University School's Worst Teacher Second of a series of articles By Robert W. Butche from University School Unforgettables Sereis Published in AAUS newsletters in 1999
For most all Americans, 1929 was a glorious year in what had been a golden age. The future looked bright for that year's bumper crop of college graduates. In June, the cream of the crop presented themselves to the world at Harvard - ebullient and energetic, their bright, shiny young faces reeked of expectation and energy in what was to be the final summer of America's innocence. As June approached, the Class of 1929 was looking past the warmth of summer toward what would surely be a stellar future - especially for Harvard men. One of those who would graduate that year was Paul Diederich, a very tall, very thin young fellow with flowing blonde hair and a razor sharp mind that put him near the top of his class. Diederich had just turned 21 and he was full of himself and bristling with the energy of life. A fellow classmate of Diederich's, Oliver Loud, was but a mere boy - having just turned 18, but every bit a young scholar. Although the two young men barely knew one another, the days ahead promised to inextricably intertwine their lives in the most unlikely of ways. It was a heady summer. Some danced it away to up-beat melodies and increasingly frenetic dances while others basked in the sun, discovered the wonders of roller-coasters, or enjoyed Americas growing affluence. Ollie Loud, possessed of both intellectual prowess and movie-star good looks, was determined to return to graduate school provided the girls would let go of him long enough. Diederich, being more mature, and clearer in his life's mission, planned to begin a career in teaching that fall. Unfortunately, for reasons few could ever understand, fall never came that year. On October 29th, when the Dow Jones average dropped like a rock, the shivers it sent through the American economy felt more like winter - and the great American Depression was only just beginning. In the next two years more than one third of all working Americans would become unemployed, hundreds of banks would be closed, or even worse, collapse under the burden of bad loans and the frantic withdrawals of terrified depositors. Everyone would have to scurry for work now - even Harvard men who graduated at the top of their class - so full of expectations of the good life and mounting fortunes. For the next two years neither Ollie nor Paul saw one another. The America they knew had collapsed and their own futures suddenly looked very bleak. In the summer of 1931, both men responded to invitations to be interviewed for teaching positions at a new school being built in the far away fields of Ohio. The man who conducted those interviews that autumn identified himself as Rudolph Lindquist - Director of the Ohio State University School. Having been recently hired away from the Oakland, California school system, Lindquist had both the budget and acumen to select from American's most brilliant teachers. Many were dismayed when Lindquist sought out not the most prestigious, most experienced or most famous teachers, but instead chose young malleable minds with great promise but very little experience. On his eastern trip that fall, Lindquist not only interviewed and hired Ollie Loud but Paul Diederich as well. In the late summer of 1932, Loud, Diederich and others arrived at the newly finished "Teachers Training Building" in Columbus where Ollie would teach science and Diederich Latin. Along with some twenty other young men and women, including Margaret Willis, Guy Cahoon, Marguerite Richebourg, Lou LaBrant and Cecile Swales, the new University School opened for business on September 25 There were, of course, some immediate problems at the outset of such a major new undertaking. For one thing, when the first group of parents visited the school they were aghast at the youthfulness of the school's fledgling faculty. One parent complained to Lindquist, after having met some of the new teachers, "They have children here to teach our children". Good thing the parents hadn't yet met Ollie Loud who was yet to turn 21 and who looked all of 16. Lindquist, in his usual inimitable way with words, made it all seem perfectly normal. But normal it was not - not even for a new progressive school somehow plopped into the midst of conservative, middle America. That first year
was not easy - not by a long shot - especially for Paul Diederich who struggled to impart Latin to what might have been described as an uneven assortment of students. As the months passed, Diederich became increasingly despondent of his teaching abilities. Something was wrong - for he just couldn't seem to break through the teacherstudent barrier to make contact with his young charges. Diederich not only read Latin to his students, he frequently played his violin for them as well - hoping, perhaps, that they would learn Latin somehow by osmosis.
At faculty meetings, Diederich heard about the many successes of his colleagues - especially Miss LaBrant who Diederich had decided had a magic touch with students. If only he could be more like LaBrant, he thought, he too could attend faculty meetings with confidence and regale others with glowing stories of his students successes at mastering Latin. That wasn't to be. Before classes were to begin the next year, Diederich inquired politely if he might be assigned elsewhere. No way, Lindquist admonished - "Just stick with it and all will be fine". Seeing no way out, Diederich reluctantly agreed to run the Latin program a second year. It was just before classes were to begin fall quarter, 1933 that LaBrant dropped her bombshell - a proposal to abandon teaching grammar at University school. When she wrote her memo to Lindquist, requesting permission to drop teaching English grammar, she argued that her students should be spending that time writing creatively - where English is really learned and mastered. Lindquist readily agreed. LaBrant dove into her new teaching methods the very day school began. It was the talk of the school and frequently the subject of discussion at faculty meetings. LaBrant's idea worked so well, the policy she initiated became a permanent fixture of the University School curriculum and has since become standard at countless forward looking schools around the world.
If University School was good for LaBrant it seemed disastrous for Diederich. If Lou LaBrant was the best teacher at University School, as she surely was, Diederich fashioned himself the worst. He may have been right. It wasn't that young Diederich lacked knowledge of his subject, or for that matter knowledge of how classical languages should be taught, but rather it was his embarrassing inability to motivate, perhaps even to interest his students. He decided, mid way through his second year, to quit teaching - although he had no other job prospects at all and the Great Depression showed no evidence of waning. As spring approached, and he became alarmed at the on rushing prospect of unemployment, Diederich inquired if Professor Harold Alberty might have a place for him in a statistical analysis group working on the study America's laboratory schools. Alberty's project - frequently referred to by educators as 'the 30 school study' needed people with educational backgrounds - so Diederich was hired that summer. If Paul Diederich thought teaching Latin was difficult, he was in for a big surprise when he tried to work for Professor Alberty - a brilliant, if sometimes self-centered and self-important person who some have described as a bit of a stuffed-shirt. If his two years at University School had been trying, one year at Arps Hall under Harold Alberty proved to be sheer Hell. Diederich put out feelers for opportunities elsewhere - away from what he believed to have been a disastrous beginning to his career in education. One of his friends, who had left Ohio State to take a position at the University of Chicago told Diederich of a need there for someone who could devise some simple, standardized tests which the university might use to evaluate its student population - to determine how and to what degree the university was imparting knowledge to its growing student body. Diederich took that job in the summer of 1935. He worked for months trying to figure out how to measure student knowledge, not just in a single course, but across a wide range of disciplines and course offerings. Soon he began writing sample tests and trying them out on students. The university liked what he did and expanded the program in the next few years. Then, satisfied they had the answer to their problem, they decided to cut back Diederich's work. Worried he might soon find himself unemployed, Paul Diederich again put out feelers for other jobs in education that might require his unique blend of skills and abilities. Another friend with whom he had worked, who was then toiling in similar work at Princeton, invited Diederich to come to New Jersey and try his hand at developing new ways of measuring the scholastic abilities of high schoolers. Diederich accepted and in doing so made history.
In the years that followed, Diederich, and his co-workers built a small company - one they called Educational Testing Service, to devise tests that could help America's colleges and universities evaluate the scholastic achievement and future academic prospects of millions of Americans who would seek college admission. Now, at age 92, Paul Diederich remembers his failure as a teacher at University School - and the wonderful success enjoyed by his friend and colleague, Lou LaBrant. To no one's surprise, LaBrant went on to a very distinguished career in education. And Diederich? What does he remember of 60 years of challenging America's college bound seniors with his SAT tests? Diederich remembers his days at University School as being among the most wonderful - and challenging of his life. "I loved that school more than any other I was to know", Diederich told me recently, "for it taught me how to handle defeat - and it thereby prepared me for achievement in my own field, on my own terms."