Carol Lee: ‘A Core Pillar of Our Family’

Carol Lee: ‘A Core Pillar of Our Family’

Carol Lee

Carol Lee during her retirement celebration. Photo by Steve Drey.

“It is lonesome, yes. For we are the last of the loud. Nevertheless, live. Conduct your blooming in the noise and whip of the whirlwind.” -- Gwendolyn Brooks

Through poetry, humor, and heartfelt tributes, the School of Education and Social Policy (SESP) community recently celebrated Northwestern University Professor Carol Lee’s fifty-year career and her wide-ranging efforts to transform the way educators view the role of culture in learning.

Lee is best known in academia for her work helping minority students excel in an environment of low expectations and other "whirlwinds," including poverty and negative stereotypes. 

She was among the early scholars to explore ways to scaffold children's' everyday experiences as a resource for learning in school. Today her sophisticated ideas behind "cultural modeling" are a standard approach in the field. 

But Lee’s most lasting legacy may be as a role model and tireless mentor of students and junior scholars, and her belief that there is always “space for one more.”

“Carol’s role in the field is big, deep, and expansive,” said Na’ilah Nasir, president of the Spencer Foundation, who said she spent her formative years shadowing Lee at an annual national education conference. “The level of energy she brings and the amount of her generosity is astounding. Carol demonstrates that you can show up authentically and push and do so with grace and love. I would not be here without her mentorship.”

'An Inspiration to Us All'

Described as “a core pillar of the SESP family” by SESP Dean David Figlio, Lee is the Edwina S. Tarry Professor of Education and a professor of learning sciences and African-American studies at Northwestern. She arrived at SESP in 1991 after receiving her PhD in education from the University of Chicago and will retire in June, along with SESP Professors Bart Hirsch and Doug Medin.

Her retirement celebration, which drew friends, extended family, and colleagues from Boston to Washington, was held in conjunction with Northwestern’s Commemoration of the 50th Anniversary of the Bursar’s Office Takeover. The event featured Kris Gutierrez of the University of California Berkeley, a longtime friend and peer who emphasized Lee’s impact on the field and the community.

Others speakers included the Spencer Foundation’s Nasir; Deborah Ball, former dean of the University of Michigan School of Education and immediate past-president of the American Educational Research Association (AERA); Susan Goldman of the University of Illinois at Chicago; and Stanford University’s Sara Levine (PhD14), who said she chose SESP for her doctorate because of Lee.

“Carol is a truly consummate teacher, a voracious learner, and an inspiration to us all,” said Goldman, co-director of UIC’s Learning Sciences Research Institute. “I never cease to be amazed at her insights and wisdom at both the theoretical and practical level.”

During a performance that moved Lee to tears, doctoral students Claudia Castillo, Amy Chang, Y’Shanda Rivera, and Natalia Smirnov presented their poem, "Ode to Carol Lee: What You Mean to Me" on behalf of all the graduate students whose lives had been touched by their professor.

“Carol is a true pre-seer of our potentials and a firm believer of our ability to thrive,” said Chang, who suspended her studies several times due to family and health issues. “She was always supportive of my decisions, and yet encouraged me to persist, to think of creative ways to navigate the multiple roles in life.” 

A past president of the AERA and member of the National Academy of Education as well as the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Lee authored more than 60 journal articles and book chapters. She also wrote several books, including Culture, Literacy and Learning: Taking Bloom in the Midst of the Whirlwind, a title inspired by a Gwendolyn Brooks poem.

For incoming SESP faculty member Sepehr Vakil, Lee’s “Culture, Literacy, and Learning" became a key foundational text in his development as a sociocultural learning scientist. “It meant that the quest for justice and equity is not just a matter of policy -- or even activism -- but also one of knowledge production,” Vakil said. “This was a powerful notion that was right on time for me at that point in my learning trajectory.”

Serving Students 

A lifelong learner and enthusiastic reader – she was once spotted buying more than 50 books at AERA -- Lee began teaching English in Chicago high schools in 1966 and became active in the Black Power Movement, Black Arts Movement, and the Civil Rights movement.

She and her husband, Haki R. Madhubuti, a prominent poet and founder of Third World Press --now in its 51st year-- helped found the Institute of Positive Education in 1969, an Afrocentric community organization which eventually began its own school in 1972.

Lee and Madhubuti also co-founded the Betty Shabazz International Charter Schools network in 1998. The charter schools, still in operation, include the Betty Shabazz International Academy; the Barbara A. Sizemore Academy; and the DuSable Leadership Academy.

She has received numerous accolades for her work examining how public schools can better serve African-American students, including the Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education, the Martin E. and Gertrude G. Walder Award for Research Excellence, the National Council of Teachers of English Distinguished Service Award, and the AERA Scholars of Color Distinguished Scholar Award.

Many describe Lee not just as a model scholar, but as an inspiring example of how a Black leader can open doors for others.

“When I think about all she has given – serving on committees, fighting to open up spaces, bringing political acumen and being a truth teller – I think as a field, we owe her a great debt to pick up the work and carry it forward,” Nasir said.

Lee has no doubt the next generation of scholars will do just that. During her own remarks, she introduced family members and proudly highlighted the accomplishments of nearly everyone in the room.

“Many of the big opportunities I had were because of the people who took my hand,” she said. “Reading widely, crossing domains, creating intellectual social networks, understanding how to do basic science for social good; it’s all required to understand and interrogate the complexity of the human experience to better understand how to enhance life course opportunities for all.”

By Julie Deardorff and Lisa Applegate
Last Modified: 5/24/18