Philip W. Jackson, education scholar committed to children’s flourishing, 1928-2015

As a leader in the field of education and curriculum studies, Philip W. Jackson was deeply concerned with the role of schools in the moral development of children.

“He believed in creating school experiences that provided children access to wonderful lives,” said Catharine Bell, PhD’07, Jackson’s former doctoral student and friend, “because he believed children have the capacity to see the wonderful in the ordinary.”

Jackson, the David Lee Shillinglaw Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus in Education, Psychology and the College, died July 21 due to complications from cancer. He was 86.

The author of several influential books, he was internationally known as an expert on education pioneer John Dewey. In addition to his faculty appointment at the University, Jackson served in prominent administrative roles at the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools.

Jackson joined the UChicago faculty in 1955 after earning his PhD in developmental psychology from Columbia University’s Teachers College. He served as dean of the Graduate School of Education and chairman of the Department of Education from 1973-75, when the graduate school was merged with the department. He continued as chairman after the merger until 1978.

Throughout his career, Jackson was involved in a number of critical research studies. Trained as a psychometrician, his early work, Creativity and Intelligence (1962), co-authored with J.W. Getzels, relied heavily upon traditional quantitative research methods that were the hallmark of educational psychology at the time.

The two researchers devised tests to measure children’s milestones and famously concluded that high IQ, as measured by tests, was not a mark of giftedness. An October 1960 Time magazine article summed up their findings: “The truly creative child who thrives on novelty is likely to find IQ tests boring and hence do poorly on them.”

‘A better way to understand children’

A year’s research leave at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University, from 1962-63, changed Jackson’s research trajectory forever. There, he met a primate researcher who described using behaviorist techniques to test and train baboons.

“Phil realized that that’s what he had been doing with children, treating them like animals in a behaviorist paradigm,” said David Hansen, AB’76, PhD’90, the Weinberg Professor in Historical and Philosophical Foundations of Education at Columbia University’s Teachers College and one of Jackson’s doctoral students during the 1980s. “It was a decisive moment; he realized there’s a better way to understand children, a better way than poking them with sticks.”

Jackson returned to Chicago and shifted to a more anthropological approach. His work Life in Classrooms (1968), based on a year spent observing a fourth-grade classroom, is one of the very first book-length qualitative studies in the field of educational research.

“It is greatly to his intellectual credit that he began to look at classrooms and teaching in a more holistic and imaginative way—one that, among other things, paid attention to the tacit messages that emanated from classrooms and from teachers’ work, matters that had been long ignored,” said Prof. Emeritus Robert Dreeben, Jackson’s colleague at the University for more than three decades.

In 1988, with funding from the Spencer Foundation, Jackson launched a multi-year, field-based research study exploring the role of schools in children’s moral development. Jackson, Hansen and Robert Boostrom, PhD’91, then a doctoral student, observed the classrooms of 18 teachers from six public and private neighborhood schools and brought them together twice a month for dinner followed by open-ended discussion.

“Phil was interested in the positive human influence that the person in the role of teacher can have,” Hansen said. “The discussions were just extraordinary—they were about whatever the teachers wanted to talk about, the most significant and human aspects of being a teacher, the challenging moments and the beautiful moments.”

The study became the book The Moral Life of Schools (1993), which examined the ways that school settings affect children as they develop attitudes about themselves, their education and their society. 

Jackson’s influence on the teachers was profound, said Bell, a high school English teacher at the Laboratory Schools who participated in the study and later became one of Jackson’s doctoral students. “[The teachers] decided that ultimately students are always watching, so everything you do has moral content,” Bell said. “As a teacher you have to strive to put on your best self.”

From scholar to administrator

Jackson rose to many leadership roles in his field. He served as president of the American Educational Research Association from 1989-90, was a member of the National Academy of Education, and for several years edited the American Journal of Education.

In addition to his career in teaching and research, Jackson spent several years in administration at the Laboratory Schools. He served as principal of the nursery school during the mid- and late-1960s and as director of pre-collegiate education in from 1970-75.

“It wasn’t a path my dad had planned or sought,” said his son David Jackson. “It was something he undertook out of the huge loyalty he felt toward the University and [then-President] Edward Levi.”

During Jackson’s time as director, Lab School teachers pushed for unionization. Jackson found himself caught between his own union sympathies and his duties as an administrator. “He was really in the hot seat, trying to preserve the institution and the school during a tumultuous period,” David said.

David said he would sometimes ask his father if he regretted the years away from teaching and research. “He told me, ‘not at all,’” he recalled. “He said he never could have been the researcher or writer he became if he had not held in his own hands the lives of students, families and teachers in the way a school administrator does. He really absorbed into his bones that profound responsibility.”

‘A force of nature’

Born Dec. 2, 1928, in Vineland, N.J., Jackson was adopted and raised by a family of chicken farmers in rural southern New Jersey. His adoptive parents could not but notice his irrepressible talents, particularly in singing and poetry recitation. At age 6, Jackson began performing a vaudeville act in movie theatres where, between reels, he would recite poems and put on a snake-charmer act, complete with turban, pantaloons and a jersey garden snake coaxed from a basket.

In 1948, Jackson married his high school sweetheart, Josephine D’Andrea, then served six months in the Navy. He had no ambitions of higher education until a fellow sailor encouraged him to attend community college. Jackson enrolled at what is now Rowan University in New Jersey, earned a master’s degree from Temple University and continued on to Columbia University.

Jackson became an internationally recognized expert on John Dewey, founder of the Laboratory Schools. He wrote two widely praised books on Dewey’s philosophy of education, including John Dewey and the Lessons of Art (1998) and John Dewey and the Philosopher’s Task (2002), and served as president of the John Dewey Society from 1996-98.

“He was very taken by Dewey’s focus on experience,” said Hansen, “particularly the idea that you can’t keep piling things onto children, like pouring things down a funnel. You need to engage them in experiences in the classroom that allow them to take intellectual ownership and see learning as alive and dramatic and vivid.”

Jackson retired from the University in 1998, but his quest for learning never stopped. “He was extremely curious,” said David Jackson, who noted that during the last phase of his career his father taught himself German. “His life was a constant effort to press past what he already knew toward what he didn’t.”

Throughout his life, Jackson had a magnetism that drew people to him. “I think he’ll be remembered by every single educator who met him as an extraordinary, brilliant and passionate person,” Hansen said. “He was a force of nature, a man full of life.”

Jackson is survived by his wife, Josephine Jackson; his children David Jackson, Nancy Rudolph and Steven Jackson; and his granddaughter, Hannah Rudolph.