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Harold R. W. Benjamin (27 March 1893–12 January 1969) was born in Gilmanton, Wisconsin to Harriet Louise (Locke) and Herbert Samuel Benjamin. He spent his early years farming and ranching. In 1904, Benjamin moved to Salem, Oregon, where he grew up on the open range of the northwestern frontier.

Benjamin attended preparatory school at Tualatin Academy (now Pacific University) under the tutelage of a Sioux Indian chief he fondly referred to as “Medicine Horse.” Benjamin left Oregon to homestead in Alberta, Canada. He returned to attend Oregon Normal School in Monmouth from which he graduated in 1915. Benjamin then taught for one year in a rural one-room school, named Salem Heights Elementary, serving as both teacher and principal.

He left teaching and enlisted in the army. Benjamin served as a private under General John “Blackjack” Pershing in the Mexican Border War. Dissatisfied with his duties of patrolling the Mexican-U.S. border while other U.S. troops were deployed to Europe, Benjamin left his unit and rode from Mexico to Oregon on horseback to reenlist in a unit headed for France. He fought as a member of the horse artillery in both Bellau Wood and the Black Forest, and received a battlefield promotion to lieutenant.

Benjamin’s early career days were busy. From 1920-1922, he served as a teacher, principal, and superintendent in Umatilla, Oregon, a small Columbia River town. He moonlighted on weekends, trapping and taming wild mustangs in the nearby hills. He also edited the weekly Umatilla Spokesman and took graduate courses at the University of Oregon. While working in Umatilla, Benjamin battled the Ku Klux Klan, which politically dominated Oregon in the 1920s and had taken over the local school board. In addition to threatening the Ku Klux Klan with “horsewhipping” (Kabat 1970, 507), Benjamin lessened their influence over a series of elections.

He received a bachelor’s degree in 1921 and a master’s degree in 1924 from the University of Oregon and was an Assistant Professor of Education from 1922-25. Benjamin entered Stanford University in 1925, where he was a teaching fellow, director of Stanford’s student teaching program, and an Associate Professor of Education and Psychology. The young Benjamin was a popular lecturer, and his classes were packed with students eager to hear his outlandishly amusing tales of a professor named “J. Abner Peddiwell, Ph.D.” Benjamin created Peddiwell as a fictional alter ego and used Peddiwell’s academic exploits to lampoon and satirize the field of education. Those who heard Benjamin’s engaging lectures often commented that Benjamin “was as far removed from pedantry in mode and mind as any college professor [I have] ever met” (Benjamin 1972, 174).

While at Stanford, Benjamin wrote An Introduction to Human Problems (1930), an interdisciplinary textbook intended for a freshman orientation course. The book garnered high critical acclaim and was heavily promoted through advertisements in academic periodicals.

In 1931, Benjamin went to the University of Minnesota where he became Assistant Dean, College of Education. While there, Benjamin agreed to edit The McGraw-Hill Series in Education. Over the next 20 years, Benjamin reviewed, edited, and wrote introductions for nearly 100 academic titles published in the series.

Benjamin left Minnesota in 1937 for the University of Colorado to serve as Director of the College of Education. In the summer of 1938, Benjamin wrote what is perhaps his most famous work, The Saber-Tooth Curriculum. The satirical book blasted the contemporary system of education in America with tongue-in-cheek humor and caustic wit. It encouraged the redesign of curriculum and revitalization of any subject matter deemed obsolete with time and change. The Saber-Tooth Curriculum was published partially as a publicity stunt by McGraw-Hill under the pseudonym J. Abner Peddiwell. The first small printing was given away as gifts to superintendents and education professors (Bruker 1968). Soon after the initial distribution, McGraw-Hill received an unprecedented demand for reprints. The book was reprinted 11 times during the next 20 years.

Benjamin became Dean, College of Education, at the University of Maryland in 1939. His deanship was interrupted in 1942 to serve in WWII. After his return, Benjamin did not speak often of his personal war experiences, although his 1947 Kappa Delta Pi lecture Under Their Own Command: Observations on the Nature of a People’s Education for War and Peace, carried an anti-war sentiment. Much of his post-war work focused on International Education. Benjamin served UNESCO, and was a member of U.S. missions to Japan, Afghanistan, and South Korea. He is credited with improving public schools and higher education in North Africa, Japan, Korea, Afghanistan, and Denmark.

In 1951, Benjamin went to the George Peabody College for Teachers, where his talent for teaching shone. He sprinkled lectures with folk tales and colorful Peddiwell vignettes. Students told of Benjamin spinning around on his long leg (one of his legs was shorter than the other due to an accident during his patrols on the U.S.-Mexican border) while talking about carbines in Afghanistan and hay gathering in Oregon (Oral History Program, University of Southern Mississippi 1999). Students and colleagues frequented his home for warm dinner parties at which Benjamin served tequila daisies (his favorite drink) and amazed guests by rolling Bull Durham cigarettes one-handed.

During his Peabody tenure, Benjamin participated in a debate with Robert M. Hutchins, President of the University of Chicago and a controversial figure in higher education. In the debate, he discussed the nature of education, schooling, and curriculum and defended classical languages. Benjamin argued, “If we are going to train boys and girls who are interested in linguistics to be language experts, we must see to it that they study Latin and Greek” (Benjamin and Hutchins 1952, 29). Benjamin retired from Peabody in 1958, but continued to participate in many professional associations, and gave guest lectures around the world. He received honorary degrees from Drake University, Pacific University, Rhode Island University, Glassboro State College, and the University of Maryland. In 1965, McGraw-Hill published The Sage of Petaluma, an autobiography of J. Abner Peddiwell. Part truth and part fiction, the book tells the life story of Benjamin’s infamous nom de plume. When asked why he wrote the story of Peddiwell rather than himself, Benjamin answered, “Because it allowed me to lie a little!” (Til 1969, 370).

The official collection of Harold R. W. Benjamin papers are housed in the Library of Congress, Washington D.C. However, the collection is far from complete. Benjamin eschewed record keeping, seldom updated his curriculum vitae, and rarely kept copies of his speeches and articles. In fact, when Benjamin heard of plans to compile a collection of his lectures, he “threw up his hands and exclaimed, ‘That’s a horrible idea! And a great waste of your time!’” (Bruker 1968, iii).

Contributed by: Mindy J. Spearman, The University of Texas at Austin

Benjamin, C. G. 1972. A historical note on this book and its author. In The saber-tooth curriculum memorial edition, 174. New York: McGraw-Hill. Benjamin, H. and R. M. Hutchins. 1952. A debate sponsored by the Roosevelt College Alumni Association. Journal of Higher Education 23(1): 29 Bruker, R. M., ed. 1968. Wakan: The spirit of Harold Benjamin. A collection of the writings of Harold R. W. Benjamin. Minneapolis, Minn.: Burgess Publishing Company. Kabat, G. 1970. In memoriam: Harold R. W. Benjamin 1898–1969. Educational Forum 34(3): 505–11. Oral history program, University of Southern Mississippi. 1999. Interview with Mr. John Sherman Crubaugh. 746(10): 1. Van Til, W. 1969. One way of looking at it. Contemporary Education 40(6): 369–70.

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