A Little History

Robert H. Bruininks

Robert H. Bruininks, University of Minnesota

Robert H. Bruninks is retiring as president of the University of Minnesota.  A graduate of Western Michigan University (WMU) in 1964, he began his career in special education.  Since 1968, he has played various roles at the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis: professor, department chair, dean, executive vice president, provost, and, in 2002, president. In a recent interview, Bruininks reported that one of his important achievements during his administration was improving the quality of undergraduate professional education.  One of his most difficult decisions concerned the elimination of the University’s General College.

A few years ago, I delved into the historical record to write a brief history of a small professional association — The Society of Professors of Education (SPE), which was founded in 1902 (Armstrong, 2005).  After a few months of digging into primary sources (as time would allow), I came to a new appreciation for the work of historians of education. One of the many things I gained from this project was a renewed appreciation for the tenuous status of schools of education within universities, which are a relatively recent invention, succeeding schools of theology, law and medicine. The past hundred years or so has produced a lively discourse about the nature and consequences of our situation (e.g., Labaree, 2004).

For those of us in Education, James Earl Russell’s description of the founding of Teachers College, Columbia — Founding Teachers College—  provides a wonderful glimpse into one of our professional “origin stories.” Russell was the first dean of Teachers College, and also one of the early presidents of the Society of Professors of Education (1905-1907).  His memoir captures the difficulties he encountered as he and his colleagues fought for resources and stature in an institutional context that had little regard for the low status occupation of teaching, a job often performed by women, particularly in the lower grades.

James Earl Russell

James Earl Russell

To return to the Minnesota connection, several University of Minnesota deans and professors served terms as SPE presidents:

  • George James, 1913,
  • Lotus D. Coffman, 1918
  • Harl R. Douglas, 1938
  • W.E. Peik, 1946
  • Robert H. Beck, 1970
  • Ayers Bagley, 1983

Robert Beck and Ayers Bagley were among my teachers at the University of Minnesota many years ago. They are, therefore, a part of my professional lifenet of connections to people, places and things that have shaped my professional life over the years. I will have more to say about professional lifenets in future posts. Clearly, the “Minnesota Connection” is at work here, and indeed, as I learned more about the history of SPE, I also learned about the history of my own alma mater.  And this was interesting. Yet the people I found myself most captivated by were all of the people who were SPE members who lived their lives and did their work in relative obscurity.  Most of us are among, or will one day join their ranks, and this should keep all of us humble and mindful of how we spend our time.

My historical inquiry afforded a glimpse into the decades of effort that professors of education have put into the task of creating environments suited to the preparation of teachers and administrators, and other school employees to serve the common good.  Difficulties arise — conflicts and sometimes interpersonal animosities — because “doing what one ought to do” is a matter of judgment and interpretation. Every field generates an ongoing discourse focusing on ethics and ethical decision making. The conversation continues because circumstances change, creating new dilemmas and uncertainties. Yet some of the tensions we encounter are a byproduct of the wider institutional contexts in which we live and work. Historical study affords another way to see the terrain from a different point of view. And learning to see things anew (a modernist aspiration) is one of the many skills we need to cultivate in ourselves, as we grapple with the problem of re-creating our best qualities in the next generation of professionals.

Wishing you well — Edprof

References

Armstrong, J. (2005). A brief history of the Society of Professors of Education. Professing Education, 4 (2). [available online]

Labaree, David F. (2004). The Trouble with Ed Schools. New Haven, CN: Yale University Press.

Russell, James E. (1922). The Trend in American Education. New York: American Book Company.

———. (1937). Founding Teachers College: Reminiscences of the Dean Emeritus. New York: Teachers College, Columbia University.

Robert H. Bruininks — brief biographical sketch (Wikipedia)

Robert H. Bruininks — Western Michigan University profile.

Society of Professors of Education Website

A list of SPE Presidents is available in the SPE Library.

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