Donald Oliver, a professor of education who delighted in debate and developed a curriculum to stimlate discussion of social issues in junior and senior high schools, died June 28 at the age of 73.
Born into modest circumstances in Willimantic, Conn., Oliver attended Amherst College, receiving his B.A. in 1952. In 1956, he earned a Ph.D. from the Harvard Graduate School of Education and soon afterward joined the faculty.
Oliver’s two main philosophical interests were the development of a theory of culture and the systematic study of human experiences. But in his academic work he always grounded these concerns in the fabric of everyday life, asking how can we create significant local places that encourage people to live more balanced lives? His interest in community led him to study the culture and management of corporate institutions such as schools, colleges, businesses, and social service agencies.
His notion that real cultural exchanges occur only in places like coffee shops and hair salons where people gather and talk informally, led him in 1978 to spend a sabbatical studying hairdressing at a beauty school in Lowell.
As a teacher, Oliver was known for conducting marathon discussion classes, lasting four hours or more. His students remember his confrontational discussion style, which often led him to take controversial positions that would energize the debate and bring it into unexpected areas. But despite his penchant for argumentation, students invariably found him warm and approachable.
Singing was Oliver’s preferred form of creative expression. A tenor, he performed solo at the Longy School of Music’s Bach’s Lunch program. He also sang as part of a trio known as “Maddie, the Professor, and Polly.” The last-named member of the group was Oliver’s wife, the former Pauline “Polly” Anderson. Oliver also sang in productions of Gian Carlo Menotti’s opera “Amahl and the Night Visitors.”
Oliver’s books include “Education and Community” (1976); “Education, Modernity and Fractured Meaning” (1989); and “The Primal, the Modern, and the Vital Center” (2002).
In addition to his wife, he is survived by two daughters, Stephanie A. Oliver and Lauren J. Oliver; two sons, Donald B. Oliver and Kris J. Oliver; three stepsons, Carl W. Hume, John R. Hume, and Frederick Hume; a sister, Jane Nelson; and two nephews, two nieces, and 11 grandchildren.
Contributions to Oliver’s memory may be made to Emerson Hospital, c/o Development Office, ORNAC, Concord, MA 01742.