TC Emeritus Professor R. Freeman Butts, Education Historian ... | Teachers College Columbia University

Skip to content Skip to main navigation

TC Emeritus Professor R. Freeman Butts, Education Historian and Philosopher, Dies at 99

Education historian and philosopher R. Freeman Butts, an emeritus faculty member of Teachers College, died on March 19 at age 99. He served as Associate Dean of International Studies and directed both the Teachers for East Africa and Afghanistan projects.

TC Emeritus Professor R. Freeman Butts, Education Historian and Philosopher, Dies at 99


Education historian and philosopher R. Freeman Butts, an emeritus faculty member of Teachers College, died on March 19.  He was 99.


Early in his academic career, Butts, along with George S. Counts, William Heard Kilpatrick and other members of the College’s Department of Social and Philosophical Foundations of Education, proposed an integrative approach to the study of education and its interaction with cultural and social conditions. During this period, which included his chairmanship of the department from 1948 to 195, Butts authored several classics in the study of education, including The College Charts its Course (1939, reprinted 1971), A History of Education in American Culture (with Lawrence Cremin, 1953), and A Cultural History of Western Education (1955).


In the post-war period, as America turned from military to diplomatic engagement with the world, Butts’ interests shifted to international and comparative education.  In 1954 he received a Fulbright grant to study education in Australia, which resulted in Assumptions Underlying Australian Education (1955).  As his interest in educational practice in different cultures grew he took on leadership of Teachers College’s international programs, becoming Director of the Teachers for East Africa Project, which was a pilot program for the Peace Corps, and later was named Director of Studies, Nigeria Peace Corps Training Program.  He served as the College’s Associate Dean for International Studies from 1961 to 1975 , also overseeing TC’s first Afghanistan Project. He and his staff acted as consultants to Afghan educators who worked on expanding the number of schools throughout the country and increasing the number of trained educators.  During this period, Butts authored American Education in International Development (1963, reprinted 1970), and The Education of the West (1973). 


Though perhaps best remembered as an internationalist, Butts wrote prophetically in a 1959 essay, Our Tradition of States’ Rights and Education, “Of one thing we can be sure. Education is not only deeply embroiled in some of our most bitter public controversies, but education itself has become one of the central issue in the alignment of political, economic, and social forces in present-day America.”


And following his retirement from TC, Butts continued to focus on issues of public and civic education. Well into the 1980s, he held positions as Visiting Scholar and Professor at San Jose State University, Stanford, and finally at the Hoover Institution, where his papers are archived.  He continued to publish many books and articles, including The Revival of Civic Learning (1980), The Morality of Democratic Citizenship (1988), and The Civic Mission in Educational Reform (1989).  He was proudest of his collaboration on Civitas:  A Framework for Civic Education (1991), which provides a common core of knowledge and a solid intellectual grounding for civic education in the schools.  In 1993, he published an autobiographical retrospective on these three periods of his scholarship, In the First Person Singular: The Foundations of Education.


Known to generations of students, colleagues and friends as “J”, Butts was born on May 14, 1910, in Springfield, Illinois.  He completed both his undergraduate studies and a Ph.D. in history at the University of Wisconsin, where he was a member of the first class of Alexander Meiklejohn’s Experimental College, an experience that shaped his thinking for the remainder of his life.    He served on the faculty of Teachers College for 40 years, becoming Professor of Education in 1948, and then the William F. Russell Professor in the Foundations of Education from 1958 to his retirement.


Butts served as a uniformed officer in the Red Cross during WWII and was a member of The Century Association from 1966 until 1978. During the late 1970s, the American Educational Studies Association established the R. Freeman Butts Lecture, a prestigious scholarly lecture delivered at the AESA annual conference and published in the scholarly journal, Educational Studies.


Much of the information for this story was furnished by Professor Butts’ son, Stephen Jay Butts.




Published Tuesday, Mar. 23, 2010


More Stories