Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot in her home.

Photos by Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard Staff Photographer

Campus & Community

‘I have always been temperamentally wired to carry on’

long read

Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot’s lessons in resilience

Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot, a sociologist, has made a lifelong mission of understanding and improving education. Through four decades at Harvard, her entire career, she has explored the complex cultural dynamics behind good schools, good teachers, and good learning environments, and passed on what she’s learned to countless students.

Her numerous honors include a 1984 MacArthur fellowship and Harvard’s 1993 George Ledlie Prize for research that makes the “most valuable contribution to science” and “the benefit of mankind.” She has written 10 books, among them “The Art and Science of Portraiture,” which put forth a new social science methodology poised between rigorous empiricism and literary narrative.

Lawrence-Lightfoot, 69, received the Emily Hargroves Fisher Endowed Chair at Harvard University in 1998. When she retires, it will become the Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot Chair, making her the first African-American woman in Harvard’s history to have an endowed professorship named in her honor.

Can you tell me about your parents? Were they your earliest inspirations?

My parents were, and continue to be, a source of great inspiration to me. They were brave and compassionate people who were devoted to balancing love and work. My father, Charles Lawrence, was a sociologist and social activist, a scholar and a great pedagogue; my mother, Margaret Morgan Lawrence, was a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst who combined teaching at Columbia School of Medicine with clinical work at Harlem Hospital in New York City. Born in 1915 and 1914, respectively, they both grew up in Mississippi — my father in the small rural town of Utica, where his parents both taught at a boarding school, the only school for blacks within a 200-mile radius; and my mother in Vicksburg, where her father was an Episcopal priest and her mother a schoolteacher. After graduating at 14 from the “colored” high school in Vicksburg, my mother moved to Harlem and lived with her maternal grandmother and aunts so that she could complete the last two years of high school in a place that would better prepare her for college and a medical career. She was admitted to Wadleigh High, a public exam schools for girls, where she was one of a handful of Negro students, and where she studied classical languages under the tutelage of the dean, graduating two years later with the Greek and Latin prizes.

Margaret was admitted to Cornell, the only black undergraduate on campus in 1932. The university did not allow colored folks to live in the dorms, so for four years my mother worked as a maid in the homes of faculty members, often serving them breakfast before she went off to class, and returning at lunchtime to change into her maid’s uniform before going back to campus for the afternoon. She remembers one particularly stingy, suspicious family who monitored her food intake very carefully. … [At another’s] she slept in the unheated attic and during the frigid Ithaca winters covered herself with a raccoon coat, a gift from her aunts who worried that she might freeze to death.

After four years of a stellar undergraduate record, Margaret confidently applied to Cornell’s School of Medicine. When the dean called her in a few months later, he said something unbelievable and shocking. “You know, Margaret, you’ve done an extraordinary job and you’ve been an excellent pre-med student. The admissions committee seriously considered your application, but ultimately we decided not to admit you.” But that was not the worst of it. After a pause, he continued, “25 years ago we admitted a colored man and it didn’t work out. … He got tuberculosis.” My mother remembers sitting there in stunned, disbelieving silence. She plowed through weeks of depression and dark despair, and somehow found her way to a meeting with a faculty member at Columbia School of Medicine, who urged her to apply. She was admitted the following fall, one of 10 women and the only African-American enrolled in 1936.

Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot in her home.

How did their experiences influence you?

As a small child, my siblings and I watched both my parents navigate — with grit and grace — their token status as blacks when the institutional and interpersonal racism was much more explicit and virulent than it is today. I was 3 or 4 years old when my father was writing his Ph.D. thesis under Robert Merton at Columbia, and I closely watched him carve out his career in an often-unforgiving academic landscape. When I came to Harvard, first as a doctoral student, then as a young faculty member, it did not feel like an alien or exotic environment to me. I had some understanding of the academic culture, the professional standards and expectations, the politics and machinations. There were definitely hidden minefields that I could not have anticipated, but the scene felt deeply familiar.

My parents also helped shape the way I chose to compose my own career. They were pacifists engaged in international peace work and committed activists who joined the struggle for civil and human rights in this country. As a family we were together on the front lines demonstrating, raising up our voices, pounding the pavement, marching and singing. My folks saw their activism as an essential ingredient of their life’s work. My father, in particular, lived the connections and tensions between his scholarship and his activism, joining theory and practice, analysis and advocacy. My own life and career have followed this boundary-crossing path that I learned at home, bridging the academy and the “real world,” and seeing my work as part of the larger struggle for social justice.

I read that the dinner table was a lively place during your youth. Why?

The dining room table was the center of my family. We held hands and sang grace — in five-part harmony — every night, and it was the place where we talked … long, complaining conversations about our school day; spirited, funny conversations about absurd and surprising things we had experienced; challenging, hard conversations about what was happening in the world; deep, exploring conversations about our struggles with injustice and racism. I also now recognize that it was at the table where my parents often served up a countercurriculum to the one we were fed in school, correcting those lessons we had learned that lied about our history, or silenced certain voices, or misrepresented the facts, or distorted the truth about who we were, where we came from, and who we were becoming. I remember in my fourth-grade social studies class when we were learning about the Civil War, Ms. Shopper, our ancient teacher, told us that we should not refer to it as the Civil War. It was the War Between the States, and slavery had nothing to do with it. I was the only Negro child in the class and I remember Ms. Shopper staring me down, daring me to challenge her rendition of American history. I was confused. I knew she was wrong, but at 9, I didn’t really have the facts — or the courage — to speak up. My father made the correction at the dinner table that night. It was the Civil War and the conflict over slavery was at its very center. Dad’s correction led to a bigger conversation that lasted over many dinner times, about the various interpretations and distortions of our American history, and about who gets to author our narratives, whose stories get told. It also left me with a lifelong vocational commitment to exploring competing truths and alternative interpretations: to finding a way to raise up the voices of those people whose stories have been systematically silenced and remain unheard.

In my home growing up, there was also an unusual amount of talk about how we were feeling, and a lot of practice in learning how to express our emotions. My mother had grown up in a family where she was not allowed to express her feelings and where she lived with a mother who endured long periods of depression, and she was determined that in the family that she created, it would be different. She wanted children who could feel, and then give voice to their emotions, and who felt that home was a safe place to be vulnerable, confused, and unsure. I do not mean to imply that the dinner table felt like a therapy session. It most certainly didn’t. I just mean that home was the place where my brother and sister and I were encouraged to say what was on our minds and in our hearts, and that part of the family curriculum was the development of our emotional range and repertoire. All of this emotional excavation and expression, however, had to be done respectfully!

“When I began teaching at Harvard I was 26, a kid without much of a sense of my own worthiness or authority, and I struggled mightily to be seen as legitimate in the eyes of my students.”

Did you always want to be an academic?

My early disposition was to do something that was far away from my parents’ professional choices. As an adolescent, the last thing that I wanted to do was to follow in my parents’ footsteps and to mimic their choices. I wanted to find a way to strike out on my own, make my own imprint, find my own voice, and I imagined that I would do that through the arts — through music, dance, or theater, something colorful and dramatic. We were all trained as musicians and my parents had insisted that my siblings and I first study the piano, and then choose to learn a wind and a string instrument. They thought of music as an important kind of social and cultural literacy. Our next-door neighbors played the violin and viola for the New York Philharmonic and they were our teachers. Most Sunday evenings there would be a potluck dinner. Our neighbors would invite their musician friends up from New York, and they would play Beethoven and Mozart quartets out on the patio.

When it was time to go to college, I thought hard about applying to Juilliard or Curtis in Philadelphia. But when I sought the guidance of our musician neighbors, they said something that was really very helpful. They were successful working musicians with good, steady gigs, but they knew it was a very hard way to make a living. They refused to romanticize what was a tough and demanding life. Both of them said, “Unless this is the only thing you can do and want to do — unless this is your only passion — go to a liberal arts college. Leave the doors open.” I also knew that I wasn’t really that good or gifted as a musician anyway; it would be very unlikely that I could make it in that world, and there were, in fact, other things that captured my interest. So I ended up going to Swarthmore College doing liberal arts, and majoring in psychology. I ended up being good at those things that my parents were good at.

I was drawn to the study of human development and learning within the broader ecology of education, drawn to understanding how human behavior gets shaped and played out in social and cultural contexts. I cared deeply about how race, gender, and class, and the structural and interpersonal processes of stratification and discrimination, shape and distort, enlarge and inhibit human experience, identity formation, and relationship building. Again these were many of the same issues that had been a part of my growing-up dinner table conversations. I remained curious about these issues and motivated by the questions they raised for me. And I also knew quite early on through my studies in psychology, sociology, and human development that I wanted to use these interdisciplinary frameworks and lenses to examine and better understand educational processes and institutions. Despite all of their myriad problems and failures, schools seemed to me to be the single most promising engine for social mobility and social justice in our society. No other institution could capture the hearts and minds of our children; no other institution could give more shape and definition to young people’s opportunities and futures. I began to feel that education — both formal schooling and the informal learning that is all around us — would be a wonderful and exciting sphere in which to work.

Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot in her home.

Is there anything people are missing in your field today, or something that you are really excited about in education?

Recently, I have been interested in joining the conversation about lifelong learning, the learning that goes well beyond K-12 or even K-16 schooling. How do we develop a way of educating children in a way that anticipates a long life of learning? How do we teach a kind of rigor, discipline, and critical thinking that will allow for sustained curiosity and the playfulness and risk that creativity requires? How can we prepare children for the adaptation and change that will be required of them in a rapidly transforming society and world? And how can we begin to think about schooling and education differently given the lengthening life span, given that our children are likely to live to be 100? How do we continue to make life fruitful, productive, creative, and engaging as we live longer and longer, and what are the implications of that for the curriculum, pedagogies, the character and culture of our schools? So I think that many of my questions focus on understanding how the shifts in demography, the shifts in the arc of life, the shifts in globalism and our tools of technology require us to think differently about education and particularly about schooling. How might we find a way to educate our children in the moment, but also for a future that is largely unknowable. For me, that’s a really interesting conversation and my book “The Third Chapter” centers on many of these complex questions about the learning and trajectories of our long lives.

I also am interested in the challenges of distinguishing between standards and standardization in our schools; the former being essential, the latter often leading to a narrowing and distortion of education. How do we find a way to join educational excellence and educational equality? How can we develop a repertoire of pedagogies and curricula that will be more inclusive of the huge diversity that exists in our schools? How can we invent assessment metrics and methods that will honor the diverse ways that children learn and allow for the rigorous evaluation of things that cannot be measured by traditional quantitative indices?

What makes you hopeful about that? What makes you hopeful about education in general?

Thirty years ago, I published “The Good High School,” in which I argued that we needed to challenge the preoccupation of so much of social science research, particularly studies of education and schooling, which tend to focus on weakness and pathology — of schools and families, of teachers and students — and often neglect to search for what is strong and resilient. Such a preoccupation with the negative often bleeds into a chronic cynicism — people throwing up their hands and saying there is nothing we can do about the sorry state of schools —or worse, morphs into a blaming of the victims, the underachieving and failing children. I wanted to write a book that asked what was working, where were the successful learning environments, and how was success achieved and sustained. I also argued that there are myriad ways to be good, and that we need to find lenses and metrics for seeing and measuring the good. By goodness I do not mean some idealized, romanticized view that is undiscerning and facile. Rather I think of goodness as a pursuit and an ever-evolving process in which there will inevitably be imperfection, moments of retreat and failure.

I would make the same argument more than a quarter of a century later, that in seeking to transform and improve schools we need to find and document those places that are doing sustained and good work, and we need to find those principles of practice that might be transplanted to other settings. I have found that even in school systems where there is failure and chronic low achievement among students, where poverty and racism conspire to limit student potential, where parents and teachers are embattled and mistrustful, you can find classrooms and schools where good and exciting things are going on … where teachers are devoted and skilled and where kids are turned on. These places of lively learning and achievement may be rare oases within vast urban deserts, but they deserve notice and scrutiny, even celebration. There’s obviously no silver bullet to improving our schools, but I think there’s a way of looking at schools that is interdisciplinary and multifaceted and contextual, that recognizes that there are lots of dimensions that must come together and find synergy if we are to transform education in this country.

I don’t think that anyone stays in this field of education — I’ve been at Harvard for 40 years — unless her temperament and stance are hopeful and determined, unless she can find a way to resist cynicism and blame, and cultivate searching questions and imaginative thinking. I, for one, refuse to be cynical about teachers and children and about the capacity of these folks to do good work. My optimism, of course, does not mask the fact that there is so much wrong with, and unjust about, our schools, and that we need to bring to the project of their improvement our most discerning and critical minds, our most rigorous and exacting research, our most committed selves, and our most urgent and sustained efforts. For those of us in this education business, we need to keep chipping away at discovering those contexts, relationships, structures, pedagogies, and policies that work to create productive and challenging educational settings.

You’ve studied countless teachers throughout your career. What would you say makes a great teacher?

Good teachers are lifelong learners who throughout their careers continue to be curious; who model for their students a love of, and a quest for, learning; who ask deep and probing questions of their students and also of themselves; who know their students well and get a kick out of being among them. I also think that good teachers are open to learning from their students — class discussions are encounters of mutual discovery. And good teachers are interested in their students’ stories and are willing to reveal their own. Teachers are also at heart good listeners; they are observant witnesses, receptive and empathic. I love teaching and work very hard at it. I love lecturing to huge gatherings of students, enjoy the creative, artful process of trying to put a compelling lecture together, and I enjoy — really dig — the performance. But I also relish teaching small seminars where students are full participants, where there is a range of voices and perspectives, where the encounter is improvisational and requires living in the moment. In these smaller settings my favorite part of teaching is, by far, the listening, being fully attentive to what is being said and discovered through the exchange. I want to listen carefully enough and intervene strategically enough so that my students and I can collectively develop a rich discourse, maybe even surprise ourselves with rare moments of insight and epiphany.

Can you tell me about portraiture?

Portraiture, a methodology that I have pioneered, seeks to blend art and science, working to bridge empiricism and aesthetics in a disciplined examination of social reality. Good and evocative storytelling is central to the research; creating a subtle and complex narrative that allows us to see the universal in the particular. Like other phenomenologists, the portraitist seeks to understand the beliefs and feelings, perspectives and meaning-making of the people who are living that experience. It is a research paradigm that is explicitly focused on “goodness”; on trying to document and understand what makes things — people, institutions, relationships, even concepts — strong, what makes them resilient, what makes them endure, even when they are infused with imperfection and surrounded by difficult and impoverished environments. Portraiture as a methodology is multilayered and multifaceted —including interviewing, observation, and document analysis — as researcher and “subject” enter into a relationship of trust and respect that allows them to co-construct the story. It requires both an empirical process of data triangulation and an artful process of design and synthesis. And it seeks to speak to broad and eclectic audiences in a way that hopes to inform, inspire, and provoke.

Portraiture is a methodology with rules and rituals and protocols that must be followed. But it also encompasses a way of seeing and witnessing, an effort to probe and convey the deep narratives of people’s lives in a way that we, the readers, might discover ourselves in the stories. It is an intentional effort to communicate beyond the walls of the academy in a language that is neither exclusive nor esoteric, in a way that hopes to deepen the conversation with a broader public. Of course I would never argue that portraiture is the best or only way to authentically study human behavior, social institutions, or social change. I think it is just one lens among many. But I think it is an intriguing and promising methodology, a useful contrast and counterpoint to some of the more traditional social science approaches that tend to dominate the academic landscape.

Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot in her home.

You have authored 10 books. What does the writing process mean to you?

I think of writing as a deeper level of thinking. I talk to myself through my writing. I love the chance for quiet, playful reflections, the solitude and the musing, and the eventual commitment to a set of ideas, analyses, and arguments. I also enjoy the actual process of writing, the struggle and the challenge of making something clear and engaging. I have a great study, the place where I hide out to write. It is on the fourth floor and looks out over the rooftops of the brownstones in the South End, a view that makes me feel like I am in a loft in Paris. It is my asylum. So much of my life is so public, active, and extraverted; as a steady diet, it exhausts me. When my children were growing up they used to call my study “Mama’s treehouse” and they learned very early on not to invade my privacy unless it was really important; they knew to knock before entering. So it is a place of retreat, even though the writing and sense-making I seek there are often hard and elusive.

Was there any piece of advice that your mother gave you that you have kept with you?

My mother is 99 years old. Her mind is fading. Her body is aching and arthritic. She’s no longer able to walk. She can hardly hear. At her adamant request, she continues to live in the house where we grew up. She has wonderful caretakers around the clock with whom she has developed deep and loving relationships. Despite her physical and mental struggles, she always looks gorgeous and radiant. There is not a line in her face.

On a recent visit, my mother found a place to settle next to me on the couch. She looked directly into my eyes, and said earnestly, “Sara, sweetheart, tell me what is the most meaningful thing happening in your life now?” There was my mother as I have always known her —asking probing questions, wanting to know what her child was thinking and feeling and doing with her life. That curiosity and commitment to knowing is one of the big lessons she has taught me. She has a huge investment in connecting with her children and grandchildren, and now great-grandchildren, in a deep way, recognizing that we are always changing even as we remain the same. And she is willing to listen to the painful and incoherent parts, not just the parts that might make her feel good and proud. I think I probably talked for 45 minutes straight — speaking loudly and slowly so I would be heard — glowing in her respectful attention.

Another powerful lesson my mother has taught me comes from watching the way she has always lived in the existential present. Whenever she arrives, she is completely in the room, fully attentive and engaged. I remember when we were children, she would come from her office, or arrive home from the hospital, and as soon as she crossed the threshold, she was with us. And so my mother taught me about boundary crossing. In my child’s-eye view, she always seemed to move with alacrity across work-family borders, and when she arrived at home, she was ours. It was only much later, when I became a mother myself, that I recognized that her grace crossing borders was laced with exhaustion, and that it required uncommon discipline to manage it in a way that was comforting and convincing to her children.

Can you point to any mistakes you have made along the way or any missteps in your career, things you might have done differently?

It seems pretty hard to identify the mistakes; to make a discrete accounting of things gone wrong. Mostly I have felt over the years the kind of exhaustion that comes with the fight to be heard and taken seriously, with the work of figuring out my professional identity in this environment, with trying to carve out work that had my signature and was fueled by my special gifts and commitments, with resisting the often critical appraisals of my colleagues whose way of working and knowing was so different from mine. And of course, there was the weariness that went with the subtle and not-so-subtle expressions of racism and sexism, and with having to always decide what deserved and needed a response from me. These were all minefields for me, and in hindsight some of my protective responses lacked both honesty and grace. And of course when I began teaching at Harvard I was 26, a kid without much of a sense of my own worthiness or authority, and I struggled mightily to be seen as legitimate in the eyes of my students. So I certainly remember moments of feeling extremely discouraged, often outraged and angry, occasionally deeply sad and wounded. But having watched my parents pave a path before me that was far more treacherous, I was usually able to regain my perspective and re-enter the fray. Both of my parents had taught me that the way wouldn’t be easy and that failure and setbacks were a part of the journey. And I have always been temperamentally wired to carry on; to dust myself off, pick myself up, and move forward.

I have always seen myself on the periphery of Harvard, on the edge, which turns out to be a wonderful perch actually. A part of me has always been facing out to the world. I have cared deeply about the institution, about my students and colleagues, and I have devoted a great deal of energy trying to teach well, be a good adviser, and a responsible citizen here. But I have never felt that Harvard was my whole life. In fact, I have always believed that if I didn’t make it here, I’d make it someplace else, and that wouldn’t be such a terrible tragedy. That must sound strange for me to say, given that I have been at Harvard for my entire professional career. But the irony is that if you don’t take this place too seriously, if you do not let it define your worth or identity, if you remain a bit detached from the institution, then you can stay here in peace; you can resist the immodesties and pridefulness of the place.

Is there any book or work or art that has been a constant source of inspiration for you, a piece of music perhaps?

Music is always a powerful touchstone for me. I end my most recent book, “Exit: The Endings That Set Us Free,” for example, by talking about the emotional and spiritual impact of listening to Bach’s Mass in B Minor at Symphony Hall, and the ways it brought me home to myself and filled me with memories and resonances from my childhood. I love the clarity and complexity of baroque music, as well as so much else in the classical repertoire — Beethoven, Chopin, Stravinsky. But Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, and Ray Charles can be just as nourishing to my soul; so can the jazz riffs of Joshua Redman or Sonny Rollins. Equally compelling for me are the visual arts. My 32-year-old daughter Tolani is a painter and sculptor, and her work has graced our home since she began to produce it at 3. So I have the pleasure of being surrounded by her beautiful and evocative work. Home is a wonderful place to be inspired by her creativity.

What do you envision your exit from Harvard will look like?

I hope to compose a good exit that will feel like a satisfying — and hopefully beautiful — way to mark my completed time at Harvard; a conclusion filled with ritual and ceremony, perhaps music and dance and balloons! I will not be one to slink away in the night or retreat into the shadows. Whenever we make significant exits — retirement being a major one — we experience the twin sensations of loss and liberation. When I leave Harvard, I will leave with a sense of gratitude for a place that has molded my professional identity and given me the space, resources, and platform to create and produce work that is meaningful and sustaining for me. But I suspect that in leaving here, I will also feel a new kind of freedom and independence. All of us who exit have to struggle with these paradoxical feelings and make a path through the thicket of contradictions.

What piece of scholarship do you think made the biggest impact on education? How?

Clearly the books I have written that focus directly on schools and classrooms have had the most impact in terms of the audience of practitioners and educators who have read them and taken some of the insights and ideas into their work. I continue, for example, to get mail from principals, teachers, and parents who have read “The Good High School,” published 30 years ago, who speak about how they have used the book to provoke reflection and discussion about ways to improve and transform their own school cultures. The text is seen as paradoxically anachronistic and contemporary. Likewise, parents and teachers, educators in training, and academic scholars speak about the ways in which my book “The Essential Conversation: What Parents and Teachers Can Learn From Each Other” has uncovered for them the tender, often adversarial and defensive, relationships that parents and teachers typically forge; the treacherous territory and boundary marking that they must navigate; and the ways in which the book helps them re-envision and develop better partnerships. It is a book that is experienced as both a conceptual advance and a practical guide.

But even those books I have written that are not explicitly focused on education often find their way into schools. “Respect,” for example, has become part of many high school curricula, provoking classroom conversations between teachers and their students. And in several high schools across the country, students have created performance pieces, plays, and poetry raps based on the dimensions of respect identified in the book. For several years, George Faison, a renowned choreographer, took a troupe of black and brown adolescent dancers from New York City into prisons across the country to perform a theater-dance piece composed and staged by them based on the book.

Is there a work that you are most proud of?

My sense of connection to, and pleasure in, the work changes all the time. Usually, I feel most proud of whatever my latest book happens to be. As I take the book out into the world hoping to inspire a public conversation, I am eager to see how audiences respond. I learn from the questions and critiques that get provoked. But I also love it when earlier books from long ago make a surprising re-entry into my life. That happened recently when I was visiting my 99-year-old mother on her wedding anniversary. My father died 30 years ago, but his large spirit hovers over her home, and she has frequent conversations with him in her day and night dreams. On her anniversary 60 years later, she longs to remember her wedding day. So this past June 5th, I pulled “Balm in Gilead” down from the shelf and read Margaret the part about the beautiful wedding in Vicksburg, Mississippi, when her father, an Episcopal priest, both officiated the ceremony and gave her away to Charles. My mother wept as she welcomed back the story that had gotten lost. Thirty years after publishing her biography, we were both presented with a huge gift, the chance for me to give my mother back to herself. That moved me and made me proud.

Interview was edited for clarity and length.