The many-sided interests of Ruth May Strang (1895-1971) over her 40 years at Columbia University and the University of Arizona earned international respect for her achievements in the fields of student guidance, reading and communication, child study, mental health, and development and adjustment.
Ruth May Strang was born on April 3, 1895, in Chatham, New Jersey. She grew up in the greater New York City area, spending the first ten years of her life on the family farm in South Jamaica, New York. Her father, Charles Garret Strang, gave up his interest in becoming a lawyer to provide much needed help on the family farm. His career disappointment appeared to leave a strong impression on young Ruth. Her father was the disciplinarian in the family, while her mother, Anna Bergen Strang, a "gentle woman," "always a lady," would be "likely to cry" when the children were bad.
Strang was the youngest of three children. Her two older brothers (one 15 years older) were concerned about her choice of a career over attention to family. This was to create a lasting tension in her relations with them. She attended Adelphi Academy in Brooklyn, was active on the school's basketball team, and participated as a member of the German and Walking Clubs. After graduation she studied household science at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn (1914-1916) and for a while was employed as an assistant to an interior decorator.
Strang's memory of her childhood was one of tension and conflict. As the only girl, her role, as viewed by her parents, was a domestic one. "I was not expected to go to college and my school marks were accepted without special comment." She remembers having no "clearly defined self-image during childhood or adolescence. I did what my hands found to do but always wanted to do something new and different." Ruth's strong sense of individuality made it difficult to find a role model. She wanted to be original— different. Even the characters she read about in fiction were not complete models, "although they had certain qualities" she wanted to appropriate. This memory of her early years at home and in school was to leave a lasting influence on her approach to career choice and opportunity throughout her life. She recalled later in life that the "atmosphere of anxiety" in which she was reared "may have reinforced a strong persistent tendency to worry and to anticipate the worst, to see a calamity in every opportunity."
Strang's career was one of success over "calamity." Unplanned, it developed as opportunities appeared. "I developed my interests and abilities and doors seemed to open." She launched her career in education by teaching home economics in New York City public schools from 1917 to 1920. Recognizing that as a teacher she needed to broaden her education, Strang enrolled at Columbia University's Teachers College and earned her B.S. degree in home economics in 1922. While working on the M.A. degree (1923-1924) she worked as a research assistant in nutrition. As a Ph.D. student Strang worked as an instructor in health education and supervised health education at Teachers College's Horace Mann School. During her last year of doctoral study Strang worked as a research assistant in psychology.
Upon completion of the doctorate in 1926, opportunity opened its door and Strang accepted a year-long research fellowship at Teachers College in student personnel work, a field in its infancy. At the time only one book and a few scattered articles represented the total field. Dean James Russell had handed her the challenge to build a body of subject matter in the field. Student personnel work and its related fields were to dominate Strang's professional interests for the remainder of her career. A close associate, Amelia Melnik, said that "it became evident to Dr. Strang that the field was as many sided as the human personality with which it is connected."
Strang spent the summers of 1926, 1927, and 1928 at North Carolina College for Women in Greensboro as head resident and instructor in psychology. In 1929 Strang was appointed assistant professor of education at Teachers College. She was promoted to associate professor in 1936 and to full professor in 1940. This relatively rapid rise in rank was quite significant for a woman in higher education in the 1920s and 1930s.
Charles Burgess has noted that Ruth Strang played a part in forming a "new minority of American Women—the female professor." It was "one thing to get through the door of academe," said Burgess, "and quite another thing for a woman to pass beyond the level of instructor or assistant professor." Strang was one of the few who succeeded. She did so in a male world by building a "usefully protective reputation as a 'loner' as one who did her work with quiet dispatch … and left departmental affairs to men—and to more socially aggressive women—on the faculty.
Strang remained at Teachers College until she reached the mandatory retirement age of 65. She continued her work at the University of California at Berkeley during the summer session of 1960. In the fall of that year she accepted a position as professor of education at the University of Arizona at Tucson. In 1968 she went to the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at Toronto as Peter Sandiford Visiting Professor. In 1955 Strang became president of the National Association of Remedial Teachers, and from 1935 to 1960 she edited the journal of the National Association of Women Deans and Counselors. In 1960 Strang was chairman of the National Society for the Study of Education. She was a director of the American Association for Gifted Children and a fellow of the American Public Health Association, the American Association of Applied Psychology, and the Royal Society of Health in Great Britain.
According to one biographer, Strang's ideals rested on some of the most familiar values of the American experience: the Protestant ethic and those values associated with small-town rural America. It was especially the Protestant ethic that was central to her philosophy of life. Hard Work, duty, and stewardship were guideposts. Strang believed that humans were duty bound to give returns for their gifts "in the forms of self-development and social usefulness." Burgess noted that "the former had the latter as its crowning achievement."
Strang's educational philosophy was represented in her own version of the child-centered approach enhanced by child study. To Strang, "learning children as well as teaching them" was essential. Although her professional attention through the years was given to a wide range of educational matters from nutrition, child study, and mental health to reading improvement, Strang's abiding commitment was to student guidance in all of its dimensions. A former student remembered a comment Strang made toward the end of a course. "If you remember nothing else from our work together, remember that it is the guidance point of view that must permeate your entire school and build its esprit." Strang found her "greatest classroom interests" in her course on the role of the teacher in personnel work.
Strang's devotion to her work completely ruled out marriage. Not too long before her death she wrote: "My work has always been so exacting and demanding that social activities other than those directly related to my work have been crowded out. My chief satisfactions have been the responsiveness of classes and other audiences, the success and friendship of my students, the excitement of new ideas, and the 'things of beauty' that John Keats describes."
Death came in January 1971 after a long illness. Strang was 75 years old. She left no immediate survivors.
Ruth May Strang is listed in Biographical Dictionary of American Educators, Who's Who in America (1960-1961), and Who's Who of American Women (1961). There is no major biographical treatment of her life available. Two works, however, are important: Ruth M. Strang, "An Autobiographical Sketch," and Charles Burgess, "Ruth Strang: A Biographical Sketch." Each appeared in Leaders in American Education, The Seventieth Yearbook of the National Society of Education, Part II (1971). Appearing in that same edition is a selected bibliography of Strang's massive publications. Helpful concerning the last years of Strang's life are the obituaries appearing in the New York Times (January 5, 1971); Journal of Reading (April 1971), National Association of Women Deans and Counselors Journal (Spring 1971), and the Reading Teacher (April 1971). Essential in appreciating Strang's massive research and writing contributions is Amelia Melnik, "The Writings of Ruth Strang," Teachers College Record. The bibliography was grouped under eight areas in education: guidance and student personnel, reading and communication, health education, psychology and mental health, general education, gifted children, and groups work. Three types of contributions were given: research studies, summaries of research for professional workers, and practical books and articles and books for administrators, teachers, parents, children, and young people.