A major figure in the field of history and philosophy of education in the 20th century, John Seiler Brubacher (1898-1988) helped shaped the direction of the field through his teaching and writing. His books were used to prepare many teachers, school administrators, and professors across the United States.
John Seiler Brubacher was born on October 18, 1898, in Easthampton, Massachusetts, the only child of Abram Royer and Rosa (Haas) Brubacher. A descendant of Pennsylvania Mennonites, Brubacher grew up in New York where his father served as a public school administrator and as president of New York State Teachers College at Albany. His mother was a former music teacher. Thus, Brubacher was reared by parents who strongly supported his academic endeavors.
Brubacher went to the public schools of New York in the various places of his father's work. He attended public high school in Schenectady, but when the family moved to Albany, he completed his secondary education at the private Albany Boys Academy. From there he entered Yale, where he received the B.A. degree with Phi Beta Kappa rank in 1920. After completing the J.D. degree at Harvard Law School in 1923, he served a brief stint with a law firm, but after deciding that education was his true interest, he entered Teachers College, Columbia University, completing the M.A. degree in 1924. In August he married Winifred Wemple, a Schenectady classmate, and began his teaching career at Dartmouth College. In 1925 he returned to Teachers College for the Ph.D., and after studying under such leading figures as John Dewey and I. L. Kandel he completed his studies in 1927. In 1928 he joined the faculty at Yale and over the ensuing years became a nationally prominent professor and author in the field of history and philosophy of education.
Of all his publications, perhaps the two most important were Modern Philosophies of Education (1939, 1950, 1962, 1969) and A History of the Problems of Education (1947, 1966). In each he took a rather novel approach. For example, the standard approach to writing philosophy of education textbooks was to organize them by a school of thought such as idealism, realism, or pragmatism according to its implications for education. The result, Brubacher argued, was that students learned more about academic philosophy than the philosophical problems of education; instead, education should be the primary focus, and philosophy— studied with scholarly rigor—should be used to shed light on the problems of education. He never completely abandoned reference to schools of thought, however, for he felt that those traditions reflected educational ideologies that were woven into the culture.
Brubacher's influence became such that he was elected president of the Philosophy of Education Society from 1942 to 1946, and he was selected to chair the committees for two important yearbooks of the National Society for the Study of Education: Philosophies of Education (1942) and Modern Philosophies and Education (1955). In addition to these works, he also edited Eclectic Philosophy of Education (1951, 1962) and produced numerous articles and scholarly papers. Brubacher's popular textbook, Modern Philosophies of Education, went through four editions, but by the time of the fourth edition in 1969 views such as his were receiving mounting criticism, primarily from Anglo-American analytic philosophers. They agreed that the old "schools" approach was inadequate; however, they argued that analytic philosophy had so revolutionized the field that the major task now was to clarify educational terms and statements through language analysis. Brubacher recognized that clarification was a very important function of philosophy of education, but he would not concede that analytic philosophy was truly revolutionary or that the need to examine ideological considerations had lost its usefulness.
In teaching the history of education, Brubacher found the traditional chronological approach too restrictive. Educators needed chronology, but they also needed to know the history of specific topics, such as the historical development of curriculum or the evolution of an institutional form. To meet this need, he wrote A History of the Problems of Education, which has been called one of the few genuinely novel approaches because it breaks that history into some 19 topical areas, including educational aims, the politics of education, elementary and secondary education, and public and private education, to name a few.
After Yale president A. Whitney Griswold dismantled the education department in a preemptory fashion, Brubacher resigned in 1958 and took a position at the University of Michigan's Center for the Study of Higher Education. Even before leaving Yale, he and Willis Rudy had completed Higher Education in Transition: An American History, 1636-1956 (1958). Now, addressing the lack of an adequate contemporary philosophy of higher education, Brubacher wrote Bases for Policy in Higher Education in 1965 and On the Philosophy of Higher Education in 1977 (revised 1982). This new interest connected with his legal background and led to The Courts and Higher Education (1971) and the two-volume The Law and Higher Education: A Casebook (1971).
Brubacher retired from the University of Michigan in 1969, and subsequently moved to Bridgeport, Connecticut. Some time after the death of his first wife, Winifred, he married Dorothy Kohler in 1972. He died on March 8, 1988. His many honors included the Reuben Post Halleck professorship at Yale in 1947; two terms as visiting professor at the American University in Beirut, Lebanon, in 1951-1952 and 1956-1957; a Fulbright fellowship at the University of Kyushu, Japan, in 1957; a series of lectures at the invitation of Brazil's National Research Institute in both Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro in 1959; and the distinguished service award from the John Dewey Society in 1973. During his years as a professor at Yale and at Michigan he taught hundreds of students, many of whom became important leaders in education, and his many books and articles influenced countless others.
John Seiler Brubacher is listed in Leaders in Education, 5th edition (1974) and in the Biographical Dictionary of American Educators (1978). The best and most extensive treatments, however, may be found in Brubacher's autobiographical statement, "John S. Brubacher: An Autobiography," and Maxine Greene's "John S. Brubacher: A Biographical Essay," both found in Leaders in Education, Seventieth Yearbook of the Society for the Study of Education, Part II (1971).