Benjamin, H. R. W. (1893–1969)

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BENJAMIN, H. R. W. (18931969)

Harold R. W. Benjamin was a professor of education and university administrator whose written work spoke to educational policy concerns. He was born in Gilmanton, Wisconsin and received degrees from Oregon Normal School, the University of Oregon, and Stanford University. Benjamin had a long and illustrious career in education as an elementary and secondary school teacher, a school administrator, a university professor (professor emeritus at Vanderbilt University), and dean of the College of Education at the universities of Colorado and Maryland. At the University of Maryland, where he was dean from 1947 until 1952, a campus building is dedicated to his name.

Benjamin is most well known for the 1939 publication of his satirical commentary on the nature of schooling and school reform, The Saber Tooth Curriculum. Written under the pseudonym J. Abner Peddiwell, The Saber Tooth Curriculum is considered a classic work that illustrates how unexamined traditions of schooling can result in resisting needed change. The book presents a series of lectures by Professor Peddiwell on the topic of stone-age education. Readers learn that in the Paleolithic curriculum, children were taught how to grab fish, club woolly horses, and scare saber tooth tigers. They needed these skills to sustain themselvesto get food and protect themselves from danger. In time, however, colder climatic conditions prevailed. The local waters grew muddier, making it impossible to see, let alone grab the fish, and the horses and tigers eventually died away. Yet the schools continued to teach fish grabbing, horse clubbing, and tiger scaring techniques, believing them to be fundamentals with inherent character-building and mind-training value. Progressive stone-age educators would argue that new skills needed to be taught, including fishnet making and ways to deal with a new menace, the glacier bear.

Through The Saber Tooth Curriculum Benjamin showed how schools often conduct themselves in ways that are unresponsive to the emerging needs of the life experience. The book was also a criticism of the mentalistic methods of teaching touted by traditional humanists in the liberal arts at the time. J. Abner Peddiwell periodically reappeared in Benjamin's speeches and in 1965, Benjamin wrote Peddiwell's autobiography, highlighting the story of his formal education, in a book titled The Sage of Petaluma.

Benjamin was also a noted authority in the field of comparative international education and was known for his facility with languages. He conducted studies and acted as a consultant in countries across Europe, Asia, Africa, and most extensively, Latin and South America. Benjamin's penultimate work in comparative education, Higher Education in the American Republics (1965), is a examination of the history, governance, financing, and curriculum programs of higher education in Central American, South American, and Caribbean nations (excluding Cuba), as well as in the United States. Benjamin catalogued important differences between the nations, focusing on boards of control, administrative offices, financial support, degree programs, selection and admissions processes, methods of instruction, and characteristics in the student and faculty populations.

As a writer with a clear progressive agenda, Benjamin authored several other books, including Under Their Own Command (1947), and the 1949 Inglis lecture, given at Harvard University and published as The Cultivation of Idiosyncrasy. Throughout his work, Benjamin highlighted his concerns for the preservation of democratic processes in American schooling and for an awakening of instructional consciousness toward individual differences.

See also: Educational Policy; Philosophy of Education.


Benjamin, Harold R. W. [J. Abner Peddiwell, pseud.] 1939. The Saber Tooth Curriculum. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Benjamin, Harold R. W. 1947. Under Their Own Command: Observations on the Nature of a People's Education for War and Peace. New York: Macmillan.

Benjamin, Harold R. W. 1949. The Cultivation of Idiosyncrasy. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Benjamin, Harold R. W. 1965. Higher Education in the American Republics. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Benjamin, Harold R. W. 1965. The Sage of Petaluma. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Peter Hlebowitsh

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Benjamin, H. R. W. (1893–1969)

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