people working together academically, and for
faculty governments. We were both a part of that movement, he earlier than I. A
lot had gone in the department before I got here, in terms of the civil rights
movement, the anti-war movement, and all that kind of business. The first
semester I was here, the dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences was
looking for somebody to head the local branch of Common Cause. As they went
through figuring out who in the University they might ask, the first three people
they asked were in our department. So it was a very activistic group very
interested in the views of education writ large. Anyway all of that early on
brought us together. Somewhere in the late 1970s, I began to voice my interest
in qualitative work. Hal had some interest in that. Some dissertations had been
done in that area by Barbara Mannheim. Harold Kadmus had done a quasi-
qualitative piece of work.
A: What essentially characterizes qualitative research?
W: There are a lot of things, but most essentially, it is the return to the study of
human beings in the context of being human in their own habitats. I was
interested in that kind of work. Hal had encouraged students in that area. There
were not a lot of places you could go to get trained in that kind of methodology
with the exception of anthropology. At that time, Kimble and Elizabeth Eddy were
in anthropology and were doing very similar kinds of work in education and
applied anthropology. Sociology did not have a lot going on in that area at that
time. We began to talk about qualitative methods. At just about the same time,
some folks in the research section of our department said there ought to be some
offerings in qualitative work. We wanted our students to have some background
in qualitative work. Rob, Bob (Robert Lynn) Curran (professor of education,
appointed 1969), and I brought together the social foundations section. We team
taught a course trying to figure out what an introductory qualitative foundations of
education course would be.
A: When was this?
W: I am not actually sure that I could date it, but I imagine it was the early 1980s. It
was the late 1970s, and maybe just the beginning of the 1980s. I taught the first
ethnography course in 1982. The first course I taught, I think it had Buffy
(Elizabeth) Bondy (associate professor of education, appointed 1994) in it, who is
now on the faculty. It had Amis Hatch in it, who is at the University of Kentucky
teaching qualitative research and teaching other courses as well. We, as a
department, made up a course. We just kind of designed the course by doing it
together. We did it by asking what history has to tell us about qualitative
methodology. Rob would talk for a while on that. Art (Arthur O.) Wright
(professor of education, appointed 1982) would come in and talk his talk on that.
Bob Curran would talk from his particular background. I do not remember
whether Art (Arthur J.) Newman (professor of education, appointed 1977) talked
about anthropology in that area, but he probably did. We had a number of folks.
We designed an introduction to the foundations of qualitative research. We
designed it in the doing of it. We tried to do it communally and to get a collective
conversation [going] about these things. The professors outnumbered the
students. I suspect it was very difficult for the students in the course, as a matter
of fact, because the course was under construction without a master plan. There
was no such thing as a syllabus. We would move from week to week and would
decide readings as we went. It evolved over a number of semesters into a
course that Rob and I began to shape and think about.
At the same time, because we are interested in the area, we were invited to
guest edit a journal that was pretentiously titled The Journal of Thought. What
we did was invite articles about qualitative methods and then looked across
those articles for commonalities of the qualitative. All we were doing there was
extending the conversation. We just were moving it out to other people. We
tried to find people who were going to be of particular interest to us because of
their approach. At just about that time, which was when we just had finished a
volume of that, the journal got a lot of requests for copies. People began to find it
useful. The journal got more attention than it was used to getting. We were
asked if we wanted to do that again and extend it.
At about that time, I had arranged an exchange professorship in Great Britain. I
was teaching at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, which fortuitously had
this wonderful research group at it. I asked a person over there to get me into
some conferences if there were any going on in sociology. At about the same
time, Pat (Patricia Teague) Ashton (professor of education, appointed 1986) and
I just had finished our book on the teacher efficacy. They got me into a
conference at Oxford dealing with the sociology of education. It is called the St.
Hilda's Conference. That, too, was fortuitous because I met many of the key
sociologists of education in Great Britain, and learned for the first time, though I
probably should have known it earlier, how strong qualitative research was in
Great Britain. I was able to get Peter Woods, for example, to do an article for us
because he was at the conference. I got to know him. We shared some
We put together a second volume of this journal, then pulled the two volumes
together, added some other kinds of things to it, and published it with Falmer
Press in Great Britain. That is how that particular book evolved. It is called
Qualitative Studies in Education. I am blocking on it is because we went through
so many titles as we were playing around with that. We got that book out. In the
course of doing it and talking with editors there, the occasion was slightly
different, but the connection was the same. I was at a conference in Atlanta. Ira
Goodson (PLEASE VERIFY SPELLING), who was an editor at Falmer, a
sociologist, and was about to move to teach in Canada, came in to the
conference. We were sitting in the lobby chatting with one another. He said he
was starting a new journal on educational policy studies. I suggested that
education needed no more journals. What we needed to do was get rid of some
of them. [Laughter] I suppose it was kind of a Barry Goldwater approach to
academia, going to Washington to repeal laws, not to make them. I guess I was
suggesting that we were producing too much stuff and not enough stuff of quality.
I said if we were going to have a new journal, I did not think the policy studies
was needed. What we needed was a journal that did graphic studies in
Those kinds of meant-to-be-funny, brash statements sometimes get you into
trouble. First of all, his journal on policy studies is a very important journal. It
does make a real contribution. He still is editing that with Steven Gaul (PLEASE
VERIFY SPELLING) from the University of London. He said, "Yes. That is a
good idea. Would you be interested in editing that?" I said I would think about it,
but I would not do it alone. If Sherman would join me on it, I might. So Rob and I
found a way to get ourselves to Great Britain. We talked to people at Falmer
Press about the journal, set it up, came back here, and negotiated with Bob
(Robert A.) Bryan (interim president of the University of Florida, 1989-1990), who
was very generous and helpful in getting the thing up and going. I talked with
Dave (David C.) Smith (professor of education, appointed 1994), who was very
supportive of the effort. We just dove into doing that. I suppose if I had known
going in how much work it was going to be, I might have thought twice about it. I
suppose also that I am glad I did not know. I had gotten a sabbatical, and simply
had to give the sabbatical over to starting that journal and did so. We got it up
and running. It is running now.
A: What is the title of this journal?
W: It was not called Ethnoqraphic Studies in Education. We finally called it The
International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education. We had begun to think
that ethnographic studies was too narrow. The field was undergoing a number of
changes and approaches to qualitative work were being influenced by post
modernism, post structuralism, and lots of post and other-isms. We thought we
really should not narrow it too much. Elliot Eisner (PLEASE VERIFY
SPELLING) wrote me from Sanford and said, "Oh do not call it Ethnographic
Studies. Do something more general." The more I thought about it, the more I
thought that was right.
A: That is intriguing to me because when I was introduced to qualitative studies in a
general course here under Robert Sherman, I found the common perception was
that qualitative research was ethnographic research. It is sort of a misconception
that is out there. There is a lot more to qualitative research.
W: Right. Of course, that was very compatible with our approach to qualitative
studies. We already had tried to make the pitch in our book that there are
multiple qualitative studies. It is one kind of theme of that book. Another is that
within any qualitative study, there is a philosophical dimension. Within any
qualitative study, there is an historical dimension. You really cannot do
qualitative research with being attentive to history. These methodologies are not
just competing methodologies; they are compatible methodologies. In fact,
compatible in a way more profound than is often talked about.
A: They are qualitatively linked. [Laughter]
W: [Laughter] They are qualitatively linked.
A: How long did you and Robert Sherman run this journal here?
W: We took on a four-year obligation. The editors in Great Britain were kind enough
to ask us to do it again. Perhaps the University would have gone with it even
though that was not our agreement. I think people were pleased with what the
journal was doing and by the attention and news it was getting. I think we could
have gone on with it. I think, in fact, we probably had given it everything we
could give it that we could do uniquely. It was time to pass it on.
A: What years was it was based here at the University?
W: It all runs together for me, Dave. I would imagine it was probably 1984, 1985.
We would have to look it up to be sure. It might have been a little later than that.
I was just about to move. I suspect it was 1987 when it started.
A: Where is it edited now?
W: It is at the University of Tennessee. Amis Hatch is the central editor of it now.
A: You say it still is thriving?
W: It is still thriving, doing well, and continues to grow. The number of articles that
are coming in continues to grow. The percentage of articles accepted continues
to shrink. These are indicators that are good. Subscriptions continue to grow.
Things come from around the world into the journal. The qualitative research
world is well represented in its pages now and have been since the beginning,
but it continues to move out. They have an editor in Korea. Other indicators of
success is the competition. Sage has come out with a journal, as I figured they
would early on. They had watched our work, and had even said if Falmer did not
want to do it, they wanted to do that journal. (PLEASE IDENTIFY)
and Arnold Lincoln are editing this other qualitative journal.
A: Which shall remain nameless. [Laughter]
A: There is no need to give speed to the competition. [Laughter]
W: In fact, I do not remember the name of it. It is brand new. It will do well. It has
good editors. It is another niche. It will do more methodological stuff, I suspect.
It will not serve quite the international focus that QSE has served. We work hard
both to keep it international and to keep it U.S. driven.
A: Do you think the journal played an important role in expanding not only
awareness, but scholarly interest in qualitative methods in America? You
mentioned you had been exposed to popular qualitative approaches in Britain. At
that time, were the approaches as popular in America? What was the role of the
journal in speeding that along?
W: It is hard to know what the social forces are that put something in and out of
vogue. Qualitative studies have become more and more in vogue. It does not
dominate--and in my modest opinion--should not dominate the research field. It
should not push quantitative work out. I would be very displeased if it did that. It
is not in competition with quantitative work at all. It is hard to figure out. I would
not say that QSE was causal. On the other hand, we said in the early statements
of the journal that what we were trying to do was help develop a community of
scholarship; bring people together; get people talking about their work, sharing
their work, methodologies, and linking themselves to the past; and finding the link
between the biographies of people and their work.
We started a particular area called Life's Work and Life's History to do that just
kind of activity in the journal. The Nattanson article is an example of that. It
spelled out life and work of Schutz and what the connections were between the
two. We also had a section on methodology and a section on studies. We
wanted that conversation to be expanded. We also thought the journal had to be
educative not only for graduate students who were learning the methodology, but
for people who were coming in to teach the field in one area of methodology or
another, who perhaps did not appreciate totally or had deep connections to the
intellectual history of the area. That is another reason why we would go back
and link up with earlier anthropologists of education like the Spindlers. I would do
interviews with the Spindlers talking about their life work and history with Enslom
Strauss (PLEASE VERIFY SPELLING). I would talk with him about what he
was doing. We made this history accessible and some of the theory that came
A: I was going to talk about your involvement in a broader community of scholars.
Before I do that, you still were talking about Robert Sherman. The two of you
collaborated in putting together this journal and also in qualitative methods and
education focus and methods. As I understand it, you had written a book called
School and Society. In the revision of this, the two of you collaborated, also. Is
W: Correct. I had invited Rob in on the revision for a couple of reasons. One, I
wanted to extend the historical analysis in the book. Secondly, [I invited him]
because I had taken on a lot different kinds of tasks. In order to get everything
done, I needed some assistance. We work easily and well together. It was a
natural collaboration. If you look at my work, in fact, almost all of my work is
collaborated. I have done some books on my own. I have done articles on my
own. I like doing collaborative work. I work hard to build collaborative
relationships and academic relationships in different areas.
A: That book, School and Society is still a popular text. I think for undergraduate
and graduate students, foundations is not just here.
W: It is an interesting effort. We did a couple of things. We aimed at an
undergraduate market, but we aimed high. By high I mean we did not try and
dumb it down. If there are banalities in the book, they are there because they
exist in me, not because I tried to bring it down to an easy level. [Laughter]
Accessible, yes--we wanted it to be accessible. We wanted it readable. We
wanted to introduce people to how to do it by actually engaging in that kind of
analysis as we went, and then reflecting on what we were doing to see what we
were going to do with this. [We also wanted to] aim it at a beginning graduate
level. So it straddled that rather successfully.
What I am most pleased about is that it is the array of places where it has been
adopted. You find it used at Dartmouth, for example, and at Armstrong State. I
just love that. I just think it is great that different people will use it, and that it
seems to be achieving what we were trying to do. It is not a huge seller in the
way that some other books are that aim at an introductory course. You can tell a
little bit about the governments, teaching, careers of teachers, and how much
money you are going to make. [It was] kind of a cookbook approach that some
of those books use. That was not the market that we were after. That was not
the niche we were trying to find.
A: What about your own individual research? Is it accurate to say that you primarily
are interested in ethnography in terms of methodology? Is that primarily what
you as an individual researcher go out and do?
W: Yes. It is fair to say that my work, whether it has been in schools, or studying
teachers, or trying to change schools, or being involved in efficacy studies, or
trying to study school-restructuring efforts--all those things have used
ethnographic methodology. If I look for a commonality across them, for good or
ill, all the work I have done in research and writing has been connected to what I
am trying to teach. I do not think I have done anything that is unconnected to
and does not inform my teaching. I guess I mean my assigned teaching. I do
not redesign courses because all of a sudden I have an interest in here and [I
have decided] to do a course in it. Rather, everything has been connected from
Everything I have done has been connected with qualitative approaches. Most of
those approaches specifically are ethnographic, and have a big degree of depth
changing, depending on what we are trying to accomplish. Most everything I
have done has been involved in some kind of educational-improvement effort, to
inform improvement or be a part of school improvement. Everything we have
done has tried to deal with teaching as an intellectual enterprise, making a claim
that I believe deeply that the work of teachers is fundamentally and inescapably
intellectual. Anything else we bring to it, humanity, kindness, empathy, are
tactical additions to the intellectual effort.
A: What is ethnography, and how does your ethnographic research translate into
communicating the ideas that you just talked about to your students here at UF?
W: As you have heard me say, when people press me for the quick definition of
ethnography I say, "It is what Margaret Mead did when she got off the boat." You
move into a group of people living their lives, and you ask what is going on there.
Then you try to make sense of it at two levels: the concrete level at which they
make sense of the world, and then move from that to a second-order construct
that says what sociological theory helps explain what is going on here, and how
this helps explain sociological theory. Both of those things are going on at the
same time. What we are doing methodologically is moving in and inquiring about
some aspects of the lives of people. When you do it anthropologically, you tend
to look at large aspects of their lives. When you do it sociologically, you have
S(PLEASE IDENTIFY) dispensation and formation for looking at it
narrowly. We can look at just career aspects, classrooms, or just the school. We
do not have to look at the cultural universe.
A: This informs people at the seminar table here and foundations. Would you say
that it is attuning them to the qualitative, subtly interconnected experience that
they are moving out into, whether their educational administrators or researchers
themselves follow in your footsteps?
W: I do not try in the social foundations courses. I use it, but it is not dominant in the
course. I try to bring people close to the experiences of students and the
experiences of teaching. In that sense, I do not know if people take that course
and come out saying anything about ethnography, except maybe that they have
read some. There are not any conversions in there where we find people saying,
"Oh well, this is what I am going to do." On the other hand, people taking the
introduction course and/or the ethnography course, which I sometimes teach, are
given specific methodologies for doing this kind of research. Those people are
the only people who take that course because it is just so awesomely time
consuming for them and so hard. Our people already have an interest and a
deep commitment to want to do this kind of research, at least for their
dissertation. Those are the people who in interviews I cannot turn away with
careful warnings about the work-to-pay-off ratios in this kind of activity. What we
get are a self-selected group of highly motivated individuals. It is a joy to teach
A: It is an extremely involved process, is it not--the process of doing ethnography
and doing it right?
W: Yes. It really is extremely taxing in a lot of different ways. [It is] so taxing that
people tend to teach it in much tinier units. They say, "Let us get people doing
ethnographies of folks walking across the street, or confrontations with a Coke
machine." [That is] something with which they can deal. I have resisted that. I
got very interested in what people are doing across the country. I got
S(PLEASE IDENTIFY) at the University of Vermont to work with me
on the national survey of what people are doing, and how they are teaching it.
Most people do not teach it the way does, the way Sally (A.)
Hutchinson (professor, College of Nursing, appointed 1991) does in the Nursing
College, or the way Pam Richardson does in the sociology department. We
believe that people simply have to do that work to learn how to do that well.
There is no way to learn it abstractly. You have to be directly engaged in the
activity. What we do is design an opportunity for people to study what they want
to study, with some guidance so that they do not get in trouble, so they will not
take on impossible tasks. We work with them closely as they do their work. [We]
try to take care of the ongoing anxieties of a huge amount of work, and move
them through the methodology step by step so that by the end of the course they
may not have a perfect ethnography if there is such a thing. They may not have
a full ethnography. They certainly understand the method deeply, and know
what is involved in the approach. Many people use what they have done in that
course and develop it with further work in their dissertation.
A: Have you had a good number of students that have gone on to become full-
W: Oh yes. That takes time. As I was saying, that first class is associate professors
up there doing qualitative work, and building national reputations on their stuff. It
is a wonderful thing to see them.
A: I know, having been a student of yours all too briefly for one course, that your
students highly value your teaching and your commitment to students. Where do
you rank teaching in the broad scheme of things for you as a researcher,
teacher, along with your commitment to community service as well?
W: I have told you about T. Walter Herbert. I believed him then. T. Walter Herbert is
such a force that I believe he is still around and still watching. [Laughter] I would
change my mind on this at great peril. [Laughter] I think universities are curators
of knowledge, and that very few people are creators of knowledge. Perhaps all
of us should have a try at that, but I have a suspicion that there are many more
people who claim to be producers of knowledge than there really are. I would
certainly not count myself among them. I think the most important work and
essential base work in universities is teaching--passing on the accumulated
knowledge as best we can to others. I always have taken my own research as a
way into understanding what that knowledge is rather than building, creating.
Of course we are in a field where much of the research is use-based. In that
sense, we are looking for things that are useful for particular problems at
particular times at particular moments. I think that is an obligation somewhat
different--maybe no less important (Who knows about those things?)--than
somebody doing applied research in the makeup of matter. If they get it right,
they will be a part of that history of knowledge forever. I do not know that we
accumulate knowledge in quite the same way that other disciplines do because
of the nature of our work. Perhaps we make a big mistake in doing that.
A: How does this Department of Foundations shape up given the interest you just
have expressed? Also, where do you see this department headed? You have
talked about the history of it in terms of the old foundation ideas, new foundation
ideas, and qualitative methods ideas. How would you rate us and where are we
W: That is a very American question--"How are we doing?"
A: I am very American. [Laughter]
A: That is how we all are. "What are the Gators standings?" "Where are we? Are
we in the top?" The University has been doing this for some time. "Are we in the
top twenty?" I guess I do not really know. There is nationally an identity crisis
going on in education in general because of the pressures on education then,
where colleges cut back when they start cutting back. I think because of all of
that there is a general educational crisis, an identity crisis for foundations folk. It
has dominated their talk for some time. I do not think it is very productive. I do
not think it is very useful. I think a way to handle it is to get on with your work.
As I listen to that across the country, I have a sense, in terms of teaching and
attentiveness of students in those areas, that we are probably doing very well
compared to the competition--if that is indeed what they are. The numbers, or
differentials, that we find between what was happening in the 1970s and what is
happening now have much more to do with self-interest in economics than
I still believe the department is the intellectual center for some students in the
college. We get many strong students in this department. The numbers may not
be huge, but the quality of those students is good. Their understanding of
foundations is good. For those who are very pragmatically minded and say,
"Yes, but I want to be employed in school districts or curriculum departments
later on," they take majors elsewhere. Their heart is here. They take all the
courses they can here, at least selectively take courses. It is almost as if they
carry little badges that read "undercover foundations student." Certainly many
people in the college draw on foundations people when the chips are down, when
they need real academic help. You get foundations people on many, if not most
of the best dissertations coming out of the college. In that sense, I feel very good
about what we are doing.
The problem with those national standards is that it gives you an excuse not to
do better. In another way, I do not think we are doing well enough at all. I would
like to see us do much better with more applied research, more student
involvement in our research, more opportunities to bring people into schools and
do studies of schools. It is much more of an opportunity to bring school people
into the University in a useful and ongoing rotation. I think that would be very
important for schools and very important for us.
We are getting, for a number of complex reasons, more and more separated
from school systems. I do not think that is wise. I would like to see us better in
that area. There are a lot of ways of doing that. Histories of the reform
movements in Florida. Here we are on what I like to call the blunt edge of
educational change, with one change right after another, and we have a
government with no institutional memory with an interest in its own amnesia.
Every claim for reform can be made without any worry that anybody can
remember the promises of the last claim for reform. Let us lay the chronology in
what we have done. The sociology of how reforms happen, how changes
happen, and what forces are at work to make those things happen--all of this is
going on in the state.
It seems to me that foundations of education departments in cahoots with
colleagues ought to be getting that history and sociology clear. I would like to
see a lot more of that. I think there is an implosion issue of setting our own roots
and carrying that stuff on. There are things that we are not doing that we have
done in the past which I think are terribly important. We cannot find the time, or
the willingness to do it communally. We used to teach a course in social
foundations. Where is it? What is it? Greeting the first folks, moving it all the
way through, and getting an intellectual history of the area. It is a profoundly
liberal arts activity to study your history, theories, and how they developed. We
ought to be doing that work. I hope we will be able to.
The future of the department now is going to be in the new hires we have. The
situation our department faces is a situation of universities generally now. We
are growing older and grayer. We are set in our ways, and have our habits pretty
well entrenched. We have to hire the future. What we do in that, and who we
hire now is not going to make one bit of difference for most senior faculty
between now and their retirement, but it will make all the difference for
undergraduate and graduate students.
A: You have been here since 1972 at the University College of Education, in the
Department of Foundations. Broadening your perspective of the future of this
department, where do you see the college headed? How can we make this
college the best that it might be?
W: Colleges go through changes that roughly parallel the leadership that we bring
into the college. We have brought in a new dean. We brought in a dean who
was absolutely clear on what he was going to do. In the search process, [he
was] absolutely straight with the faculty and administration about his approach. I
suspect that he is going to carry that out.
A: His name?
W: Roderick McDavis (dean of the College of Education, appointed 1994). He came
here just shortly after I did. He has been moved into administration, which was
always his focus. He got some training at the graduate school here. He went off
to be dean at Arkansas. He has come back to the college. Predicting the future
is a game for a chump. I do not pretend to be able to see into the future better
than anybody else. I think I know what the issues are, even though I cannot
predict what we are going to do with those issues. The college is going to be
pushed and encouraged to find more and more outside funding sources at the
same time some of the funding sources are going to be drying up. We are going
to have to think carefully about the kind of research we are doing. There is going
to be a push for doing a great deal of research, at a time when there is a push for
focusing on undergraduate teaching. We have some kinds of contradictory
things going on.
The degree to which we advance as a college in any of the important areas, I
believe, will correlate with how well we are able to do those things that the
University is pushing and that Rod McDavis is pushing, while at the same time
attending to the central work of the college. It rests always upon faculty to attend
to the issues of quality. Maybe it is a natural tendency for administrators to have
to worry about the issues of quantity. Those things need not be contradictory.
Insofar as quantity, more grants, size of grants, and head counts of students,
become the aim rather than the quality issues, the institution will have lost its
intellectual integrity and will lose its way. It will begin to look like a lot of other
places, except, perhaps, if they are able to carry it off, they will be a little richer.
But only in the short run because people very quickly, if they have any sense,
begin to see that all we have is quantity and we do not have quality. What you
do then is start going to other sources of money that are not interested in quality
state evaluation programs where there may not be an interest in evaluating
really, but simply validating the decisions of state decision makers. There is
always this danger of renting out the ivory tower and putting it up for lease. I do
not know where we are going to go. It will depend upon the interest, integrity,
and opportunity for those kinds of things on the part of the faculty.
A: This holds for the University as a whole as well.
W: Sure, absolutely.
A: What do you see as the role of the College of Education in this University? What
do we add to the mix that we must continue to add?
W: The simple answer to that is that the College of Education here as in most
colleges and most state universities is a cash cow for the university. It is a low-
cost per unit, high-volume operation. That is less true today than it once was, but
it still has some truth to it. We make that contribution, and it is no small
economic contribution. The danger that colleges of education face is that once
being assigned that task, they automatically are assigned and in a insignificant
role in the structure of the university. [They are] left alone for the most part
because the cash cow continues to add cash, and it gives great convenience to
others. Some say, "Well we do not need to attend to that." On the other hand,
some of us have worked hard over time to build relationships across the street, to
carry what we take to be the general tasks of the universities as curators,
perpetrators, guardians, and creators of knowledge from across the street to here
to be expressions of the liberal arts activity within the college.
In the other direction, we are going to carry back the message that teacher
education is immense and it simply will not do for universities to complain about
the quality of their students and to ignore the necessities of quality in teacher
education. That means that the universities, I think, has to attend to colleges of
education and hold them to a very high standard. It is in their interest to do so. It
is in interest of their departments to do so--more so than ever because it used to
be that universities only took the very top cream of the groups, and they were
funneled in to the top teachers. Universities were kind of immune from the
failures of public education. Now, for complex reasons, that is not the case, and
economically it is not the case. We are going to suffer.
A: I guess to wrap things up, what do you see as being your legacy? You have
mentioned an emphasis on teaching. Obviously you have influenced all the
people around me and me deeply. I know that you are going to be here for a
couple of decades probably. You may not want to hear that, but you are going to
be around. [Laughter]
W: David, I must tell you the idea of that has never crossed my mind. I have
absolutely no notion. I would hope that the few things I have been able to do I
have done well. God, I would not even claim that. I would hope that, but I would
not even claim it. I do not know that I have had any legacy at all. I like the idea
that I carried along the notion of the foundation from Hal Lewis. I like the idea
that I carried the idea of qualitative research along and did not let it get too
sloppy in the process. If I have done nothing more than carry that water, I would
be very pleased about it. I really do not see that as my legacy, I see it as
carrying on the stuff of other peoples.
A: Well, then I will characterize you by saying that at least one of your legacies will
be tremendous modesty. [Laughter] I just want to thank you again for doing this.
It took a lot of time. I know your time is precious. As one parting shot, mention
briefly the project that you are involved in now. You have got part of this hall
cordoned off and it is a research center. What is going on down there?
W: We have a number of projects in which we are taking groups of researchers into
schools consciously undergoing change, recording what is going on in some
systematic way, and feeding that information back to the people in those
situations so that they can better grasp the things they are up against and make
changes in mid-course as needed. What we do is write these reports [in which
we say,] "Here is what seems to be going on. Does this make sense to you?
Here are the barriers you are facing. Here are the things you have
accomplished. Here are some suggestions of alternative things to try. If you
move in this direction, this kind of stuff might happen. If you move in that
direction, that kind of thing might happen." We allow them to make those
decisions, but continue to study the process as we go.
One of those projects was studying shared governance in schools as we drive
decision making down to school. Another project is working through that shared
governance to inclusion projects, trying to reach all children in schools and not
write off kids. [We] make a special effort to reach the hard-to-reach and hard-to-
teach children. Another group of researchers is working on that with federal
money to see what happens when we bring kids with special needs into regular
classrooms, what happens when you try to make schools into learning
communities, and characterize the enterprise as an intellectual activity to get
teachers collectively thinking about teaching and learning as opposed to multiple
other distractions that go on in schools. We have those projects going and a
number of collateral projects that will spin out of it. [There are] monographs that
we were writing last year out of the Center for School Improvement here.
We have written monographs on these projects for NK Studies and for the group
of Anne Lieberman at Columbia and her Center for Restructuring Schools and
Teaching. [We have written] a teachers college book proposal. We sent one in
today trying to take what we have learned about school restructuring and write a
book for practitioners [in which we say,] "Here is what district offices need to
know about school restructuring. Here are what principals need to know. Here is
what school leaders need to know." Also, the content of school restructuring.
We are working on those kinds of areas.
A: Did you say that book is going to be published by Teachers College at Columbia?
W: Well, we will see. We are working on that now.
A: I will leave you to your work.
W: One last thing. A gal named Margaret Witcherly, who was an actress that played
in Tobacco Road for years. When she finally quit, we asked her at the end of it
why she quit. She moved after all from employment to unemployment. She
answered that it was because she was beginning to like raw turnips. She was
very much a part of our lives, and gave us our first television set because she
said she thought she was probably going to retire and live with the Webbs. If she
was going to do that, she did not want to live in a house that did not have a
television set. She was a marvelous woman.
When I was eight, they were casting for "A Member of the Wedding" in New
York. The director called my parents and said, "Do you not have an eight year
old?" They said, "Yes, but he is not interested." They called back later. This
went on and on. My parents finally said, "Maybe we ought to ask Rod whether or
not he would be interested in this." I of course said, "Oh yes. That sounds great
to me." So I went to audition for "A Member of the Wedding." I did okay, but as I
was walking out, an actor named Brandon Dewildo (PLEASE VERIFY
SPELLING) walked in. Brandon Dewildo got the part. That is no problem. He
ended up with a sad and quick death. Anyhow, Margaret Witcherly was walking
up our front steps one day, as she was prone to do. She was walking in from
Ridgefield, Connecticut. It was about twenty miles. She just took a bus to
Ridgefield, Connecticut, and walked into our house unexpectedly. I ran out to
see her. I said, "Margaret, Margaret. I was almost in a Broadway play." She
said, "Roddie, that is the story of my life." [Laughter]
A: That is a perfect place to end this interview, which will be entitled I Was Almost in
a Broadway Play.
W: That is right. [Laughter]
A: Thanks again.