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The Writings of Edward L. Thorndike


by Arthur I. Gates - 1949

The reports in this issue of The Record are, with the exception of President Russell's tribute, those that were planned to be presented to him as a birthday greeting, with a few minor modifications.

DURING the Spring the members of the staff of the Department of Psychological Foundations and Educational Research laid plans for a tribute to Professor Thorndike on his seventy-fifth birthday, which would have occurred on August 31. We decided to bring the bibliography of his writings up to date, secure a review of his latest book, and prepare an article on his recent work in lexicography to present to him on his birthday. Although we knew he was in poor health, we were shocked by his death early Tuesday morning, August 9. During my visit with him two days before, he chatted with keen interest about affairs at the College. Final arrangements to greet him on his birthday were to have been made on the day he died.


The reports in this issue of The Record are, with the exception of President Russell's tribute, those that we planned to present to him as a birthday greeting, with a few minor modifications.


The May 1940 issue of The Record contained a list of Professor Thorn-dike's publications up to that date. They numbered 441, and a few omissions have since been discovered. This represents the publication of approximately one book, monograph, or article every month, twelve months a year, for the period between the time he took his first college position and his retirement. When one considers the amount of research which many of them, even short articles, represent, one marvels at the productivity of this man. The range of topics he covered is equally astonishing. While most psychologists have restricted their lifework to one or at most three or four major areas, Professor Thorndike has contributed repeatedly and richly to practically all the major fields of psychology and education and to many others as well. Among his achievements are the following: making the first scientific study of animal intelligence and learning (his doctoral dissertation, which marked the beginning of animal psychology); demolition of the faculty theory and the theory of formal discipline, an achievement which revolutionized education; development of his "laws of learning," which marked the beginning of the end of the mental process (memory, perception, reason, etc.) approach in psychology; formulation of the "laws of readiness and effect," which provided a basis for a progressive education movement and became the subject of the most vigorous and persistent controversy in modern psychology; development of his theory of "transfer of training," which formed the basis of personal and social utility approach to curriculum study; introduction of statistical methods to education and psychology; invention of the "scale" for measuring quality of performance, as in handwriting or composition; launching of the achievement test movement; introduction of methods of determining the frequency of business and social uses of activities and information in arithmetic, reading, speech, and other areas; development of detailed methods and materials for teaching arithmetic, algebra, spelling, reading, language, and other school subjects; formulation of a theory and detailed treatment of the "original nature of man," which gave new importance to the role of interest and "readiness" in education; development of a comprehensive concept of individual differences and innumerable studies of their character and educational significance; extensive explorations of the reciprocal roles of heredity and environment; scientific studies of the genius and the trained expert; development of group intelligence tests, especially for superior adults, and a theory of intelligence; discoveries concerning adult learning which form the foundation of adult education; studies of vocabularies; development of an improved pattern for the dictionary; preaching a doctrine concerning the essence of work and play (and practicing what he preached); development of theories of human nature in relation to society; study of many social institutions, such as the psychological structure of large and small cities, business and industry; and studies in many other areas, such as aesthetics, semantics, interests and attitudes, vocational guidance, bright children, minority groups, fatigue—a seemingly endless list of accomplishments.


Professor Thorndike's contributions to a few of these fields were discussed in the May 1940 issue of The Record, as follows: "The Nature and Measurement of the Intellect," by Godfrey H. Thomson, University of Edinburgh; "Thorndike's Contributions to the Psychology of Learning," by Robert T. Rock, Jr., Fordham University; "Psychology and the Social Order," by John W. Boldyreff, Institute of Educational Research, Teachers College, Columbia University; and "Thorndike's Contributions to the Psychology of Learning of Adults," by Irving Lorge, Teachers College, Columbia University. In many other areas his contributions are equally important and equally deserving of careful evaluation.


In this issue of The Record is an appraisal of Professor Thorndike's contributions to the field of lexicography, which he took up late in his career and in which he was very active after his "retirement" ten years ago. During this period his publications included the Thorndike-Century Senior Dictionary (1941), the Thorndike-Century Junior Dictionary (1942) the Thorndike-Century Beginning Dictionary (1945); E.U.P. English Dictionary, a volume of 1402 pages for the British Empire (1948), and the Teacher's Word Book of 30,000 Words (with Irving Lorge) in 1944. The appraisal (see pages 35 to 42) was written by Mr. Clarence Barnhart, former research associate of the Institute of Psychological Research, and editor of the American College Dictionary.


During the past ten years Professor Thorndike published approximately sixty reports, including nine books, a total of about 7500 pages of scholarly work—more than many college professors publish in a lifetime. The bibliography of the past ten years, prepared by Professor Irving Lorge (see pages 42 to 45), indicates that Professor Thorndike was unusually active in three fields—the psychology of the social order, the patterns of community action and organization, and business and vocational psychology. His Human Nature and the Social Order, a comprehensive survey of more than a thousand pages, has commanded the attention of scholars the world over. In Man and His Works, a volume consisting of his William James Lectures (1943), Thorndike also expounded his general philosophic and social theories.


In 144 Smaller Cities (1940), which followed Your City (1939), and in many articles he applied his ingenious scientific methods to the analysis of community life. Sociologists and other social scientists, at first puzzled by the Thorndikian approach, are now deeply interested in, although often critical of, his works in this field.


During the past ten years Professor Thorndike published much more than previously on topics pertaining to business and economics and vocational guidance. Many of the dozen or more publications in these fields represent views and procedures of such startling novelty that it will take more years of study before businessmen and economists can appraise them adequately.


Professor Thorndike's last book is of unusual significance. Entitled Selected Writings from a Connectionist’s Psychology, it represents his own selections from the writings of his lifetime. A copy of the book, bound in red morocco, a gift of the publisher, Apple-ton-Century-Crofts, Inc., which was to have been presented to Professor Thorndike on his birthday, was received the day after his death. This book appeared approximately a half century after his acceptance of an appointment to the staff of Teachers College offered to him by the late Dean Emeritus James E. Russell. It provides, in some 470 pages, a sampling of the works of the man whose influence on education and educational psychology was dominant during the first half of the twentieth century. The volume is reviewed below by Professor Mark A. May, Director of the Institute of Human Relations of Yale University, who was at one time affiliated with the Institute of Educational Research, Division of Psychology.


Professor Thorndike's major life-purpose was not merely to establish "laws of learning" or to initiate animal psychology, or even to found and father educational psychology. These and many similar achievements, any one of which would have given him lasting fame, were but means to a larger purpose, namely, to demonstrate the unrivaled fruitfulness of the scientific method in the solution of social problems and to introduce it in exacting, quantitative forms which had been so productive in the physical fields. Education, he judged, would be a highly suitable area in which to carry out this purpose. His colossal productivity enabled him to illustrate the values of scientific study in many other social studies as well. He was magnificently successful in his major purpose. Indeed, I am confident that the future will reveal the name of Edward L. Thorndike in the list of outstanding scientists of all time.




Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 51 Number 1, 1949, p. 28-31
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 5231, Date Accessed: 5/25/2022 9:14:05 PM

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