Since Daniel Friedrich took over as the chair of the Curriculum and Teaching department at Teachers College in 2017, he has had a number of people visiting Teachers College from outside the U.S. During their time at Teachers College, these scholars would often ask about alumni from the program who returned to their home countries after graduation. As they returned to their home countries, many of these scholars became foundational figures in their own settings. For instance, the person who developed and implemented early childhood education in Chile completed their doctorate at Teachers College in 1931. Professor Friedrich had already begun developing questions about the role of Teachers College in the world when, while presenting at Nanjing Normal School, Professor Friedrich noticed a bust of the school’s founder. Studying the plaque, he noticed that this person had studied with John Dewey at Teachers College. These observations and inquiries led Friedrich to begin thinking about the role of Teachers College across the world. He teamed up with doctoral students Nancy Bradt and Kara Gavin, and visiting doctoral student Ana Paula Marques de Carvalho. Together, they have recently embarked on a project that asks “what is the role of Teachers College in knowledge production and education at a global level?”
The project begins with 111 dissertations written between 1900 and 1940. The researchers follow a simple search criteria, including dissertations from these years that focus on international education systems. Considering that World War II would set up a different set of dynamics, the researchers stop at 1940. Of these 111 studies, 25 come from China. There are also multiple dissertations focused on Canada, South Africa, and Palestine. Among other aspects, the early stages of the project consist of the team reading through the dissertations, searching for themes, and analyzing them together.
The team offers initial findings from the dissertations that fall into three categories. First, they suggest that these dissertations serve to build and measure alleged truths. Many people came to Teachers College to take tools from Edward Thorndike and psychometricians. Second, comparisons serve to perpetuate hierarchies of knowledge production. For example, one dissertation from a South African researcher focuses on how the U.S. education system approached the education of African American students. The dissertation uses this line of study to propose a new system of “native education” in South Africa. In other words, the dissertation uses how the “U.S. educates the inferior race” to inform how South Africa could do the same. Friedrich points out that John Dewey, paragon of progressive and democratic education, was on this committee and signed off on the dissertation. Third, they find dissertations that offer descriptions of systems. This category of dissertation aims to understand and describe something like “rural schools in China.” In creating that description, these dissertations often serve to shape and define what counts as part of the system and what doesn’t count.
Overall, the project takes up questions about fields of education writ large. It explores how knowledge is generated in the field of education and how it moves across different places. In doing so, the project asks how a field of study is constituted.
Teachers College Is Not the Hero Here
Professor Friedrich and his team plan to continue exploring these themes and taking up new directions in the research. They have toyed with ideas of taking several countries as case studies or possibly tracing ideas traveling. They may even look at the posts scholars take up as they return to their home countries. Bradt points out that in pursuing these lines of inquiry knowledge would have to change, or translate, across borders. Knowledge allegedly produced within Teachers College must still change as it moves across contexts. In a similar vein, a question could be asked of how ideas from other geographies impact Teachers College’s shape. Yet, all of these ideas remain as future possibilities.
One strong perspective that has already emerged is that of a post-colonial lens. Rather than sharing Teachers College as a beacon of knowledge spread across the world throughout the 20th century, they aim to examine a dark history of the field. This research builds on work such as that of Takayama, who examines Teachers College’s role in a colonial vision of the field. Even still, the project aims to do more than simply critique Teacher College or these dissertations. Instead, the project seeks to reveal a complex history in which the researchers themselves are entangled.
Talking to the Field
As the project continues, the researchers hope that it speaks to historians and those in curriculum studies. Bradt suggests that this line of work could also be helpful in thinking about the kinds of curriculum used in places and question the typical “importing of western programs.” For policymakers, Friedrich says “it is important to complicate the fields of histories we work in. Adding layers of power dynamics and knowledge production as a complicated site can provide insights into understanding the present.”