Edward L. Thorndike, 1874-1949
by William F. Russell - 1949
A tribute to Edward L. Thorndike, 1874-1949
The first time the name of Edward L. Thorndike came to my attention was when I heard my father say one night at the supper table that the appointment of Thorndike as a member of Teachers College faculty was a "ten-strike." As a boy of ten, I did not know what psychology was, but rumor had it that Thorndike kept monkeys in a cage. So it was with great interest that I first saw, a half century ago, the tall young man with thin face and prominent upper lip who was destined to give mankind new knowledge of the workings of the human mind, change the course of education, and bring great distinction to the institution which he was to grace for so many years.
The pupils in the Horace Mann School met him when, every now and then, he came into our classes to give us written tests with curious little questions that appeared to have little to do with our work. At the age of twenty-five Professor Thorndike had already taken his full place in that galaxy of stars that constituted the original Teachers College faculty. Before he was thirty-five he had assumed a place of leadership among psychologists all over the world. I noted, when I was in Cornell in 1908, that his textbooks led all the rest in the Department of Education. So brilliant were his researches, so well-trained were his advanced students, so prolific was his pen, so ingenious were his ideas, that students flocked from all over the world to listen and learn.
It was a thrill to take his basic course. In the academic year of 1912-13 he gave the first semester and Miss Norsworthy the second; each would be in and out and sometimes they would share a session. To one who had worked under Titchener and had seen emphasis placed on color pyramids, semicircular canals and taste buds, Thorndike's conception of the human mind was a revelation. Fie insisted on the importance of a knowledge of the original nature of man ("one-tenth is due to heredity") and the need for organizing educational methods and materials so as to adjust to, not interfere with, and make maximum use of man's inheritance. At that time it was popular to believe in the theory of recapitulation, that there are stages in the development of the child that correspond to stages in the evolution of the race. So little children would study the American Indian, and bigger children Knights and Chivalry—all of which Thorndike demolished for us along with other ideas of G. Stanley Hall.
Furthermore, at that time, much of education was based upon faculty psychology and the theory of formal discipline. Teachers would look at children and say to themselves that in those heads there are certain faculties which it is our duty to improve. Form their character, exercise their imagination, strengthen their will, develop their memory, sharpen their judgment. In particular, with regard to reason and judgment—the ability to think— the great goal of education is to discipline the mind. Mathematics, ancient languages, formal grammar, logic— these are the subjects that are particularly valuable for disciplinary purposes, provided they are thoroughly and vigorously taught. At that time teachers believed in faculties to be developed and disciplined minds to be achieved. And Thorndike knocked these theories into a cocked hat.
Thorndike was a scientist. He held no preconceived opinions. He did not believe that one could learn the truth by idle speculation or random observation. He believed that the human mind could be studied and, given adequate experimentation and precise enough measuring instruments, there need be nothing secret. To him, qualitative difference was merely a quantitative difference that man had not yet learned to measure. What psychology needs is less speculation and more experimentation. Examine, test, measure; introduce one variable under controlled conditions, examine, test, measure again. Thence came his analysis of man's hereditary endowment, and his laws of learnincr. To this end he developed his statistical studies and the long series of standardized tests and special curricular materials that were given to the world by him and his many students.
As a scientist he found no evidence to confirm the theory that the mind was composed of a number of faculties. Instead he found a myriad of responses associated with certain stimuli. Nor did he find much evidence of transfer of training from one activity to another; and what evidence he did find, did not appear to be associated with any particular subjects of study. What a Pandora's box was opened up by the demolition of the theory of formal discipline and faculty psychology! No longer could the teacher feel successful if only he taught in a hard and disagreeable manner. No longer would a course of study be composed of a few subjects, the same for all pupils. Into prominence came adjustment to individual differences, study of the curriculum, and development of scientific methods of teaching.
Thorndike did not confine his scientific insight and activity to a study of only the child. He made substantial contributions to adult education and the psychological aspects of sociology. To him the human mind was of a piece; the adult was only a big child; and the principles he deduced and the laws he discovered applied to all mental activities of men.
Mort has shown, in his researches, that there is a long delay between the discovery of an educational innovation and its application generally in schools. Unhappily there has been the same lag in the general application of Thorndike's discoveries. Educators who have especial appeal to the press receive popular acclaim for their advocacy of educational practices based on faculty psychology, and some highly publicized programs are based on the theory of formal discipline. Now is the time for the educational scientists—followers of Thorndike—to reveal these soothsayers in their true light and renew the campaign, that the work of this great master be not allowed to languish through disuse.
It was my privilege to know Professor Thorndike when I was a boy and a young graduate student. It was also my privilege to work with him later as a colleague and for many years as the individual in over-all administrative charge of his department and his organized research activities. Professor Thorndike was a wonderful man to work with. He was a good member of a team. He was an excellent administrator himself, careful with finances, considerate of subordinates, and ready for any emergency. But he was also considerate of the administrator with whom he worked. He looked upon the administration of an institution as an agency to relieve him of a certain load, enabling him to get on with his own work. He was impatient of committees, over-consultation with regard to decisions, and so-called "democratic" administration in general.
My father admired Professor Thorndike and looked upon him as a young man whom he had helped to bring along. I loved Professor Thorndike, held him in highest respect, and thank him for what he did to help bring me along. His passing, after long years of brilliant service, marks the end of yet another epoch for Teachers College, and it is our prayer that we may be given the genius, the insight, and the zeal to carry on into the future the lesson that he taught so well.