Allison Davis

Jul 9th, 2011 | By | Category: Activism, Education, Science & Invention
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Allison Davis1902-1983  William Allison Davis devoted his life to uncovering and correcting unfair bias in the U.S. educational system, and ensuring equal opportunity for all. His landmark studies of caste and class in the south, and the effects of culturally biased tests on underprivileged children, led to dramatic improvements in the use of such tests and the general quality of education.

Ivy League, Southern Studies

Allison Davis was born in 1902, to Gabrielle and John Davis. He and his two siblings were raised in Washington, DC. His record of outstanding academic achievement began with his graduation from the segregated Dunbar High School as class valedictorian. Davis continued his undergraduate studies at Williams College in Massachusetts, earning his bachelor of arts degree in 1924 summa cum laude. A master’s degree in English from Harvard followed in 1925.

Davis journeyed to Virginia that year, and taught English to rural black children. This environment of poverty and diminished opportunity produced an epiphany, which he described in these words: “…teaching in the standard manner made no sense to these poor and poorly schooled rural blacks. I decided that I didn’t know anything to teach them since our backgrounds were so different, yet I wanted to do something to affect such students.” So motivated, Davis recommenced studies in social anthropology at Harvard in 1931. Working under W. Lloyd Warner, he embarked on an anthropological investigation of the deep south. Focusing his field work in Natchez, Mississippi, he concluded that southern society was composed of two “castes,” or rigidly defined and separate social groupings (White and Black), and that within each caste there were numerous social strata, or “classes.”

Davis earned a master’s in anthropology from Harvard in 1932, and continued his explorations with John Dollard of Yale University. He produced two groundbreaking books as a result of his research and analysis: Children of Bondage in 1940, and Deep South: A Social Anthropological Study of Caste and Class in 1941. These studies presented a comparative analysis of the effects of the caste system on African American adolescents, and the development of their personalities, in Natchez and New Orleans. Davis thereby pioneered the use of anthropological tools to examine racial issues, and brought to light alarming discrepancies in the lives of Americans. During this period, he concurrently served as a professor of anthropology at Dillard University in New Orleans from 1935 to 1939.

Tests and Teaching

When Lloyd Warner moved from Harvard to the University of Chicago in 1939, Davis rejoined his mentor there. He worked as an assistant professor in the Center for Child Development, completed a Ph.D. in anthropology in 1942, and was offered a faculty position in the Department of Education and on the Committee on Human Development as an assistant professor of education. There, he worked with distinguished social scientists such as Robert J. Havighurst and Ralph W. Tyler. Davis and Havighurst conducted a Chicago area study of infant and child-rearing practices in black and white families. Davis then embarked on a project that would lead to his best-known work: he undertook a large-scale study of standardized intelligence tests widely used in elementary schools. The results were summarized in his Inglis Lecture at Harvard in 1948, under the title “Social-Class Influences upon Learning.” In it, he argued that cultural biases built into the tests favored middle- and upper-class groups by relying on special forms of knowledge not available to lower-class children. As a result, the lower two-thirds of the socioeconomic spectrum were stigmatized unfairly by lower test scores.

Davis was made a full professor at the University of Chicago in 1948, and was granted tenure (perhaps the first African American so honored at a predominantly white northern university) that year. He expanded on his work with his 1951 publication of Intelligence and Cultural Differences. Developed with Havighurst, Tyler, and Kenneth Ellis, the book presented a class-based analysis of student answers to culturally biased questions drawn from 10 widely used intelligence tests. Ultimately, his achievements in this area produced an alternative test, the Davis-Ellis Intelligence Test, which was free of social bias. Davis’ subsequent work addressed a broad range of issues involving learning, class, culture, and personality development, and the resulting patterns of adolescent and adult achievement. He served under Presidents Johnson and Nixon on the Commission on Civil Rights, and as vice chairman of the Department of Labor’s Commission on Manpower Retraining. In 1965, Davis was appointed to the Conference to Insure Civil Rights; and in 1967, he was the first representative of the education field to be elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He served on the White House Task Force for the Gifted in 1968.

Davis was named the University of Chicago’s John Dewey Distinguished Service Professor of Education in 1970. He retired from teaching in 1978 at the age of 76 to devote himself to his final work, Leadership, Love, and Aggression. In it, Davis used his insights about caste, class, and society to examine the development of four major African American figures: Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. Du Bois, Richard Wright, and the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The book was published in November 1983. Less than one month later, Davis entered the hospital for heart surgery, which was unsuccessful. He died on November 21, 1983.

In his lifetime, Davis published a total of 10 books. His greatest legacy lies in the effect he had on early childhood development programs, which gave rise to such important innovations as Head Start; and on the use of standardized tests and exposure of cultural bias. In his own words on the early University of Chicago work: “This study had the most practical effect of any of my work. It led to the abolition of the use of intelligence tests in New York, Chicago, Detroit, San Francisco, and other cities. This was one time I got what I wanted: a direct effect on society from social science research.”


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