Harvard Graduate School of Education Logo

Give back to HGSE and support the next generation of passionate educators and innovative leaders.

Current Issue

Fall 2014

Look Back: 1959


They called it Street Corner Research. In the late 1950s, about four dozen local, adolescent boys who had been getting into trouble were paid 50 cents to $2 an hour by Harvard to talk into a tape recorder about themselves, their homes, their friends, the police, and the courts. For nine months, a couple of times each week, the boys would also meet with project coordinators to share their recordings. The project was originally headed by Charles Slack, a 26-year-old assistant professor of clinical psychology and a friend of psychologist and writer Timothy Leary. When Slack left for the University of Alabama, Ralph Schwitzgebel, Ed.M.’60, Ed.D.’62, a new graduate of the Ed School’s doctoral program, took over the project.

The mission was to try to discover reasons for juvenile delinquency by going directly to the source. The project was never intended to be a social service agency, Slack told The Harvard Crimson in 1959. It didn’t treat the boys or try to convert — it only gathered data. However, he said, “Research and treatment complement each other,” especially because the project coordinators allowed the boys to talk openly. “By talking about themselves, the boys began to think about themselves, about what they had done, and about what the future might be like for them.”

The project seems to have had a positive impact on many of the boys. By the time Schwitzgebel took over, the delinquency rate of the group, compared with a control group, was cut in half. The average number of arrests for members of the group during a three-year period, for example, was about 2.4 compared to 4.7 for the control group.

Schwitzgebel told the Crimson in 1962 that he wasn’t surprised by the results.

“By asking the boys to help find the cause and treatment of their own and others’ delinquency, society is giving them attention for their abilities rather than their failures. The boys are our experts. We go to them for help — not the other way around.”

In 1964, Schwitzgebel (who later shortened his last name to Gable) published a book about the work, Streetcorner Research: An Experimental Approach to the Juvenile Delinquent. That same year, he and colleagues at Harvard experimented with creating prototype electronic monitoring devices.