Alan (Buddy) Peshkin, Professor of Education (Teaching), died on December 7, 2000 after a yearlong struggle with aggressive brain cancer.
Buddy earned his PhD in Education from the University of Chicago in 1962. Prior to the doctorate, he received baccalaureate and master's degrees from the University of Illinois and taught high school social studies. Over the course of his career, he held a series of academic positions, beginning with an assistant professorship at the University of Wisconsin, Madison and then serving as associate (1967-69) and full professor (1969-1998) at the University of Illinois, Campaign. In 1997 Buddy relocated to Stanford University, where he became a member of the School of Education faculty. His contributions to the School were primarily in the teaching arena, where he devoted a great deal of time and personal attention to graduate students.
Buddy Peshkin's scholarship focused on issues of schools and communities. His case studies ranged from research on Christian fundamentalists and Native Americans, to class privilege, as evident in several of his book titles (Growing Up American; God's Choice; The Color of Strangers, The Color of Friends; Places of Memory; and Permissible Advantage?). Throughout his career, his analytical approach was consistent, taking an emic perspective to understand communities from the inside out. His work is highly regarded as a model for the conduct of qualitative inquiry in educational research, both for the ways in which he conducted field research that was thorough and respectful, and for the subsequent analyses where he carefully attended to issues of subjectivity and interpretation
The heart of Buddy's work focused on community -- what made it tick, what its effects were, how members of a community sustain the life of the community over time. Buddy was especially interested in the rewards or satisfactions that members of the community gained from being a part of it. These interests, in many ways, hearken back to his boyhood growing up on the west side of Chicago. Chicago was not only a city of discrete neighborhoods; it also had within it communities of people who saw themselves as belonging to a particular group. Buddy was a member of the 16th and Kildare community and treasured his experience in it. These early satisfactions emerged later in his decision to work in the field of social studies education. His first professional position upon graduating from the University of Illinois with a master's degree was to work as a social studies teacher in Barrington, Illinois. His experience in Barrington, however, did not tap the range of his intellectual interests, and subsequently Buddy enrolled in the doctoral program in the Department of Education at the University of Chicago. In this program he had the opportunity to become a research assistant on a Ford funded project on educational development in Pakistan and later in Nigeria. Having traveled with his family to Pakistan, over time he developed an interest in comparative education and what is now called International Development Education. His book on the Kunuri provides a testament to what he learned about the way life is lived in the Kunuri villages.
Buddy's interest in community, initiated as it did in his boyhood, expressed as it did in the field of social studies education, and refined methodologically in his work at the University of Chicago, developed further as he saw the possibilities of doing conceptually significant work studying communities in the United States. His first book in this realm of scholarship was Growing Up American, a book devoted to the ways in which communities sustain their values and beliefs even when a richer or intellectually more robust education for their children might be found elsewhere, or, if not elsewhere then through a process of consolidating with other school districts. Buddy tells the story, not apocryphal, of a candidate being interviewed by a rural school board. It was clear that other candidates were from the perspective of experience and training better qualified for the post, but the candidate in question was judged preferable by the board for, as one of the board members said, "he's country." That was enough to get him hired. In a single phrase, he was able to capture the value dynamics at work in the selection process. He demonstrated that communities strive to sustain themselves, even when it appears that in doing so it may not be to their advantage.
Perhaps one of the most significant contributions that Buddy Peshkin made to the study of community is found in his book, God's Choice. Peshkin, a Jew, lived with a fundamentalist Christian family for a full year to try to understand the social dynamics at work inside a Christian fundamentalist school he was studying. His rendering of that school was considered credible and fair by those managing the institution and by others sending their children there, not a small accomplishment. This accomplishment becomes even more significant when one realizes that the final chapter of his book raises serious questions about the not-so-democratic orientation of the members of this community and, in his view, the irony of providing opportunities to those who, if in power, would withhold the same opportunities to others that they received.
Buddy went on to write The Color of Strangers, The Color of Friends, a study of an interracial community living successfully together in California, and then Places of Memory, a study of Pueblo life and the values that animate it and their consequences on the children who are reared within it with respect to their educational attainment. His last book, Permissible Advantage? The Moral Consequences of Elite Schooling, examines the kind of advantages an extremely well funded independent school provides to its students and compares those provisions to other schools not so blessed. In doing so, he sensitizes us to substantial educational inequities within our own society.
The impact of community on an individual's thought processes, their values, and the beliefs they hold dear is deeply etched in Buddy's own experience growing up on the west side of Chicago It shaped the choices he made about what to study and, indeed, what to say about what he learned. Studies of community are often neglected in efforts to improve schools, where the so-called "unit of analysis" is often "the school," conceptualized as an entity uninfluenced by the community it serves. Nothing could be further from the truth.
In discussing the differences among communities and the values that are embraced within them, Buddy Peshkin did not have a single vision of education to prescribe. He was a person who placed emphasis on constructive diversity and welcomed what might be regarded as "goodness" in its many forms. He was no educational dogmatist.
As time went on, his methodological interests begin to surge. Just what are the uses of subjectivity, an often despised aspect of scientific investigation? What do we mean by generalization, and what does it take to generalize? How shall we think about interpretation and its uses in so fragile a field as qualitative research? These and other conceptual issues emerged in his thinking and were lucidly expressed in his writing. We suspect that much of this interest in the methodological aspects of qualitative educational research was stimulated by students who sought his guidance in moving beyond the information given, to interpret from their perspective what they had encountered, and to use their own unique subjectivity and life experience as a way of making distinctive observations and drawing insights from their data.
In fact, one might say that while at Stanford, Buddy Peshkin's major contributions focused not only on the substantive issues pertaining to the study of community, but to the detailed care he afforded the students with whom he worked. There has seldom been a teacher on the education faculty who made such a powerful impact in so short a time. Buddy Peshkin's impact is due to the fact that he never left his humanity at the classroom door when he entered to work with students. They were for him not only students, but colleagues, not only colleagues, but friends. He was for so many their mentor and their source of support during such difficult travails as crafting a dissertation proposal or composing an access letter to study a school or a school district.
Buddy Peshkin's accomplishments as a scholar are represented in his being awarded a Guggenheim fellowship in 1973 and an appointment as a fellow at the Center for Advanced Study at the University of Illinois in 1979 and later in 1995 as an appointment as a fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences in Palo Alto. These public honors pale in significance to those who knew him as a person as well as a scholar. He had penetrating insight, often minced no words; and he gave those speaking to him a rare gift -- he listened. Buddy Peshkin was a wise man. In an institution like Stanford, one expects to find people of intellectual brilliance. Buddy displayed intellectual brilliance. But one doesn't always find people with a large heart, an open mind, and a willingness to hear what you have to say. Buddy possessed these virtues in abundance. His death has robbed us all of qualities none of us can easily replace.
Buddy is survived by his wife Maryann, his three children, and two grandchildren. In addition to being a devoted member of his family, he will be remembered for being a passionate teacher and researcher, a thoughtful and reflective listener, as well as a caring friend and colleague.
Patricia J. Gumport
Stanford Report, November 6, 2002