In AERA's Centennial Year, the Annual Meeting will celebrate and reinvigorate the progressive aspirations that gave rise to our professional community in 1916: hope and determination that research can strengthen public education, society’s most democratic institution. To mark this remarkable moment, the 2016 Meeting will illuminate and enhance the role of education researchers as public scholars who contribute to public understanding, political debate, and professional practice in increasingly diverse democracies in the U.S. and around the globe.
Today’s world presents challenges that bear an uncanny resemblance to those of the US in 1916. Then, a newly industrialized and urbanized economy brought staggering changes to workplaces, homes, and society. Waves of new immigrants sparked fears that revolutionary radicalism would undermine the so-called American way of life. Post-Reconstruction Jim Crow laws in the South legalized racial segregation and disenfranchisement, and did nothing to curb targeted racial violence. Southern Blacks and Southwestern Latinos migrated north in search of jobs and found themselves in neighborhoods of racial isolation and urban poverty. Staggering income and wealth inequality exacerbated racial and ethnic divides. Global conflict—fueled by political, territorial, ethnic, and ideological disputes—beckoned United States’ engagement. All echo today, both in the U.S. and around the world, as unprecedented global migration and demographic shifts confront nations everywhere with the challenge of being both democratic and diverse.
Early twentieth century leaders gave schools responsibility for addressing the bewildering array of social challenges brought on by these changes. Many reformers at the time looked to the efficiencies and productivity of industrialization for guidance in carrying out this responsibility. Following the progressive impulse of the times, they primarily adopted technical and structural approaches. The first AERA researchers were part of that effort, seeking to produce scientific knowledge that educators could use to improve large school systems—a pursuit we continue today.
Over the century, education researchers learned that education improvement is at least as much about public perceptions and politics as it is about science. We have produced valuable knowledge about the normative and political dimensions of educating all in a diverse society, as well as about the technical and structural elements. The resulting research base is increasingly insightful and can help shape the public’s knowledge and the political environment within which decisions about policy and practice are made, as well as help improve and sustain practice. But, one other clear lesson from the past century is that the research base itself needs advocates; it will not be used unless it is thoughtfully promoted.
By design and timing, AERA’s 2016 Centennial Annual Meeting will highlight the interplay of research, politics, and social analysis. The meeting will be held in the US capital in the middle of an electoral season likely rife with contentious education debates, many of which are enmeshed with controversies and opportunities arising from population diversity. We as a community are uniquely positioned to engage in these debates and inform them with rigorous, scholarly inquiry.
John Dewey’s ideas about schooling, scientific inquiry, and social progress provide intellectual grounding for this theme. Dewey maintained that scholars must engage democratically with “publics” in ways that raise awareness of social problems (in education and beyond) and foster a democratic and public solving of those problems. In Democracy and Education, the Centennial of which is also 2016, Dewey reminds us that education must embody both the means and ends of democracy. Moreover, Dewey argued that science could contribute best to social progress (including educational progress) through a process of sustained public inquiry, rather than by being asserted, or trickling down, from professionalized and technical fields of study embedded within sanctioned institutions.
Today, researchers have access to powerful strategies, technologies, and skillsets to support their engagement as public scholars—should they choose to use them. Public scholarship was once largely confined to making presentations to practitioners or giving speeches at public meetings. Now, new forms of engagement exist in a wide variety of public spaces, including writing for lay audiences, media commenting, blogging and posting, contributing to public websites, testifying at government hearings or in litigation, conducting collaborative research with communities and educators, and other activities that position research to inform civic participation, engagement and organized action.