Teachers College Collection Opens a Window On a Dimly Lit Periodof American Education

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New York City--In 1902, the letter typed on Teachers College stationery was merely part of a routine personnel matter: one academic's review for the dean of the qualifications of candidates for a new professorship.

But today, the letter's contents are too rich to be routine.

Written by the prominent psychologist Edgar Lee Thorndike, the letter opens with a description of Naomi Norsworthy, the only woman among the dozen contenders for the job--and its ultimate winner.

"There seems to be no doubt that Miss Norsworthy will be a better psychologist ... than any one else we can hope to get," Thorndike wrote.

But it seems she had another factor in her favor.

"From the point of view of economy, she is certainly better than any man," Thorndike said. "For no man half so good could be gotten for the same amount of money."

Other candidates fared less well in Thorndike's review. He termed one man "a trifle old," while another was simply "useless."

And his opinion of a third candidate underscores the prejudices of the day: "a good man, but I am afraid that he is a Hebrew."

Such windows on a dimly lit period in American education make the document a priceless part of the James Earl Russell papers, a special collection at Teachers College, Columbia University, made up of correspondence and other material from the 29-year tenure of the college's dean.

The 54,000-item collection, which fills 72 archival boxes in Milbank Memorial Library here on the Columbia campus, ranks among the college's most often used, draw6ing scholars from as far away as China, says David Ment, head of special collections at the library.

For scholars, the papers represent a gold mine of minutiae about the college itself, the state of education in the United States and abroad, and Russell's contributions to both.

Dean Russell's administration from 1898 to 1927 was a watershed period in the college's history, archivists here say.

He oversaw the development of Teachers College into an internationally known center for graduate study and research in professional education. Russell hired a stellar faculty, built up the physical plant, and attracted students from around the world. During his tenure the college also spawned a host of innovations, such as "scientifically" trained urban superintendents, that reverberate to this day.

During this era, Mr. Ment says, administrators at Teachers College "were in the business at a time when they could define a lot of things ... what the scope of a field would be, what a teacher should be."

The Russell papers, he adds, are "key to the whole transformation that [was] going on, both in education and in the study of education. And [the collection is] the center of the network, or the wheel ... which ties to so many things."

Searching for Clues

While some of the Russell papers have been filed in the college's administrative offices for decades, they were not made available to scholars until recently.

It was not until 1978 that Teachers College established an archives, accepting for safekeeping the records of the New York City Board of Education. The following year, archivists began to unpack the old manila folders from the president's office and sort through them, photocopying onto acid-free paper the brittle original carbons of Dean Russell's outgoing correspondence.

The papers were opened to researchers in the early 1980's, but in 1988 access became much easier, Mr. Ment says. That year, the library published a 32-page guide to the papers, which includes a brief biography of Russell as well as an index to the collection.

Now about 20 to 25 scholars visit the Russell papers each year, and archivists field about the same number of telephone and mail inquiries. By contrast, some collections might only be studied once a year.

The papers draw so many inquiries, Mr. Ment says, because the dean corresponded with many different organizations and educators in a variety of fields.

"People who are concerned with a whole host of themes will come to use the papers," he says. "Some of them couldn't care less about James Earl Russell the man. But they're interested in these kinds of activities that are emanating from here, and these files are where they find some key clues."

Researchers often find such clues in documents that were not considered significant at the turn of the century, says Richard Glotzer, an associate professor of black and Hispanic studies at the State University of New York at Oneonta.

"What these people considered to be important at the time hasn't turned out to be very important," he says. Rather, "what they discussed as asides" may fascinate scholars now.

Or sometimes just one letter will prompt visits from halfway around the world, Mr. Ment says.

At least five scholars from China have come on separate occasions to see a biographical letter written in 1919 to Dean Russell by a Chinese student at Teachers College.

In it, the student vowed that "my sole purpose in this life is to create a democracy of education and not by military revolution."

The student, Wen Tsing Tao, went on to become a leading educational philosopher and reformist, earning the appellation "the John Dewey of China."

A Rich Variety

The Russell collection, which covers the period 1887 to 1931 but focuses on Russell's time as dean, offers great variety.

Included are a 1904 offer made by Dean Russell to pay John Dewey $350 for 15 lectures, a 1909 request that a horse stabled next to a college building be moved because of the noxious summertime odor, and a 1915 letter from a professor visiting in New Orleans during Mardi Gras who observes, "Am glad our city is not afflicted with this hysteria."

Russell's talents as a courtier of the trustees and a smoother of tensions among faculty also come through in the papers, says Bette Weneck, a manuscript curator in the special collections department.

So too do his broad-ranging interests and his endless network of contacts, says Mr. Glotzer.

Russell may have kept his finger on educational theory or instruction in international education, Mr. Glotzer says, "but he also knew a lot of rural school superintendents and people in the 4-H movement."

'I Was Hooked'

Researchers who have used the Russell papers generously praise the collection that has proved vital to their work.

"Once I got into the papers, I was hooked," says Mr. Glotzer, who first examined the collection several years ago for dissertation research comparing the history of education in the American South with that in South Africa.

He turned up a longstanding and significant connection between Teachers College and South Africa. Many white--and a few black--South Africans studied at Teachers College in the early part of this century, he says, and that experience influenced education in their own country.

More recently, Mr. Glotzer has used the papers for a book he is writing on the history of the Carnegie Corporation of New York's philanthropic work in South Africa from 1926 to the present.

Russell himself worked at the Carnegie Corporation after he left Teachers College in 1927, and he visited South Africa twice during the 1920's and 1930's, according to Mr. Glotzer.

Carnegie also sponsored visits by Teachers College faculty to South Africa, including trips by John Dewey and Mabel Carney, a rural education professor whom Mr. Glotzer has studied.

Letters in the collection that have piqued Mr. Glotzer's interest include a request from Carney to Russell for a scholarship for the daughter of a black South African man, and others representing "a good argument" between Carney and the dean.

Kathleen Cruikshank, another reel10lsearcher who has perused the Russell papers, shares Mr. Glotzer's praise for the collection. Ms. Cruikshank, a Ph.D. candidate in education at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, calls the Russell papers "tremendously valuable."

To have the papers well organized and be able to send a written request and receive in return materials that "generate more questions and broaden my thesis ... all of these to me validate the existence of the collection," Ms. Cruikshank says.

Expressions of Friendship

The Wisconsin researcher sought out the Russell papers for her dissertation on the late 19th century curriculum-reform movement called "American Herbartianism," named after the German philosopher and educator Johann Friedrich Herbart.

Ms. Cruikshank discovered the collection last summer while tracking down information about Frank M. McMurry, a professor of elementary education at Teachers College and an adherent to the Herbartianism movement.

The Russell documents--copies of about 20 to 25 letters--have given Ms. Cruikshank crucial insight into McMurry's experience at Teachers College, she says. She learned, for example, that after unfulfilling stints at two other American universities, McMurry accepted the Teachers College post where "it appears he found fertile ground" for his ideas and a supportive administrator in Russell, Ms. Cruikshank says.

Russell even granted McMurry's several requests for leaves of absences to write books or travel to Europe.

"The support is really clear" in the letters, Ms. Cruikshank says, as is "a flexibility to accommodate McMurry's vision of teaching."

The correspondence between the two men, whose tenures at Teachers College coincided almost exactly, also reveals expressions of admiration and friendship that 65 years and yellowed paper cannot dampen.

"I am profoundly affected by your request for leave of absence next year and for retirement thereafter," Russell wrote to his colleague in 1926. "It seems like the beginning of the end to me."

Indeed, Russell ended his tenure the following year.

Vol. 10, Issue 29

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