Originally known as the Chicago School for Early Childhood Education, the Erikson Institute (EI) is a private, Chicago-based graduate school and research center specializing in child development. Established in 1966 with financial support from businessman and philanthropist Irving B. Harris, the Institute was founded by child psychologist Maria Piers, social worker Lorraine Wallach, and early-childhood-education author/activist Barbara Taylor Bowman. Bowman (born in 1928) is the mother of Valerie Jarrett, the highly influential advisor and confidante of Barack Obama. Bowman’s father was Robert Taylor, who in the 1940s was involved with such Communist fronts as the American Peace Mobilization and the Chicago Civil Liberties Committee. Her mother, Dorothy Taylor, was active with Planned Parenthood in its early days.
In 1967, EI formed an affiliation with Loyola University Chicago to create a master’s degree program. Two years later the school was renamed for Erik Erikson (1902-94), the German-born psychoanalyst who emphasized the influence of societal expectations, prejudices, and prohibitions on children’s psychosocial and academic development. In 1950 Erikson became a hero to the left by choosing to resign from his professorship at the University of California rather than sign an anti-communist loyalty oath as the school required.
To train and prepare education-industry professionals, the fledgling Erikson Institute recruited its first faculty members from such varied fields as early childhood education, administration, cultural anthropology, clinical and developmental psychology, pediatrics, and social work. Accordingly, the Institute’s curriculum was steeped in principles of developmental psychology, biology, and social science along with more traditional disciplines. Covering all aspects of child development—physical/motor, language and cognition, social and emotional—EI’s curriculum continues to draw on scholarship from the aforementioned fields as well as neurology, anthropology, health care, law, and public policy.
EI’s mission today is to prepare early-childhood professionals to help youngsters (up to age eight) “reach their full potential.” Toward that end, the Institute offers: academic programs and ongoing professional-development training designed to provide “deep knowledge of early growth and development essential to working effectively with young children”; online programs for those unable to attend classes in person; access to applied research that identifies effective early-childhood programs and practices; and family services provided by an interdisciplinary team of therapists, psychologists, developmental and behavioral pediatricians, and social workers. EI also partners with various community groups in efforts to “improve and expand services in schools, social service agencies, the child welfare system, health services, courts, and more.”
EI’s curriculum strongly emphasizes “culture and context,” on the premise that “understanding how family, community, environment, cultural traditions, and other factors influence a child is essential to optimizing his or her development.” The Institute also stresses the importance of “relationship-based learning,” which focuses on how a teacher’s “personality, history, expectations, and assumptions” affect children and the learning process. Complementing this approach is EI’s devotion to “reflective practice,” whereby educators and childcare workers are urged to constantly examine their own “values, biases, habits, and techniques” and to consider how these might affect the children with whom they interact.
A major EI initiative is its New Schools Project (NSP), rooted in the Eriksonian axiom that an understanding of child development is essential to good instruction, healthy teacher-child relationships, and effective disciplinary practices. To allow for the fact that youngsters develop at different rates intellectually and acdemically, EI advocates small class sizes and flexible grouping for various learning activities. Vis à vis specific classroom practices, NSP’s “Balanced Literacy” approach seeks to strike a “balance between reading and writing” activities designed to help children “reach grade-level status.” In March 2011, EI hosted more than 90 education leaders for a one-day forum titled “Exploring Pre-K–3rd Grade: A Dialogue on Educational Reform.”
In conjunction with Loyola University Chicago, EI currently offers a doctoral program that explores how educational institutions, intervention programs, policies, and “other contextual factors such as poverty and language differences” affect children’s development, achievement, and well-being. The long-term objective is to prepare Ph.D. graduates for careers in college-level teaching and research, program design and evaluation, program administration, and policy analysis.
At one time, EI’s board of trustees included Tom Ayers (father of the former Weather Underground terrorist and lifelong Marxist Bill Ayers) and Bernardine Dohrn (longtime wife of Bill Ayers). In his 1997 book A Kind and Just Parent, Bill Ayers described EI co-founder Barbara Taylor Bowman as his “neighbor and friend.”
Among the philanthropies that have supported EI over the years are the Annie E. Casey Foundation, the Bank of America Charitable Foundation, the Educational Foundation of America, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Joyce Foundation, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, the Woods Fund of Chicago. For a list of additional EI funders, click here.
(The information on EI’s funders was provided by the Foundation Center.)