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A Dean of His Day

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Robert J. Schaefer

Robert J. Schaefer

When Robert J. Schaefer took office as Dean of Teachers College on February 1, 1963, John F. Kennedy was in the White House, the Vietnam War was escalating rapidly and the leaders of America's civil rights movement were planning their "March on Washington." Betty Friedan had just written The Feminine Mystique and Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar. Julia Child was making her debut on television as The French Chef, Beatlemania was engulfing the U.K, and the Yankees were the reigning champions after winning the 1962 World Series. The pop-top can and the audiocassette were brand new inventions. And in education, the nation's priorities ranged from the space race, with its all out drive for out-learning the Soviet Union, to the open classroom, with its emphasis on concern for "the other" over individual competitiveness. Crisis in the Classroom was the open-school educational bible of the day.

Schaefer was very much an educator of his time. His tenure as dean of Teachers College encompassed the implementation of the Teachers for East Africa program; the launch of the school's first Afghanistan education project; construction at TC of the nation's first comprehensive research and demonstration center for the education of people with disabilities; and the 1968 student riots at Columbia University. His book, The School as a Center of Inquiry, advocated open inquiry in the schools as a way to avoid the extreme ideological swings that he saw as violently destructive.

Schaefer was also a highly visible presence in the media. He hosted a WNBC-TV series, "Children Explore," that demonstrated the teaching techniques of the day. In interviews in the press and on TV, he repeatedly asserted his belief that nurturing virtues of generosity, kindness and simplicity in students was as important as spurring them to achieve intellectual excellence. He had little use for grades.

Schaefer came to TC's deanship from the Graduate Institute of Education at Washington University in St. Louis, replacing John H. Fischer, who had become TC's president. Schaefer had formerly been the assistant dean at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and, prior to that, director of the school's Master of Arts in Teaching Program. He was a Navy veteran of World War II, a past chairman of the Committee of Studies of the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education, a representative to the Consortium for Educational Leadership, and a member of the American Psychological Association's Committee on Accreditation. He received an A.B. and M.A. from Columbia University and his Ph.D. from Teachers College in 1950, with a dissertation entitled Educational Activities of the Garment Unions, A study in Worker's Education 1880-1948.

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