School & District Management

Stanford Professor Created A New Breed of Professional

By Bess Keller — November 17, 1999 5 min read
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When a former student and colleague sought an affectionate nickname for Ellwood P. Cubberley, the Stanford University professor who would become one of the century’s most influential educators, the young man chose “Dad.” The name stuck, and from about 1903 to his retirement in 1933, “Dad” was how Cubberley was known to his students.

The teacher and scholar had no children of his own, but he fostered the careers of two generations of school administrators. Cubberley, in fact, helped create the profession. In large part as a result of his work, school administration parted ways with teaching, growing into a separate field with its own conventions and body of knowledge.

Cubberley, the founding father of a profession, was paternal in other senses, too.

Though hardly remarked on in his day, his views were riddled with assumptions about the natural superiority of men like himself—white, Anglo- Saxon, native-born—and the American society they had shaped. In practical terms, the reforms he and his circle spurred helped ensure that women would largely remain the workers in a system managed by men.

Born just after the Civil War in the tiny town of Andrews, Ind., the future leader attended the local public schools and helped out at his father’s drugstore. Because his high school lacked a year of the required four for admission to college, Cubberley completed a college-preparatory program at Purdue University.

He was cool to his father’s plan that he attend the pharmacy school there, but it was not until he heard David Starr Jordan, the president of Indiana University, lecture on “The Value of Higher Education” that he set his own course. Cubberley entered Indiana University with Jordan as his adviser. During his senior year, Cubberley ran the stereopticon lantern that often enlivened Jordan’s public lectures. Handsome, friendly, and hard-working, the physics major made a good impression.

After a year’s interruption to teach at a one-room school near his hometown, he earned his degree in 1891. Jordan successfully recommended him for a science teaching position at a small Baptist college and a little later for a similar position at Vincennes University, also in Indiana.

After two years as a professor there, at the age of 25, Cubberley was named president of the institution.

In 1896, once again thanks to his mentor Jordan, the young college president moved up to become the superintendent of the San Diego public schools. Probably without knowing it at the time and still thinking of himself as a scientist with a particular interest in geology, Cubberley not only changed jobs, he also changed the focus of his professional life from then on.

Business as a Model

His two-year tenure in the California district was not smooth, and it left the former college president with a strong sentiment against “politicized” school boards and elected school officials.

Already an enthusiastic student of biological evolution, Cubberley concluded that a similar process was at work socially. The existing social order was therefore the product of an objective process that weeded out maladaptive arrangements. Further, in the face of massive immigration and labor unrest, the urgent mission of the schools was to win the day for solidarity and the American way of life while preparing individuals for their differing destinies by class.

Reflecting the temper of the times, Cubberley was also enamored of “business efficiency.” He believed that the best way to achieve efficiency in education, as in business, was by building a multilayered organization headed by experts.

“Cubberley had an intensely hierarchical view of leadership,’' with little room for decisionmaking by teachers, write David B. Tyack and Elizabeth Hansot in their comprehensive 1982 account of public school leadership, Managers of Virtue.

Craving a wider scope for his talents, Cubberley in 1898 accepted an appointment to Stanford University, which was then headed by his old mentor, Jordan. Though he had never taken an education class and had no advanced degree, Cubberley became the second professor in the new education department, with orders to make the field respectable or face closing up shop.

The energetic and organized Cubberley not only saved the department, he also remade himself into a fit head for it, earning master’s and doctoral degrees at Teachers College, Columbia University, during leaves from Stanford. At the same time, he began to formulate a program for the “scientific’’ study of school administration and met other educators who were to form his intellectual circle.

Widespread Influence

Entrenched school bureaucracies and the “tracking” of students in high schools have their roots in the successes of Cubberley and other members of the informal network of academics, foundation leaders, and urban school superintendents that held the greatest sway in American education from about 1910 to 1930. Like Cubberley, many of them attended graduate school at Teachers College in the early years of the century.

In time, Cubberley became a renowned author and consultant, carrying his message of social improvement to the nation. In the midst of public lectures, teaching, and scholarship, he found the time to propose and edit the first widely used series of textbooks in education—106 of them, 10 written by Cubberley himself.

And he published in 1919 what for many years was the standard history of American education, Public Education in the United States.

In California, “Dad” Cubberley’s influence was widespread. Eventually stepping up to dean of the education school at Stanford, he advised on professional and policy matters related to education, and he helped dozens of graduates find jobs through his personal connections—a power one observer likened to that of New York City’s Tammany Hall politicians.

Much of that activity was profitable, and Cubberley invested well. He enjoyed a comfortable life with his wife, Helen, provided for her after his death in 1941, and in the end gave more than $360,000 to his beloved Stanford University for a new building to house the school of education.

The leadership ideal that Cubberley held and embodied was, in Tyack and Hansot’s term, “an educational Teddy Roosevelt’'—charging up the San Juan Hill of ignorance one minute, gracious to women, children, and subordinates in the next.

The image, however, cannot comfortably stretch to cover non-European men, or lay people, or women, and the dean led the way in disparaging the very electoral processes that were most likely to bring outsiders to the decisionmaking table.

Cubberley’s influence was profound for a half-century, but by the 1970s, his outlook and many of his ideals seemed hopelessly outdated and undemocratic. What the education historian Lawrence A. Cremin called the “wonderful world’’ of Ellwood P. Cubberley had dimmed at last.

A version of this article appeared in the November 17, 1999 edition of Education Week as Stanford Professor Created A New Breed of Professional


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