Edmund Gordon, EdD, has seen America's black community undergo significant changes in his lifetime, from the civil rights movement to the inauguration of a black president. His long career as a psychologist weaves in and out of that history, with appointments at numerous universities, groundbreaking research into how education shapes minds and his role in 1965 as a founder of the federal Head Start Program, which provides education, nutrition and health-care assistance to children living in poverty.

Teachers College at Columbia University, where Gordon founded the Institute for Urban Education in 1973 and once served as dean, recently held an event to celebrate Gordon's career and influence on U.S. education policy. The Monitor spoke with Gordon about how he became a psychologist, his opinion of Head Start today and how we can improve education for everyone.

What first interested you about psychology?

When I was in college, I thought I was heading into medicine. But after college, I entered divinity school, which wasn't a new thing for me as I'd been very close to the church most of my life. But what I was looking for in divinity school was preparation for a career in human service. I ended up in a position counseling students and realized that my divinity training was not adequate preparation for counseling people. I realized I was trying to practice psychology with no actual training in psychology, so I decided to go back and study it.

How did you get involved with Head Start?

I was invited to the Center for Advanced Studies at Stanford, and it was out there that I got involved with several folks who were being tapped for President John F. Kennedy's ventures into progressive political, social and economic endeavors. Then Kennedy was assassinated and Lyndon Johnson was in office, and Johnson turned to two or three people out of that group for advice on his war on poverty. I was invited to take on the challenge of evaluating the Head Start program. I think that was as much because of the work I had done on my doctoral dissertation — which had to do with the holistic development of children in Harlem — as it was because of affirmative action. But I think they thought the research effort would succeed better in some of the targeted communities if they had a person of color leading it.

Do you think that Head Start has been successful?

As a political and social endeavor, it has turned out to be one of the most successful and effective of the federal government's experiments. When one looks at it in terms of its potential for what it could be, I'm more inclined to call it a failure because we are a long way from what we'd hoped for. It has become identified as a child development project and we had thought of it as a family and community development project. From the beginning, we had as our central target poor children, but we thought that the way to do that was through strengthening the families and communities from which those kids came. The core concept was to greatly improve the environments and opportunities for learning. The community development part of it, I think, was perceived by the politicians as politically threatening because some of the projects became instruments of political action. Those parts were pretty much stripped from Head Start and the concentration became exclusively on early education programs for kids.

What are the biggest challenges to educating black people today?

The maldistribution of the resources necessary to live a decent life. When we look across the world at educated people and uneducated people, it's interesting that the educated people tend to be those who have access to the resources necessary to become educated. One could take that finding and say that the most important intervention ought to be in the placing of a floor under the existence of all people to raise their quality of life so they can live effective lives, including getting an adequate education. However, that is politically not a useful concept; society regularly rejects it as too socialist.

What would you recommend to psychologists just starting their careers?

Get as much and as broad an education as you can. Psychologists ought not limit themselves to the things we identify as "psychology." Most problems of the world aren't going to be solved by any single discipline. Students of human behavior need to be well versed in the sciences of behavior, the arts and the humanities. From the perspectives thus provided, professional and wise judgments can be expected.

—M. Price