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James Earl Russell's Pet Course on Foreign Schools

The syllabus to a newly introduced course dating back to the academic year 1899-1900 reads "Comparative Study of Educational Systems." The "Announcement" of the course states, "This course is designed to present a comprehensive view of typical foreign school systems and to aid students in making intelligent comparisons of the practical workings of this system with other systems at home and abroad...special attention will be given to the national education of Germany as compared with the characteristic features of France, England, and America."

To those of us at the turn of the new millennium the syllabus may not seem revolutionary, indeed rather conventional. But it was, in fact, the beginning of a new field of study that began at Teachers College and is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year.

James Earl Russell, Dean of Teachers College from 1898-1927, credited by many as the individual who was most influential in recruiting the most creative thinkers in education while taking on the task of reorganizing the growing institution into a professional school of education, is nothing less than the father of international and comparative education.

In his Reminiscences of the Dean Emeritus, Russell provides us with a glimpse of the origins of his course on the study of "foreign school systems." He expresses it as attempting "to know more about the learner and the learning, more about past achievement and present practice at home and abroad..."

It all began when, as principal of a preparatory school, the Cascadilla School in Ithaca, New York, Russell "expected to find greater freedom, but the ideals crumbled under the necessity of getting boys into college." As soon as he could afford it, in 1893, he set out for Europe "to see if there was not some better way" to "make schools instruments of education as well as means of instruction." He traveled to Germany to the Universities of Jena and Leipzig, where he pursued studies in secondary and extension education, which became the subject of his doctoral dissertation.

It is clear that while in Germany he was struck by the gap between the liberal pedagogy espoused in the universities and the more rigid practices in German schools. As he notes, "While I admired the skill of German teachers and was humbled before their scholarship, I realized that German education was wholly foreign to the ideals of American life." His German experience, according to David Ment, Head of Milbank Library's Special Collections, "contributed to the development of Russell's conception of education as a broadly based social function and his belief that the university was the proper setting for the professional education of teachers."

Within a year after taking office, Russell had written the syllabus for "Education 7," which was open as an elective to graduate students. While Nicholas Murray Butler, who would be appointed President of Columbia University in 1902, had recently worked out an agreement with Russell on a new affiliation agreement with Teachers College, he was skeptical about the new course proposed by the Dean of Teachers College.

In his Reminiscences, Russell says, "Even doctor Butler asked me where I expected to get students for the course on foreign school systems restricted to college graduates with a reading knowledge of French and German. My answer, rather flippant I fear, was that at any rate it looked well in the catalogue." But, Russell must have been very convincing because he was able to recruit Butler to deliver the final lecture of the course, "The Public School as a Community."

Russell was nervous about enrollment in the course and asked the trustees to establish three fellowships of $500 each to "use as bait." Not until mid-summer, 1899, Russell reported, "was I assured three candidates for my pet course on foreign schools."

When it looked as if "the three who had been bribed with fellowships would constitute the class," he was overwhelmed with joy on registration day at the number of graduate students interested in the "Comparative Study of Educational Systems." Russell remarks, "Imagine my surprise, therefore, when at the first meeting scheduled for the alcove adjoining the stackroom of the library, I found the place full of persons who looked like genuine graduate students--34 of them...It being impossible to turn the well-known trick of letting students teach themselves, I had to turn my first seminar into a lecture course."

At the time, the College had begun to energetically recruit graduate students to its growing undergraduate student body, and Russell was more than pleased that a total of 86 graduate students were now attending TC. He recalls that "this influx of graduate students quite overwhelmed us." What excited him most about the teachers and principals who brought with them the "maturity of judgment and a wide diversity of experience," was the "opportunity and inducement of opening up new fields."

With the success of his new elective course, Russell and Teachers College moved to: expand the curriculum, work with trustees in attracting international students who would take up "the strategic posts of the school systems of many nations," and lure "pioneers," such as Paul Monroe and Isaac Kandel, who extended the College's influence to the world with the prestigious International Institute from 1923-38.

After 30 years as Dean, Russell retired at the end of the 1926-27 academic year. By that time, as A Guide to The James Earl Russell Papers (published by the Milbank Memorial Library) concludes, "he had realized many of the goals and ambitions he had carefully laid down for the College at the beginning of his tenure. Russell had built a faculty whose members were widely recognized as leaders in defining newly emerging fields of modern educational thought and practice."

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