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A Legacy of Firsts

From the yellow school bus to the first nutrition curriculum, great ideas have been born at Teachers College

This past summer, courtesy of alumnus Nabeel Ahmad and doctoral student Dominic Mentor, Teachers College’s catalogue included a course on cell phones and their potential for teaching and learning. As far as anyone could tell, the offering was a first for a U.S. graduate school of education.

But at TC, the oldest and most storied such institution in the country, firsts – from the invention of the yellow school bus (the outgrowth of a seven-day conference on school transportation, convened at the College in 1939 by Professor Frank Cyr) and the penning of the “Happy Birthday” song (by TC faculty member Patty Smith Hill, who also was a key founder of the National Association of Nursery Education, and her sister Mildred) to the creation of entirely new fields of inquiry – are nothing new.

“The history of Teachers College…is the history of American teacher education writ small,” wrote education historian Lawrence Cremin, the College’s President from 1974 through 1984, in his account of the College’s first 50 years. “Born at a time when the whole conception of a rigorous and thorough professional education for teachers was far more a dream than in any way a reality, the College during the past half-century has been in the forefront of every major movement, issue and conflict in American education.”

The first of those firsts, in 1889, was the College itself, the blueprint for all schools of education that have followed.

Three figures in TC’s early history were responsible, above all others, for laying its conceptual foundations: James Russell, John Dewey and Edward Lee Thorndike.

Russell, the College’s first dean after a brief regime by Columbia’s President, Nicholas Murray Butler, gave TC its structure and purpose, both of which were unique and both of which have endured to this day. Russell’s great contribution, Cremin writes, was nothing less than “defining a professional education worthy of university rank,” an endeavor in which neither he nor his faculty “had any models to imitate… the work given in education by universities such as Michigan, Iowa, Harvard and California was limited to one department, while the normal schools, from force of circumstances, were able to do little but train teachers for elementary schools.”

In 1898, Russell -- newly ensconced at TC after wandering Europe in search of a more inspiring approach to education than the rote memorization that prevailed in the United States – also taught the world’s first course in foreign school systems, thereby fathering the field of comparative education (a discipline later shaped and reshaped by a succession of TC faculty members, including Harold Noah, Elizabeth Hagen, Isaac Kandel and Richard Wolf). At the same time, he instituted a course in school supervision and school management. In all, TC offered 13 separate courses in 1898, increasing the number to 72 by 1906. Meanwhile, Russell “combed the country for personnel,” ultimately hiring a cast that would include Paul Monroe, E.L. Thorndike, John Dewey, William Heard Kilpatrick, Patty Smith Hill, Arthur Wesley Dow, Mary Adelaide Nutting and many more.

And by 1899, Russell had also established four central goals for TC: general culture, special scholarship, professional knowledge and technical skill.

By “general culture,” Russell meant “training which would enable the student to see the relationships existing everywhere in the various fields of knowledge, even the unity of all knowledge.” This was a critical point, because it opened the door, from the very first, for the College to offer courses in nutrition, psychology, nursing, and other fields not traditionally connected with schooling. By special scholarship, Russell meant content knowledge in one’s subject area – “a knowledge of the field that is both comprehensive and evaluated.” By professional knowledge, Cremin writes, he meant knowledge of “the learner and learning,” of the history of education, and of school administration “in relation to the teacher, the student and society.” And by technical training, he meant pedagogy: “The artist in every vocation must have consummate skill in the use of his tools. The teacher must be skilled in the techniques of his art.”

It was John Dewey, however, who gave TC – and American education in general – its philosophical ethos. He arrived at the College in 1904, at a time when educators on both sides of the Atlantic were actively rethinking the role and function of schools. Over the course of his 50 years at TC, Dewey’s ideas would influence everything from the modernization of Chinese education to conceptions of art and aesthetics, but his core focus was the classroom. Dewey sought to change education by grounding it in a child’s needs, interests and developmental capabilities. He believed that education must actively engage students in discovery, because learning occurs by doing – by making sense of one’s physical environment (a view that Thorndike later substantiated through experiments with animals). In the Deweyan classroom, children learned science by cooking, tilling soil, planting seeds and charting the growth of plants.

Dewey also believed schools were essential to a free society and therefore must be inherently democratic institutions. “What the best and wisest parent wants for his own child,” he wrote in The School and Society, “that must the community want for all of its children. Any other ideal for our schools is narrow and unlovely: acted upon, it destroys our democracy. All that society has accomplished for itself is put, through the agency of the school, at the disposal of its future members.”

Or, as William F. Russell (James’ son, who succeeded his father as TC’s Dean and served in that role through 1948) put it, for Dewey, “no process, however scientific or perfected, had value apart from its effect upon the world outside the school. Ruthlessly his theories broke down the walls of the classroom and let the wide world enter. Ivied towers lost their seclusion, and teaching and learning became a part of life itself.”

Thorndike, who shared many of Dewey’s beliefs, pioneered in applying scientific methods to education research.

“Everything exists in some quantity and can therefore be measured,” Thorndike famously wrote, and in fact, James Russell, on a scouting visit to observe him at the College for Women of Western Reserve University, found him doing just that “investigations of mice and monkeys.” Suitably impressed, Russell concluded that he was “worth trying on humans.”

Thorndike set up shop in the basement of TC in the fall of 1899, where he conducted a series of “puzzlebox” experiments to observe how animals learn through trial and error. He put a hungry cat in a box, for example, and gave it food when it escaped. Gradually, it took the cat less and less time to escape. Thorndike posited a “stamping in” process, in which a connection formed in the animal’s mind between the reward and what it had to do to escape. Through these observations -- the first scientific study of animal intelligence and learning -- Thorndike developed his Law of Effect, which holds that responses that occur just prior to a satisfying state of affairs are more likely to be repeated, while responses linked to negative outcomes are likelier to cease. He applied these ideas to humans and the practice of education, publishing, between 1903 and 1906, Educational Psychology, Theory of Mental and Social Measurements, The Elements of Psychology and Introduction to Teaching. These books created the field of educational psychology. Thorndike also developed a “standard scale” to measure student performance, thereby launching the educational testing movement.

“Thorndike’s profound influence was that he brought measurement to things that people didn’t measure before,” Ernst Rothkopf, the Cleveland E. Dodge Professor Emeritus of Telecommunications and Education, pointed out in 2003 on the 100th anniversary of the publication of Educational Psychology. “Educational psychology had a tiny beginning at TC that turned into an explosive thing.”

During his more than 40 years on TC’s faculty, Thorndike conducted one of the first scientific studies of genius and “bright children”—a line of research subsequently advanced by Thorndike’s TC colleague Leta Hollingworth and then amplified into a full-fledged discipline by another TC faculty member, A. Harry Passow. He also did early research in adult learning and developed many new teacher materials, including a series of vocabulary primers called The Teacher's Word Books.

Mary Adelaide Nutting -- perhaps the only person in the history to TC start a field of study at the College while on staff at another institution – was another James Russell hire. At the end of the nineteenth century, the preparation of nurses was a hodge-podge affair, taught mostly through training schools organized by hospitals. There was virtually no training for those nurses who wanted to assume supervisory duties. Nutting, then supervisor of nurses training at Johns Hopkins Hospital, was already a leading figure in her field when she set her sights on developing a program at TC that would treat the preparation of nurses as seriously as medical schools prepared doctors. Together with her colleague Isabel Robb, Nutting persuaded the American Society of Superintendents of Training Schools for Nurses (today the National League for Nursing) to approve the creation of a pilot instructional program, based at a university, for prospective administrators and nursing educators.

In 1898, Nutting and Robb traveled to New York City to pitch Russell that TC, with a set of principles for teaching teachers and school administrators that applied equally well to the nursing professionm was the perfect place. “Is there a nursing profession?” Russell asked them incredulously. In answer, Nutting and Robb took him to St. Luke’s Hospital in New York City to a class of some 30 young women who had just finished a 12-hour nursing rotation and were now in class, diligently reciting aloud a section of Gray’s Anatomy. Nursing education could do better than this, they argued. Russell relented, and the following fall, TC offered a program on “hospital economics,” the first to prepare nurses to become administrators and nursing educators. The program grew steadily, from just two students that first year to 250 by 1920. In 1907, Nutting left Johns Hopkins to join the TC faculty, becoming the first nurse ever appointed to a professorship. In 1910, a gift by TC Trustee Helen Heartley Jenkins created a division of nursing education at TC.

Nutting, together with one of her students, Isabel Maitland Stewart (the first master’s degree graduate of the program), led development of the National League of Nursing’s The Standard Curriculum for Schools of Nursing, which in turn sparked the establishment of university-based nursing programs across the country. Stewart, who took over the program after Nutting’s retirment in 1925, revised the standards in 1927 and again in 1937.

In 1925, as Nutting prepared to retire, the American Journal of Nursing wrote, “There were giants in those days! So will posterity speak of M. Adelaide Nutting and the small band of brilliant women of her generation who have so firmly and surely laid the foundations upon which the towering and spreading structure of American nursing rests.”

During this same period, TC faculty members Henry Sherman and Mary Swartz Rose were creating the field of nutrition education. In summer 1904, Sherman – then on the Columbia faculty -- began teaching a course at TC on the chemistry of food. Five years later, he was appointed chair of the fledgling Department of Nutrition and Food Economics in TC’s School of Household Arts, and that fall, he hired Swartz Rose, who had earned a degree in home economics from TC and a Ph.D. from Yale University.

Together, the two went on to claim a number of firsts in their new field. Sherman wrote the first scholarly textbook, Chemistry of Food and Nutrition, in 1911, which would go through eight printings and remain in use through the 1950s. Swartz Rose later wrote her own widely used textbook, Foundations of Nutrition.

In Fall 1909, Swartz Rose converted Room 401 in Grace Dodge Hall into the nation’s first nutrition education lab. She later wrote the first nutrition book outlining effective teaching methods and materials for elementary school, and co-founded and served as president of the American Society for Nutrition

By the time Swartz Rose died, in 1941, a year after her retirement, her textbook was in use at more than 350 colleges and universities nutrition programs had spread around the world.

The field of special education also got its start at TC during those early years. Its progenitor was Elizabeth Farrell, initially a teacher at Public School Number One (the Henry Street School) in what was then New York City’s most notorious slum, the Lower East Side. There, working with boys ages 8 to 16 deemed “incorrigible” and “mentally deficient,” Farrell developed the nation’s first special education curriculum (or “special instruction,” as she called it). Discounting all levels, Farrell sought to understand her charges as individuals, tailoring an education to each based on his ability and stage of development. She engaged her students by choosing subject matter and experiences that were relevant to their lives. By 1903, 10 schools in New York City were teaching special education classes based on Farrell’s curriculum. Ultimately, her methods spread across the country.

In 1915, Farrell joined TC as a lecturer and, with Leta Hollingworth, who by then was a professor of educational psycholoy and chief of the psychological lab at Bellevue Hospital, established nation’s first graduate program in special education. In 1922, a lecture Farrell gave students on how professionals in special education could share ideas and practices led to the creation of International Council for the Education of Exceptional Children – today, the Council for Exceptional Children, the largest international professional organization dedicated to improving the educational success of individuals with disabilities.

In her keynote presidential address at the organization’s inaugural conference, Farrell expressed the hope that “pubic education in this country will become less machine-made and more individual; that the schools of this country will use the ability of each pupil group to its maximum; that the school will fit its burden to the back which bears it; that it will bring the opportunity of successful achievement to every child.”

Today, a plaque with Farrell’s profile hangs at the national headquarters of the Council for Exceptional Children in Arlington, Virginia. Yet her most enduring legacy is the fact that every special education student in the country must have an Individualized Education Plan, a mandate of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

TC’s Harold Rugg – a one-time civil engineer who taught both at the College and its progressive lab school, Lincoln -- is considered one of the key founders of “the social studies.” In 1929, Rugg published the first in a series of textbooks culled from his Social Science Pamphlets, booklets that comprised social studies materials for junior high schools. Over the next 15 years, these textbooks (more than 20 in all) became runaway hits, selling more than five million copies and creating the series model in textbook publishing. The central innovation of Rugg’s approach was to tie the past to the present, melding history and the social sciences. Topics were invariably introduced through a social issue or problem relevant to students’ lives, transforming the standard, chronological curriculum into a process of active civic engagement. Rugg went on to co-found the National Council for the Social Studies, but during the 1940s, his outspoken social criticism of business and the government’s policies toward the poor and unemployed prompted Bertie C. Forbes, publisher of Forbes magazine, and along with the American Legion, the National Association of Manufacturers and other organizations, to attack his textbooks as un-American. Many schools stopped using the texts, and by the late 1940s, they ceased to be published altogether. “Rugg’s story reminds us,” wrote the education scholar Ronald W. Evans in This Happened in America: Harold Rugg and the Censure of Social Studies, “that education is always political, and can never be neutral.”

The launching of new disciplines and paradigms at TC was by no means confined to the College’s early years.

During the 1950s and 60s, A. Harry Passow essentially launched the field of urban education, at one point leading a huge study of the Washington, D.C., school system that anticipated by decades the recommendations of later reformers.

The 1970s saw the emergence of computers, in education and in society in general. Robert Taylor, a doctoral student in International Educational Development, arrived at TC with reams of data from his four years of teaching mathematics in Ugandan primary schools. Taylor sought out Bell Laboratories to learn its SNOBOL computer language so that could analyze his findings. The experience changed both his career and the course of American education. In 1970, soon after receiving his doctorate, Taylor took a job in TC’s fledgling computer center and by 1973 was it director. In 1976, he founded an academic program in computing and education, the first at graduate school of education, and soon afterward published one of the earliest books in the emerging field of educational technology, The Computer in the School: Tutor, Tool, Tutee, now considered a classic. By 1984, having co-founded TC’s Department of Communication, Computing and Technology in Education, Taylor was a leading figure in the field and was called to testify before a subcomittee, chaired by then U.S. Representative Al Gore, of the House Committee on Science and Technology.

“If introduced appropriately into schools,” he told the committee, “computing will transform many aspects of education. In particular, it will increase the role of graphics, force us to be more aware of the process nature of real learning, and make formal learning environments more richly interactive than books, lectures and traditional classes alone can ever be.”

In 1986, psychologist Morton Deutsch founded TC’s International Center for Cooperation and Conflict Resolution. Known as the father of the field of conflict resolution, Deutsch, now an emeritus professor has sought to define the conditions that lead to constructive ways of resolving differences between couples, in schools or cities, or among nations. The Center has trained New York City students, parents and teachers in constructive conflict resolution, and Deutsch’s work also has influenced deliberations at the United Nations and American arms negotiations.

Another current emeritus faculty member, Edmund W. Gordon, was one of the architects of the federal Head Start program in the 1960s. A contributor to the famous Coleman Report, which first posited that students’ family backgrounds and socioeconomic status outweigh the effect of schooling on their academic achievement, Gordon, in the 1970s, founded TC’s Institute for Urban and Minority Education, which became the nucleus of the College’s engagement with schools and community organizations in Harlem. More recently, Gordon has championed the concept of supplementary education – the idea that children from challenging backgrounds must be supported by an extensive scaffolding of caring community that includes after-school programs, counseling services, education for parents, and much more.

And then, of course, there is Maxine Greene, TC’s William F. Russell Professor Emerita in the Foundations of Education. Greene is among the world’s most influential educational minds, a philosopher in residence at Lincoln Center, and a source of inspiration to artists and political thinkers alike. Yet in the 1960s, interviewing for her position at Teachers College, she had to wait in the restroom because the Faculty Club admitted only men. Greene’s quest has been to make young people “wide awake,” both to art and the possibility of social change. Now in her 90s and still teaching seminars in her apartment, she has written: “There are, of course, young persons in the inner cities, the ones lashed by ‘savage inequalities,’ the ones whose very schools are made sick by the social problems the young bring in from without. Here, more frequently than not, are the real tests of –‘teaching as possibility’ in the face of what looks like an impossible social reality at a time when few adults seem to care.”

These are just some of the TC people who have charted new paths during the past 120 years. There are many more, including former students who went on to do equally important things. To mention just two: Albert Ellis (Ph.D., ’47), who died in 2007, was one of the towering American figures in psychology. He was the founder of Rational-Emotive Therapy (later, Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy, or REBT), which offers a more active, direct approach to treating psychological disorders than traditional psychoanalytic models. Ellis’ approach provided an early foundation for what is now the most commonly practiced psychotherapeutic modality, Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy.

And Howard University professor Marion Thompson Wright, who at TC in the 1930s became the first American black woman to earn a Ph.D. in history (her program was in history and educational sociology), pioneered in bringing black history into public school curricula through vehicles such as the Negro History Bulletin and Negro History Month.

Can a course on cell phones match this legacy? It may take another 50 years to learn the answer. But at TC, the odds are that, at any given moment, history is being made.


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