A Little More History of Education

James Earl RussellThere was a time when all who pursued degree programs in education were required to know something about the history of education. This is no longer the case at my own institution and many other places as well.  So, in celebration of the American Fourth of July, here are a few additional quotations from James Russell.  I was pleased to find that Russell’s (1937)  Founding Teachers College is available in the Universal Library: http://www.archive.org/details/foundingteachers011209mbp . (Readable at no cost on kindle, iphones, ipods, as PDF, and many other formats.  What a wonder!)

Here is how Russell described the excitement of working with colleagues to create something new (Teachers College) at the dawn 20th century.

Speaking for every member of the staff during the six years evenly divided between the nineteenth century and the twentieth – years in which we were getting our own professional training and incidentally defining a new type of professional school – I declare these years to be the richest of our lives. The effect, in its fervor, enthusiasm, and spiritual uplift, was akin to a religious revival.  It inspired us with a faith that we, too, could move mountains.           

Owing to the steadily growing number of students the most pressing need was for more instructors. I knew that our teachers should be scholars, not only masters of their respective fields but also products of a wider culture, who had the gift of inciting students to scholarly endeavor. Men who combined these qualities were scarce and those in collegiate positions could hardly be expected to take a chance on an enterprise generally labeled unscholarly.  Moreover, we needed men of open minds, men not confined in the ruts of academic tradition or habituated to traditional methods of research and investigation. That suggested men, to use an Irish bull, whose future was ahead rather than behind them (Russell 1937, 51-2).

It did not all fall readily into place, however. The zest of creating something new and necessary was tempered by the resistance of those who were invested in the status quo:

Our relation to the University was still uncertain in 1903.  Within a year our loyalty was questioned by the Columbia Trustees; the head professor of mathematics had denounced the appointment of a normal school man to a professorship; the head professor of history publicly warned President Butler that the reputation of the University would be jeopardized by further coddling of this parvenu institution; the head professor of Latin aired his opposition to women students by dubbing 120th Street ‘hairpin alley.’   For all of fifteen years I sat in the University Council quite aware that for me to advocate a measure was likely to defeat it. …

Anyone who recalls the character of ‘schoolkeeping’ of fifty years ago – the deadly recitation of memorized facts from deadlier textbooks all to the tune of the hickory stick, and the joyous response to ‘recess’ and the long holidays when school ‘let out’ – must realize that ‘schoolteaching’ has been a transforming agency. In this accomplishment we have had some part.

             Probably the most decisive change has been in securing popular support the country over for professional training and a broader conception of the function of the school in public education – an ideal that unifies the best interest of the individual with the welfare of the body politic. The trend has been marked by a better understanding of the learning process, by more suitable methods of instruction and school administration, and by more sympathetic treatment of individual differences.  The problem which presents the most difficulty, and one that will be omnipresent as long as civilization advances and knowledge increases, is the selection of the best materials to implement our changing ideals (Russell, 1937, 64-66).

Russell goes on to observe that the “enormous amount of new knowledge put out in recent years, added to the accumulation of ages past, imposes a prodigious task upon teachers who are obliged to choose that which will be most serviceable for a particular purpose and to adapt it to the various grades, ages, and abilities of their students.”  (66). He asserted that teachers’ attitudes, preferences and knowledge of their subjects play key parts in all this (67). Clearly, Russell seems to imagine a powerful teacher who makes key decisions about the how and what of educational practice. And one final quote, one that I think might well pertain to those who prepare professionals in all fields:

Next to smug complacency with its concomitant self-righteousness, the greatest danger that any professional school encounters is the tendency of the specialist to become so enamored of his subject, so engrossed in its elaboration, so confident of its self-sufficiency, that he makes it an academic discipline rather than a source of professional enlightenment. Whether any professional school can realize its ideal is primarily a matter of the scope of its scholarship and the attitude of its scholars toward what is needed in professional practice (Russell, 1937, 67-8).

Susan Fuhrman, President of Teachers College, pays tribute to the original TC mission and the “power of ideas” while suggesting new directions for the future (For more on this, visit  http://www.tc.edu/news.htm?articleID=5641 and http://www.tc.columbia.edu/news.htm?articleID=6046 ). I think it is noteworthy that she proposes that the relationships students form while at TC are as important as the knowledge to be gained from books.

From my vantage point in a public university, the tensions between the professional and the scholarly (e.g., school of education versus arts and sciences); the applied and the disciplinary, and the vocational versus the academic seem as real and as potentially problematic as they were in Russell’s day.  Should students be taught science because we need workers prepared for high tech occupations, or because knowing about the world around us, and learning how to think scientifically has inherent value for the individual?

One response to “A Little More History of Education

  1. A very interesting blog entry, particularly the notes you make about the changing educational scene.

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