Features, On-Campus Profiles, Profiles

To Make a Life: Shirley Advances Education in Pursuit of the Common Good

Dennis Shirley loves Italy. He loves the Italian language, Italian cuisine, Italian fashion, and the country itself. It is the style of living, Shirley said, his black glasses framing a pair of bright blue eyes—the attention to beauty.

His wife is tired of listening to him describe how great Italy is, he said. She often says they should just give in and move there. But Shirley, whose father was stationed in the Mediterranean nation with the U.S. Army in the 1960s, already spent four “very happy” years of his childhood on the cobblestone streets of Naples. 

“Italians are among the world’s longest-living people,” he said. “Why is that? It’s not because they have a great GDP. Not ’cause they do well on standardized tests. It’s because they’ve kind of figured out that sweet spot.”

Decades later, as a professor of education at Boston College, Shirley returned to the land of his youth for an exchange program at Venice International University (VIU). VIU’s campus is known for its bright white exteriors and red-tiled roofs, as well as its location on San Servolo, an island in the Venetian lagoon.

Shirley said the quality of food and fashion of everyday Venetians blew him away. You have to make a bit more of an effort here, he said, recalling advice he received during his time in the city—pay more attention to how you look and what you’re wearing. 

“So, then I began doing that, and it just became a lot of fun,” Shirley said, sporting a maroon sweater silhouetted by the stacks of books piled behind him. “It doesn’t require that much money really, just paying some attention. But all of a sudden it woke up my mind to simple, little things that we can do that really increase our quality of life.”

It is a fitting observation for the 67-year-old professor, who has spent his decades-long career researching student well-being and engagement in the United States and across the globe. Shirley, who is also the inaugural Florencia and Marc Gabelli Family Faculty Fellow, has worked at the Lynch School of Education and Human Development for the past 24 years. 

David Blustein, a professor of counseling psychology at LSEHD, arrived at BC only a few months after Shirley in January of 1999. The pair met during Blustein’s first few weeks on the job, he said, and the two have remained close friends and colleagues ever since. 

Blustein said he admires Shirley’s distinct approach to research, which incorporates a variety of academic perspectives.

“He’s, to me, a renaissance scholar and a kind of classic intellectual, the likes of which we don’t see in academia quite as much anymore,” said Blustein, who is also a Golden Eagle Faculty Fellow. “Dennis has extraordinary knowledge of philosophy and literature and poetry. So for me, talking to Dennis is like what my dream was of academia—that I would be with people who were really renaissance scholars, who knew a lot about a lot of different things.”

Shirley has taught classes on educational change, curricula, and global perspectives on education, among other topics. He said that he has been lucky to do a lot of international work throughout his time at BC, during which he has also authored or co-authored six books, the most recent of which was released in December of last year.

“My whole life is dedicated to studying what happens with the clash between idealistic educators and the reality of politics and power,” he said. “Our society has become more and more grotesquely unequal, and that’s really bad for childhood well-being.” 

Well-Being in Schools: Three Forces That Will Uplift Your Students in a Volatile World, which he co-wrote with BC research professor of education Andy Hargreaves, was born out of a study of 10 school districts in Ontario, Canada. The Ontario Ministry of Education detailed its four renewed goals for education for the 2015–-2016 school year, one of which was promoting well-being.

“Ontario’s Well-Being Strategy for Education” defines well-being as a “positive sense of self, spirit and belonging that we feel when our cognitive, emotional, social and physical needs are being met.”

“We got [to the school districts], and we saw a lot of new things in education we hadn’t seen much before: students meditating in class, students learning to identify their emotions,” he said. “A school system created an app so students could post anonymously if they were worried about a student who was struggling with depression or anxiety.”

According to Shirley, Well-Being in Schools supports the assertion that looking forward, education should begin to focus on engagement, well-being, and identity. The authors decided to split the argument into three parts, releasing the first book—called Five Paths of Student Engagement—in June of 2021. Well-Being in Schools is the second installment, while the final part, focusing on identity, is still on its way.

But there is an inherent tension with any attempt to reform education, he said. In order to understand how to improve an institution, you might have to work within the system itself.

“Then the institutions tend to socialize you into their norms and their morays, and then you become part of the machine that you’re trying to change, and that’s a problem,” Shirley said. “Or you can be outside screaming and yelling and trying to get people to change. Or you can kind of build networks that help people outside the system and people inside the system to work together, and that’s what I’ve been doing now for about 17 years.”

Thomas Groome, a professor of theology and religious education in the School of Theology and Ministry, met Shirley about five or six years ago, he said, and it quickly became clear that he and Shirley shared the same general philosophies of education. Groome said he admires Shirley’s commitment to looking beyond empirical data to philosophy, morality, and the humanities for the grounding of education.

“I see Andy and Dennis taking on tremendously humanizing education,” Groome said. “An education that will enable people to make and keep life human. For themselves, but also for other people and for the common good of society.”

Prior to his tenure at BC, Shirley completed his doctorate in teaching, curricula, and learning environments at the Harvard Graduate School of Education in 1988. He then headed down to Houston where he worked as a professor of education at Rice University for 10 years before  accepting the position of associate dean of LSEHD in 1998.

“I’d always wanted to get back to New England,” Shirley said. “I love seasons. I love history. I love the ocean. I love the mountains. I learned to love the Red Sox.”

But it was during his decade-long spell in Houston that Shirley, who is “not particularly religious or spiritual,” began working in community organizing with inner-city Christian congregations. 

“When you see people putting their faith into action on behalf of the most dispossessed, it’s profoundly inspiring,” he said. “That was definitely a magnet for me in coming to BC, and it’s enriched my life a lot here.”

This work brought him to cities all across Texas—such as Dallas, Fort Worth, San Antonio, El Paso, and Lower Rio Grande Valley—as well as Louisiana, New Mexico, and Arizona.

But this was not Shirley’s first time living in the American South. He was born in Columbia, S.C. in 1955, though he admits he didn’t stay there very long. Shirley’s father was in the U.S. Army working for NATO, so the family moved around a lot when he was a kid, he said.

“Every generation has its own kind of crystallizing events that form its generational consciousness,” Shirley said. “I grew up outside of Washington, D.C. in the latter half of the ’60s, and there was a lot of social protest going on. My father served two tours of duty in Vietnam, and I thought I’d better figure out what’s going on in the world.”

Though he has spent nearly a quarter of a century at BC, Shirley said he is proud to be a child of the American public school system. He graduated high school in Fairfax County, Va. in 1973 and completed his bachelor’s at the University of Virginia in political and social thought in 1977.

“I had some great teachers in my public school system who were the kinds of people who take their students’ thinking really seriously,” he said. “Really knew their academic content down cold. Had a sense of humor.”

Shirley then moved to Manhattan to pursue a master’s degree in sociology at the New School for Social Research. The New School’s graduate division, or the “University in Exile,” was founded in 1933 for German and Italian scholars seeking refuge from fascist regimes, he said. 

“I was always very interested in modern social and intellectual movements,” he said. “I was interested in Marxism and psychoanalysis and phenomenology. … A lot of those thinkers were German.”

Following the completion of his master’s degree in 1980, Shirley said he planned to pursue his doctorate in political science or sociology in Germany. To master the language, he accepted a teaching job at an international boarding school known as the Ecole d’humanité. It was during these three years in Switzerland that Shirley “fell in love with education,” he said.

The Ecole d’humanité did not believe in competition, awards, or grades for students, according to Shirley. They peeled potatoes every morning after breakfast, and students and faculty did their share of chores to keep the building clean. 

“I taught history, I taught English, I directed plays, I led students on hikes, I taught psychology, sociology,” he said. “If you did something, you did it for its intrinsic value—not so that you get an extrinsic reward.”  

The Ecole d’humanité had been part of a movement of youthful idealism in Germany prior to the Nazi seizure of power, he said, and the school itself had been started by German refugees in the 1930s. This origin was meaningful for Shirley, whose family had arrived in Naples, Italy in 1961—16 years after the end of the Second World War—when the city was still heavily damaged from Allied bombings.

“Working in a school that had been started by refugees, some of whom were still alive at the time, left a big imprint on me,” said Shirley, who lived in Naples from ages 6 to 10. “I was kind of growing up with this theme of what a horrible thing war was, and that’s what makes what’s going on in Ukraine right now so troubling for me.”

Blustein and Groome describe Shirley as someone who deeply cares about the world around him. As a committed member of the BC community, Groome said, this deeper understanding of the purpose of education places him squarely in the tradition of old Greek philosophers like Plato and Aristotle, or Romans like Cicero and Virgil—ancient Italians, a fitting comparison for Shirley.

“Education should indeed prepare people to make a living, but it should also prepare them to have a life,” Groome said. “And that’s what Dennis is doing. He’s really reflecting on what kind of education will help people to live humanly.”

September 25, 2022