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Gazette Experience Series: Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot

This article originally appeared in the Harvard Gazette.

‘I have always been temperamentally wired to carry on’

Professor Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot follows Martha Minow and E.O. Wilson in the Experience series, interviews with Harvard faculty covering the reasons they became teachers and scholars, and the personal journeys, missteps included, behind their professional success. Interviews with Melissa Franklin, Stephen Greenblatt, Steven Pinker, Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, Helen Vendler, and Walter Willett will appear in coming weeks.

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.

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

A: 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. ...

To read the complete interview, please visit the Harvard Gazette.



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