Kimberly Probolus

Kimberly Probolus

Broadly, my work focuses on the history of education, race, gender, and political economy in the postwar era. As a social and politician historian, I privilege the voices and ideas of non-expert over expert actors. My dissertation, Separate and Unequal: Gifted and Talented Programs in Boston Public Schools, 1950–1980, studies how parents, educators, activists, and social scientists mobilized ideas about race, gender, and intelligence in the postwar era to separate students on the basis of “ability,” reinscribing segregation in the wake of Brown v. Board of Education. Using previously unexplored archives, I argue that the implementation of gifted and talented programs drew support from and reinforced the public’s belief in meritocratic individualism; it fostered a consumer-based attitude toward public education that all but ensured the perpetuation of racial segregation.

The project makes two key contributions to postwar U.S. history. First, I argue that gifted and talented programs both reflected and contributed to the decline of liberalism during the Cold War by reframing public education as an individual right as opposed to a social good. While other scholars have explored the role that battles over school integration played in the retreat from state services, less attention has been paid to how programs for gifted students fundamentally impacted the public school system and informed this larger decline. I reveal how a new, overwhelmingly white, urban middle class used merit to secure the best educational opportunities for their sons and daughters while foreclosing those same opportunities for students of color.

Second, I reorient the literature on the civil rights struggle in the North by centering middle-class whites’ resistance to both desegregation and affirmative action. While much has been written about the reactionary populism of the white working class and their often violent resistance to school integration, little is known about the left-leaning, middle-class whites who gentrified or remained in urban centers. These parents used colorblind rhetoric to argue against affirmative action and for definitions of merit that made admission to gifted and talented programs nearly impossible for most students of color. Indeed, these tactics were more consequential than those used by the white working class. The dissertation, then, highlights a fundamental commonality that urban working-class and middle-class white parents shared: a willingness to subvert Black children’s rights to access equal educational opportunities.

My work appears in the Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences and my research has been funded by the generous support of the Lyndon B. Johnson Library, the New England Regional Fellowship Consortium, and the Jeffrey C. Kasch Foundation. I am the recipient of the Gerald R. Ford Dissertation Award and the Early Career Award from the European Society for the History of the Human Sciences. Prior to graduate school, I received my B.A. from Smith College with a double major in English and American studies. From 2011–2012, I taught English on a Fulbright Fellowship at a Buddhist middle school for girls in South Korea.

Current Research


Jeffrey C. Kasch Foundation Research Trip:

Thanks to the very generous support of the Kasch Foundation, I visited ten different archival collections between mid-May and mid-August. During the course of my research, I accessed both restricted and public materials. These included a longitudinal study of child rearing practices and achievement motivation (housed at the Murray Center at Harvard University), files regarding the 1974 Boston desegregation case Morgan v. Hennigan (housed at NARA Boston, the Boston City Municipal Archives, and UMASS Boston), METCO—the voluntary bussing program for minority students—files (housed at Northeastern University), as well as local and regional newspapers (housed at the Boston Public Library). This material has allowed me to start writing my dissertation, entitled Raising Young Hearts and Minds: Parents’ Academic Aspirations for their Children, 1950-2000. I explore how the process of aspiration formation has changed over time, and historicize a more contemporary body of scholarship in the social sciences that explores the aspirations different groups of parents hold for their children. This literature generally gestures towards but largely fails to interrogate the historical factors that have led to heightened expectations among parents since 1950; however, my archival research allows me to show how different actors at different historical moments have described their hopes, dreams, and desires for their children’s education. Finally, the archival work I conducted over the summer has provided material for two conference papers: Cheiron (the International Society for the History of Behavioral and Social Sciences) and the History of Science Society. 

Publications

"A Woman's Plea: Let's Raise Our Voices!"

Kimberly Probolus submitted a letter to the New York Times editors calling on them diversify their selection of letters to include a larger number of women. The editors responded positively to Probolus' criticism and ensured readers that this has become goal of the section's. 

2018

Kimberly published an article in the Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences entitled “Drawn from Alice in Wonderland”: Expert and public debates over merit, race, and testing in Massachusetts police officer selection, 1967–1979".