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Reconstructing Larry: Assessing the Legacy of Lawrence Kohlberg

Harvard Graduate School of Education
October 1, 2000
A story from Ed., the magazine of the Harvard Graduate School of Education

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A year after police pulled Lawrence Kohlberg's body from Boston Harbor, 600 people gathered at the Harvard Graduate School of Education on April 15, 1988, to commemorate "Lawrence Kohlberg Day."

Reconstructing Larry: Assessing the Legacy of Lawrence Kohlberg 

The event's speakers sought to understand the sudden loss of a man who had made a profound impact on the fields of moral psychology and moral education.

Professor Howard Gardner, cofounder of Project Zero at HGSE, called the day "inspiring" in dealing with the "unfinished business of a figure who was larger than life." William Damon, a scholar of human development from Clark University (now at Stanford University), summed up the mood of speakers, students, and other participants: "It's going to take a long time to figure out what [Kohlberg's] work meant in all of its implications," he said.

Many attendees expressed disappointment over the absence from Lawrence Kohlberg Day of HGSE professor Carol Gilligan, who had been unable to attend because of an illness in her family. After publishing her 1982 book In a Different Voice, Gilligan had become perhaps the most famous questioner of current psychological theories of human development, including Kohlberg's. Gilligan had analyzed the voices of women to argue that theories, like Kohlberg's, that were developed from studies of boys and men did not fully "encompass the human condition." The absence of her voice from a celebration that included such prominent figures as German philosopher Jurgen Habermas added to the poignant sense of "unfinished business," inevitable for an event so close in time to Kohlberg's death.

Only in 1997—more than 10 years after Kohlberg committed suicide by walking into the frigid waters of the Atlantic Ocean on a January day—did Gilligan speak publicly for the first time about her relationship with the late moral educator. Reflecting on her speech, "Remembering Larry," which received a standing ovation at the 1997 Association for Moral Education conference, Gilligan said that she welcomed the chance to honor Kohlberg, and to quell rumors and revisit the past.

"Something of a false story had been circulating, that I was Larry's student, that we were involved in a war," she said. "So the news that, for example, we taught together about our disagreements, and that what was at stake were real and serious issues on both sides, came as a reminder to some people as to what both his work and my work were really about."

Spurred in part by Gilligan's remembrances, others at the Ed School, too, have begun to reexamine and put into context the life and work of one of HGSE's former superstars. Not only was Kohlberg famous for his theory of six stages of moral development—every psychology textbook published in the last quarter-century touches upon Kohlberg's work—but he also founded the Center for Moral Education at HGSE and taught at the School for 20 years. His international reputation attracted scholars the world over, making the "Larsen Hall third floor" synonymous with the exchange of ideas about morality, psychology, and education. One European scholar went so far as to call Larsen "the moral mecca of education."

During his tenure at the Ed School, Kohlberg inspired a generation of academics to become activists. He sought to put theories of human development into practice by encouraging the formation of democracies or "just communities" in schools and prisons. His belief was that moral education would flourish in an environment in which everyone had decision-making power.

But then Kohlberg became physically and mentally ill; as he fell apart, some say, so did much of his work. After his death, some of Kohlberg's colleagues questioned whether his agenda had died with him. Had his pursuit of practical applications undermined his research? Others insisted—and still insist—that Kohlberg's legacy lives on at the School in programs such as Risk and Prevention.

Reassessing Kohlberg's legacy now, a dozen years after his death, makes sense, says Robert L. Selman, who is professor and director of the Risk and Prevention Program. "The rawness of Larry's death is kind of gone," he says.

Selman believes that the time has come to examine what is perhaps the most enduring part of Kohlberg's legacy. "Larry Kohlberg gave meaning to an inordinate number of individuals' professional identities—including mine," he says.

Next page: Beginnings

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