Teachers College was founded in 1887 to address the issues of education during a period of profound social, economic, and cultural change in the United States. The purpose of the institution was to educate teachers, in all grades, in the knowledge and skills basic to teaching. Through the fundraising efforts of Grace Hoadley Dodge, the treasurer of the college; the intellectual vision of Nicholas Murray Butler, president of the Industrial Education Society; and the leadership of the first dean, James Earl Russell, the dream of an institution focused specifically on the education of teachers was realized after fourteen years in the making.
Although the curriculum of the college expanded over the past century, there have remained two constants. One is the dynamic affiliation with Columbia University. The other is that Teachers College has remained responsive to the changing culture, character, and context of education. It has held a central role in shaping the world of educational research throughout its 120-year history.
In the first decade of the twentieth century, Edward Lee Thorndike, one of the school’s most well-known professors, established the field of educational psychology, declaring that psychology was the science of intellect, and the schoolroom, a great laboratory. His colleague in the philosophy department at Columbia, John Dewey, was invited to lecture at the college in 1906, making Teachers College an influential center of educational theory.
The economic recession of the 1930s brought to light a new school of thought in the institution. Professor George S. Counts argued that progressive education had focused too much on the child in school. Instead, he countered what the role of the school should be within the larger society. These questions were addressed in a pamphlet titled “Dare the School Build a New Social Order?” Not surprisingly, the 1930s were a time of upheaval, and there was now emphasis on the administration of schools. This led to the establishment of a new degree, the Doctor of Education, or EdD, in 1934, which also saw the publication by the faculty’s staff of the revolutionary educational journal The Social Frontier.
In the late 1930s to 1950s, many Teachers College faculty members were deeply committed to social issues of the time. Mabel Carney, a professor of rural education, championed the development of Black teachers during this period. She traveled to the South to teach and was instrumental in the migration of Black southern scholars to the college. During the period of legalized segregation in the United States (1896–1954), the largest number of doctorates in education earned by Black scholars was from Teachers College. This was not the first or only example of the faculty looking beyond New York City. In 1899, the program in comparative education was established, and in 1956, the first society and journal dedicated to those issues was established by the faculty in that program.
During the 1960s, the issue of equity emerged as an increasingly important issue for the college. In the ensuing decades, the institution has managed to stay in the forefront of educational transitions and policy while maintaining a strong connection to the foundations of its past.
- Cremin, L. A. (1954). A history of Teachers College, Columbia University. New York: Columbia University Press.
- Ravitch, D. (2000). Left back: A century of failed school reforms. New York: Simon & Schuster.
- Rosenberg, R. (2004). Changing the subject: How the women of Columbia shaped the way we think about sex and politics. New York: Columbia University Press.
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