Remembering David Tyack

David Tyack, preeminent historian of American education, died November 1, 2016 at his home in Stanford, California. Best known to some as a prolific and insightful author, to others as an exemplary teacher, and to all who knew him as a remarkably generous friend, Tyack began his career in Massachusetts. As a boy in Hamilton, Tyack impressed a neighbor whose lawn he mowed and who arranged a scholarship for him at Phillips Academy, Exeter from which he graduated and won further scholarships to Harvard University where he completed his bachelor’s degree in 1952, followed by a PhD in 1958. While at Harvard he married Dorothy (Dee) Lloyd, and after nearly three decades they divorced. Beginning in his undergraduate years, Tyack focused his attention upon the role public education played in forming American society. His undergraduate honors thesis was of the Cape Verdean community in New England, a subject to which he returned at the end of his life.

David Tyack. (Stanford News Archive)
David Tyack.
(Stanford News Archive)

Teaching first at Reed College and subsequently at the University of Illinois before moving to Stanford University in 1969, Tyack began a vigorous publication program, culminating in 13 books and over 100 articles, which were widely read, admired and cited. In his years at Stanford several of his books were co-authored with his graduate students and after 1980 with political scientist Elisabeth Hansot, who became his wife.

Just as Tyack arrived at Stanford historians of education began a deep and often vitriolic argument about the role of schooling in America. In 1968 Michael Katz published a revision of his Harvard doctoral thesis, The Irony of Early School Reform, arguing that public schooling had not always been as beneficial for American children, particularly ones from poor families, as it had been traditionally portrayed. A decade later Diane Ravitch, a recent PhD from Columbia, countered with her critique of Katz and his adherents, The Revisionists Revised. The ordinarily quiet field of American educational history suddenly was alive with controversy. Tyack, however, managed to maintain the respect of both sides as he prepared his Stanford students, some of whom found Katz’s work convincing and others who found Ravitch compelling. His first well known and highly regarded book, The One Best System, appeared in 1975 in the midst of these arguments and established Tyack as a scholar of depth and distinction. By the time he and his former student and later colleague, Larry Cuban, published Tinkering Toward Utopia in 1995 the earlier controversy had subsided. School improvement, however, remained an elusive goal.

Throughout his career Tyack maintained a commitment to the public schools and to their need for improvement, particularly for children of low-income and non-white families. He kept this emphasis when other leading historians of education, particularly Lawrence Cremin, turned their attention “to the many agencies that educate.” While Tyack recognized the significance of non-school educational forces, he saw the public schools as essential in contributing to what he considered “the common good.” His former students and colleagues recognized this commitment when they prepared a festschrift for him, Seeking Common Ground: Public Schools in a Diverse Society, at the time of his retirement from Stanford in 2000.

Despite his prodigious scholarly contribution, he was always best known for the time , attention and thoughtful conversation he gave to students and to those colleagues who were eager to learn from each other. Tyack was remarkable for his commitment to discussion of important historical and contemporary educational dilemmas, preferably while hiking on steep, breathtakingly beautiful paths in the west. Many of his fellow hikers found these experiences extraordinary both for their intellectual and physical demands. Typically they were accompanied by Tyack’s beloved dog.

Two sons, Daniel and Peter, survive him.

– Pat Graham

Patricia Albjerg Graham is Charles Warren Professor of the History of American Education, Emerita at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

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