Ph.D. University of Pennsylvania
B.A. Brown University
Academic and Research Interests
Leah Gordon, Lewis-Sebring Visiting Associate Professor in Education Studies and Visiting Associate Professor of History and American Studies, holds a joint-Ph.D. in History and Education from the University of Pennsylvania. Her research brings together the history of American education and twentieth century United States history, with particular interests in intellectual history, social and educational policy, and ideas about race, class, and inequality in modern America. Professor Gordon's first book, From Power to Prejudice: The Rise of Racial Individualism in Midcentury America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015), shows how individualistic social theories—intellectual frameworks that made education a central battleground in the fight for racial justice—gained traction in American social thought. The book received the 2016 Linda Eisenmann Prize from the History of Education Society for the best work in the history of higher education by a junior faculty member. This book asks how and why racial individualism, a framework that presented prejudice and discrimination as the root cause of racial conflict, centered individuals in the study of race relations, and suggested that one could secure racial justice by changing white minds and protecting African American rights, gained influence in the two decades following World War II. A study in the racialized politics of knowledge production, the book examines institutions where social scientists, civil rights activists, and proponents of improved race relations debated the sources of and best ways to fight “the race problem.” A number of factors reinforced one another, the book suggests, to shore up racial individualism. These included: scientism (the belief that true social science was theoretically not politically motivated, methodologically rigorous, and often quantifiable), the rise of the postwar behavioral sciences, civil rights activists’ successes in the courts, postwar antiradicalism, rightward shifts in American liberalism, and the enduring appeal of uncontroversial tolerance education. These dynamics proved influential despite ongoing critique—most notably in African American led academic spaces—of social theories that reduced racial oppression to individual prejudice and discrimination. The book traces the flowering a non-economic, power-evasive conception of racism, highlights the centrality of inflated assumptions about what education can accomplish to postwar racial liberalism, and investigates the challenges of linking social science and social action in the crucial midcentury decades. You can hear Professor Gordon talk about From Power to Prejudice on The Majority Report and Behind the News with Doug Henwood.
Professor Gordon is currently working on a second book, Imagining Opportunity: Education and Equality in Modern America (under contract with the University of Chicago Press) which provides a history of debates over the relationship between schooling and equality of opportunity in American culture and social thought since the 1930s. The book examines contested visions of the role schools can and should play in generating a fair social order as well as the questions those discussions raised about how much, and what types of, equality are necessary in a just society. Professor Gordon’s research has been awarded a number of fellowships, including from the Spencer Foundation, the National Academy of Education, the American Council of Learned Societies, the Russell Sage Foundation, and Stanford University’s Center for Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity. Professor Gordon taught at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Education before coming to Amherst College in the fall of 2017.