If you asked the average black college student whether they knew who Allison Davis was, you are most likely going to be met with an answer in the negative.
The irony of that ignorance is that Davis was a pioneer scholar in critiquing the faith US educationists placed on standardised tests.
Davis’ story is a long-winded history of academic accomplishments that are still largely unknown. This is what biographer David Varel would call “revelatory.”
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In 1942, Davis became the first black scholar to be employed as a full professor at a white-majority university, the University of Chicago. Davis’ appointment was important for the civil rights push of his day, especially in hindsight.
When Davis was employed to teach in Chicago’s Department of Education and Committee on Human Development, black people were not allowed to play in Major League Baseball (MLB).
In 1942, Brown vs. Board of Education was 12 years away and in much of the US, black people to varying degrees, were still being denied economic and political rights.
But Davis, it has to be said, earned his place at the University of Chicago. After securing two master’s degrees from Harvard, the social scientist Davis set about researching the empirical foundations of why black kids were largely outperformed by white kids. This effect had fomented a vicious belief justifying white supremacy.
But Davis’ research interest had been inspired by his own humble beginnings teaching English to black children in rural Virginia in 1925.
And he was glad to find out that white children were not doing better because of the colour of their skin; the answer lied in economic classes.
Davis would later write: “Teaching in the standard manner made no sense to these poor and poorly schooled rural blacks. I decided that I didn’t know anything to teach them since our backgrounds were so different, yet I wanted to do something to affect such students.”
Davis made comparative studies of the effects of segregation on the development of personality among black adolescents in Natchez and New Orleans.
He found out that standardised tests were an unfair way to rank kids coming from different economic environments.
The better your economic background, the more you are likely to do well in school. And this, in turn, shapes your future prospects.
Davis’ studies would birth two books, namely Children of Bondage in 1940 and 1941’s Deep South. The books were not only some of the 20th century’s most original ‘economic input to academic output’ arguments but they gave a portrait of the racial and economic inequalities of the time.
The cultural significance of Davis’ publications was that never before had American scholars, overwhelmingly white, committed to studying the problems he embarked upon.
Thus, looking back, one may say Davis was one of the earliest living proofs of what diversity could show; someone from a different background having a different story to tell and giving us a fuller view of the human condition.
In 1948, Davis gave a lecture, Social-Class Influences upon Learning, in which he pointed out the much-revered IQ tests were biased towards middle-class children. Poor children were, therefore, being judged on standards middle and upper-class children were used to.
In more recent times, multiple pieces of research have in various ways confirmed Davis’ conclusions.
For the rest of his life, Davis would be committed to linking social and academic outputs to the quality of the environmental and economic opportunities afforded children. It was most beneficial to black people in the US.
Davis would proudly say of a 1951 research he carried: “This study had the most practical effect of any of my work. It led to the abolition of the use of intelligence tests in New York, Chicago, Detroit, San Francisco, and other cities. This was one time I got what I wanted: a direct effect on society from social science research.”
But it was not the only success the social scientist chalked. His body of work is cited as one of the for the institution of the Head Start Program in the United States.