In Honor of E. L. Thorndike: An Appreciation of E. L. Thorndike
by James E. Russell - 1940
In developing the subject of educational psychology and in making it a fit study for students in all departments, Professor Thorndike has shaped the character of the College in its youth as no one else has done and as no one will ever again have the opportunity of doing. It may be too early to weigh properly the results of his work, but it is not too soon to give his friends and students this opportunity to pay their tributes to a man whose teachings already have a sure place in the history of education.
THE Teachers College Record, as its name indicates, is intended to carry to our alumni a record of what the College is doing. For twenty-five years it has been more or less successful in portraying the material accomplishments of the institution, but no mere printed statement can adequately reflect the spirit of the place. The spirit of the College, that something which gives it personality and marks it for our own, is embodied in the lives of the members of our staff. There is a reason, therefore, why this number of THE RECORD should be devoted to the life and works of one manone whose term of service is contemporaneous with the life of this journal and whose personality has pervaded the institution from the day he entered it to the present moment. In developing the subject of educational psychology and in making it a fit study for students in all departments, Professor Thorndike has shaped the character of the College in its youth as no one else has done and as no one will ever again have the opportunity of doing. It may be too early to weigh properly the results of his work, but it is not too soon to give his friends and students this opportunity to pay their tributes to a man whose teachings already have a sure place in the history of education.
My acquaintance with Dr. Thorndike began with a visit which I made to his classroom in Cleveland where he taught the year following the taking of his Doctors degree in Columbia University. I knew of him as a student who had made a study of the behavior of monkeysa pretty good stepping-stone, it seemed to me, to a study of the nature and behavior of children. At that time neither the term nor the subject of educational psychology had been created; but I had a notion that a field of study so obviously fundamental to educational theory and practice should have both a name and a sponsor in the kind of teachers college which I was planning. After listening to one class exercise, I was satisfied that I had found the right man for the job. I promptly offered him an instructorship and he as characteristically accepted it at once. Whether he has ever regretted such unseemly academic haste I do not know, but I do know that no hour of my life has been more profitably spent. Quick to size up a problem, however novel and strange it might appear, clear and direct in his thinking about it, almost uncanny in his methods of approach to a solution of it, prompt and positive in giving his conclusions once he had worked his way through itthese traits were as characteristic of him at the beginning of his career as they have come to be peculiarly his own in later years. These traits would have made him a leader in finance, in industry, or in trade, had he chosen to give himself to business instead of to science and education. His mental equipment and his methods of work would have made for success in almost any field of human endeavor.
To me, however, it is Professor Thorndikes personality that makes the greatest appeal, a personality that most markedly differentiates him from men of small caliber and really constitutes his true greatness. Were he to lack this something which is so hard to define, he might have been both a clever and an efficient leader but lacking, nevertheless, in those qualities which endear him to his colleagues and make him a great teacher. It is his open-mindedness, his native honesty, his sympathetic understanding, his good judgment, his readiness to spend himself for others, his abounding good will and genial cooperation in every undertaking that have given him the place he holds in the affections of all who have had the good fortune to come under his influence. Teachers College has had and still has a goodly number of great teachers, men and women of intellectual power and professional strength, all of whom will gladly join with me in this tribute to one whom we delight to honor and for whom we wish another quarter of a century as full of the riches as the past twenty-five years have been.
No one needs a second introduction to Professor Thorndike because when one has once met him, or come under his influence, a bond has been established that brings a response in lasting friendship and increasing appreciation of his genius. He belies the adage that rating a mans career is never safe until he is under ground. But with him life grows more serene, judgment more tolerant, and insight more acute as the years advance. Now that retirement from active service approaches, it will bring not surcease from labor but freedom to work without constraint.
I am not competent to appraise his specific contributions to the science of human behavior, but I do know that his service to pedagogical procedure has revolutionized educational administration. At a time when teaching had no basis in assured fact, when the training of teachers was a matter of personal opinion, when the doctrine of formal discipline held both master and learner in slavish subjection, he led us into a new world where intellectual freedom and personal initiative paved the way to professional advancement. He made scientific method the hallmark of educational research and demonstrated its applications in pedagogical practice. Every member of the Old Guard, that small group which laid the foundations of Teachers College, recognized his leadership and the few of us left take particular pleasure in joining with his former students in this present tribute to our dear colleague and their beloved master.