Binswanger's long, strange trip from JFK to Japan

by Valerie Silverman | 5/14/02 5:00am

He is a person of idiosyncrasies. So much so that he types them up and distributes them to his students.

But if inner city teacher turned Washington policy wonk turned Dartmouth education professor Robert Binswanger '52 is distinctive for his teaching methods, he is also unusual in the varied career he has had leading up to his current position at the College.

"I've never really decided to do anything. I've always been asked, and I've always said yes," said Binswanger, who is currently teaching public policy courses.

Indeed, this take-life-as-it-comes attitude has led to jobs around the country and the world. He describes himself as uninterested in settling in one job or in one place.

But for now at least, this Philadelphia native spends his time in the classrooms and administrative offices at the College.

Almost any student who has taken a course with Binswanger agrees that he is one of a kind. In addition to sharing his idiosyncrasies with his students (he advises them not to show up late or sip coffee or water during course meetings), Binswanger conducts his seminars without sitting down, instead pacing around the circular table the entire time.

Binswanger once requested that a student meet with him at 7:00 a.m. on a Saturday, which that student did. He can also be recognized for his distinct way of speaking during classes that is neither talking nor yelling, but something in between.

His position here at Dartmouth is the most recent stop in his wide-ranging path of experiences, occupations and accomplishments. Since he graduated from Dartmouth in 1952, Binswanger has committed himself to education reform around the world. His return to Dartmouth to join the faculty from 1991 until 1996, then again in 1998, represent a lull in comparison to the many other roles he has served.

Binswanger, vibrant and cunning with a wry sense of humor, believes, "There is nothing more important in American society then education." His dedication to this conviction is evident in the various assignments he has been asked to undertake. Highly desired in the field of education, he is often called on from around the world to take on challenging projects. And he always says yes.

After graduating from Dartmouth, Binswanger immediately began his work in education, teaching English and history at a high school in Massachusetts. Over those summers he took classes at Harvard for his masters' degree, returning full-time in 1959 to earn his doctorate.

Binswanger was working under a teaching fellowship at Harvard in 1960, the same year that John F. Kennedy was elected president. One of Kennedy's biggest campaign issues was introducing the Peace Corps, and Binswanger became integral to the program's implementation.

Kennedy put his cousin, Sargent Schriver, in charge of testing the potential of the Peace Corps. Schriver turned to academic centers like Harvard, to try out the new program. Working with a dean who was studying higher education in Nigeria, Binswanger found himself in charge of training volunteers for the Africa-bound Peace Corps.

"Most Americans in the summer of '61 couldn't distinguish between Nigeria, Liberia and Algeria," he remarked. According to Binswanger, even with air travel, it took two days to get to Africa, very few Americans had ever been there and there were few experts on the different countries the Peace Corps was working with -- Senegal, Ghana, Nigeria, Liberia and the Ivory Coast.

Binswanger worked feverishly to develop productive training programs for the volunteers, struggling to meet the programs' deadlines. He remembers his experience as challenging and exciting, a common theme in his outlook on his professions and undertakings to come.

"The Peace Corps doubled the number of high school students in these countries," in the two years he was involved, he said.

Binswanger left the Peace Corps in 1963 to work on urban education problems in Cleveland, Ohio. Following that experience, he proceeded to Harvard in 1966 where he taught urban education courses until 1970.

Binswanger forged on, returning to the more political aspects of education and worked under the Nixon administration's "Experimental Schools" education initiative. He worked with small, rural towns in Oregon, New Hampshire and Mississippi, setting up programs for schools with minimal funds. Binswanger then assumed the job as special assistant to the federal commissioner of education.

In 1976, Binswanger was asked to assume the position of vice chancellor for academic affairs at the University of Maine.

"I thought that was interesting," he said, and thus decided to move with his family, a wife and three sons, to Bangor, Maine. A significant change from his previous position, Binswanger plunged into this new job, working to close the communication barrier that existed between the seven campuses that are a part of the University.

"When we moved from McLean, Virginia to Bangor, Maine overnight, we thought, 'Wow. This will be a disaster,'" he recalled, referring to the drastic change in weather that his family encountered. Such change, as Binswanger was accustomed to and still embraces, did not deter him.

Once again satisfied with the work he had done, Binswanger moved on to the Department of Education on an exchange program with an experimental university in Japan. With only one test determining Japanese high school seniors' future education, the suicide rate at that age is extremely high, Binswanger noted. Binswanger, in the one year he was living in Yashiro, held conferences and met many new and interesting people.

"I was sort of the token outsider there," he said, "and that means way out." However, from his position of the extreme outsider in Japan, Binswanger acknowledges the productivity and benefits of his situation there.

Another fruitful experience under his belt, Binswanger returned to the United States to take on a new exploit as the principle of an inner-city high school in Boston.

"A former student of mine called me in Japan and said, 'Why don't you get a real job?'" he recounted. "I said yes."

Thus he began what was to be his toughest job yet.

The high school, Boston-Latin Academy, was a "total dump. The building was a total embarrassment for a high school," he commented. With no gym or auditorium, 10 interior classrooms with no windows, a sewage pipe running through the middle of the cafeteria from the garage next door and students bringing guns to school, Binswanger faced uncertainty and disorder daily.

"There was no way to plan the day," he said, yet he maintained his passion for the work throughout. He sought to mend the school that was in shambles, getting into the politics necessary to achieve any change. His persistence paid off, as usual. By the time he was done with his work there, he managed to move the entire high school to a "real" building.

In 1991, College President James Wright, then the dean of faculty, called Binswanger and asked him to return to Dartmouth to teach a history of education course.

"I said, 'You've called at a good time,'" Binswanger remarked, for he was ready to reposition himself from Boston.

Binswanger served as chair of Dartmouth's education department for three years and worked as a visiting professor until 1997, when he once again received another offer -- this time a teaching position at Hampton University in Virginia. Binswanger returned to Dartmouth in 1998, this time as interim dean of the Tucker Foundation, a position he held for two years.

Does he see another potential move, a new project in the future? Of course.

"I just haven't considered what it will be yet," he chuckled. "My father's conclusion was that I haven't been able to hold a job my whole life!"

But as of now, Binswanger said he is more than content with his current occupation: teaching public policy courses and is serving on the College Committee on Alcohol and Other Drugs.

"As a Dartmouth graduate and student, if you had said to me and my roommates, 'You're going to end up in education,' they would've laughed, but I would've laughed louder," he said.

Now, though, he knows that "It's just the right fit."