A tribute to David Tyack

David Tyack took me seriously. From the moment we met, he treated me as an intellectual peer — something he did with every student, no matter their age or experience. He listened to me as if I was an accomplished scholar, which I was not. He responded to my work as if my capacity for growth was unlimited, which I did not yet believe. He shared his time with me as if I deserved it, which I was sure I never would. He was a teacher, through and through.

I was a first-year graduate student when we met, and David was recently retired. Consequently, I never took a class with him. Yet he became my teacher, and the power of his generosity was such that I have no recollection how it all began — how it came to be that we would walk together among the redwoods, gather among friends for reading groups, meet with our spouses in tow for lunch. My wife and I were in our 20s at the time. David and his partner, Elisabeth Hansot, were campus luminaries. Somehow, through what seemed like a case of mistaken identity, they treated us as equals. O brave new world that has such people in it.

Because we were not in class, there was never an explicit lesson; but because David was a teacher — in the fullest, and truest sense of the word — the lessons accrued over time. As David absorbed me into his orbit, I began to think of myself differently — not as an accomplished novice but as a novice expert. And those accruing lessons accumulated around this new identity; they gave it shape, that it might endure.

This is what a teacher does. It is a kind of alchemy. The student’s future self is conjured, as if by magic spell, and given substance through a new set of habits, skills, and dispositions.

There is no puff of smoke, no big reveal. The magic of teaching, it turns out, is more graceful than that. There is a new self, yes. And there is an old self. But between them there is no identifiable seam — no rupture, no rend. The student remains, and yet is somehow changed.

David Tyack died quietly on Oct. 27, 2016, surrounded by the universal love and admiration of his students. I am not sure if he felt us from our various distances, scattered as we are around the country and around the world.

I am sure, however, that we continue to feel him, both in our lives and in our classrooms.

Because of David’s influence, I am a better teacher, a better scholar, and a better man. I have him to thank for so much. Each day, then, I try to pay his teaching forward, clumsily attempting the magic that was his stock in trade. Thus it is that past is prologue — that the seeds planted by a teacher bear fruit and, in turn, more seeds. How beauteous mankind is.


JACK SCHNEIDER (jack_schneider@uml.edu; @Edu_Historian) is assistant professor of leadership in education, University of Massachusetts-Lowell, and the director of research for the Massachusetts Consortium for Innovative Education Assessment. He is the author of Beyond Test Scores: A Better Way to Measure School Quality (Harvard Education Press, 2017) and From the Ivory Tower to the Schoolhouse: How Scholarship Becomes Common Knowledge in Education (Harvard Education Press, 2014). .

One Comment

  • Kathy Kerns

    You are so right! I first met him at an AERA conference in Vancouver when I was just beginning my PhD program at Penn and I was angry because he was talking about the lack of interest in women’s role in education history and yet some of us had been working on it for a while. Despite my less than gracious behavior he was wonderful to me, listening and being supportive. When I got to Stanford many years later, he continued to be generous with his interest and support even though I am a librarian which has much less status here. I will miss him.

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