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Willard W. Waller (1899–1945)

Among education scholars the sociologist Willard W. Waller is known for writing the Sociology of Teaching (1932), an early classic in the sociology of education and the first extended treatment of schools as organizations in social contexts. He was born in Murphysboro, Illinois, and died in New York City, just days prior to his forty-sixth birthday. After attending public school in Illinois, Waller completed a B.A. at the University of Illinois in 1920 and then taught Latin and French for six years at the Morgan Park Military Academy. He completed an M.A. degree at the University of Chicago in 1925, followed by his Ph.D. at the University of Pennsylvania. His dissertation study of divorce, The Old Love and the New (1929), became his first book.

During his relatively short career, Waller explored a broad range of topics, but much of his written work reflected three major interests. He wrote on the family with special attention to courtship and divorce, on education, and on war and the veteran. Those who read Waller's works and accounts of his life often find the man as intriguing as the scholar. Waller's sociological interests reflected his experiences. His interest in the family stemmed from his own divorce and his awareness of the long and sometimes troubled relationship of his parents. His interests in education reflect his being the son of a school superintendent and his years as a high school teacher at Morgan Park Military Academy. His interest in war and the veteran seem connected to his brief service in the navy at the close of World War I and to his having taught at a military academy, where he was addressed as captain, a rank he had in the Illinois National Guard.

Waller pioneered in his ethnographic analysis of schools as miniature societies with problematic relationships to the larger community. Although Waller's work provided rich conceptual resources for scholars in the sociology of education and in educational administration, his influence on subsequent research on schools was limited. He died young, leaving few disciples; what he believed was a realistic portrayal of schools may well have been seen by others as too bleak and harsh; and social science and educational research moved away from the kind of methods Waller employed to more quantitative techniques.

Although Waller's work did not receive the critical attention it deserved at first, since the 1960s scholars have increasingly recognized the significance and staying power of his pioneering analysis of the sociological characteristics of schools. Waller's The Sociology of Teaching (1932) remains a key book in the field. Further indicative of his high standing, the award for the outstanding publication in the sociology of education, presented annually by the American Sociological Association's section on that topic, is named after Waller.

Readers of The Sociology of Teaching are often troubled by Waller's account of how teaching affects teachers, and by what David Tyack called Waller's "bleak vision" of schools. David Cohen provided an eloquent discussion of these issues and what he viewed as Waller's ambivalence in "hating school but loving education." As it turns out, Waller's bleak vision of schools and his pessimism about the difficulty of changing schools and teachers were prophetic. The sustained school reform movement that began with the 1983 report by the National Commission on Excellence in Education, Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform, failed to appreciate until the late 1990s one of Waller's key insights: "The reformation of the schools must begin with the teachers, and no program that does not include the personal rehabilitation of teachers can ever overcome the passive resistance of the old order" (1932, p. 458).

In one way or another, in The Sociology of Teaching Waller touched on most of the issues that continue to perplex school reformers. For example, how best to reform schools, from within or without, top-down or bottom-up? How can teaching and the teaching profession be improved? What impedes the quality of teaching and learning? What accounts for goal displacement in schools? What balance should be struck in teaching and learning between control and authority, on the one hand, and freedom and spontaneity on the other hand? Likewise, in managing and governing schools, what balance should be made among the competing interests of students, teachers, administrators, parents, and taxpayers? Waller dealt with all of these and more.

Willard Waller understood acutely what few policymakers have grasped about the fundamental nature of schools: They are highly institutionalized "small societies," run by employees with a strong feeling of vulnerability to pressures, both from within and without. Facing restive students and critical parents and taxpayers, teachers and administrators must strive continuously for control over their enterprise. Consequently, Waller believed that schools are typically run on autocratic principles and often develop a garrison mentality. The result, he argued, is that the school is "a despotism in a state of perilous equilibrium" (1932, p. 10). "The school is continually threatened," he said, "because it is autocratic, and it has to be autocratic because it is threatened" (1932, p. 11). These conditions, dividing teachers from both students and the community, have profound consequences for the attitudes and behavior of teachers. Those who fail to reckon with these consequences, he suggested, will fail in efforts to reform schools. Waller's message of the 1930s is relevant even for the more democratically run schools of the twenty-first century.


BOYD, WILLIAM L. 1989. "School Reform Policy and Politics: Insights from Willard Waller." In Willard Waller on Education and Schools: A Critical Appraisal, ed. Donald J. Willower and William L. Boyd. Berkeley, CA: McCutchan.

COHEN, DAVID. 1989. "Willard Waller, on Hating School and Loving Education." In Willard Waller on Education and Schools: A Critical Appraisal, ed. Donald J. Willower and William L. Boyd. Berkeley, CA: McCutchan.

GOODE, WILLIAM J.; FURSTENBERG, FRANK F., JR.; and MITCHELL, LARRY R. 1970. Willard W. Waller on the Family, Education, and War: Selected Writings. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

TESTA, RANDY. 1998. "Willard Waller's 'Sociology of Common Sense': A Tribute at Sixty-Six." Teachers College Record 99 (4):758–778.

TYACK, DAVID. 1989. "Life in the 'Museum of Virtue': The Bleak Vision of Willard Waller." In Willard Waller on Education and Schools: A Critical Appraisal, ed. Donald J. Willower and William L. Boyd. Berkeley, CA: McCutchan.

WALLER, WILLARD W. 1932. The Sociology of Teaching. New York: Wiley.

WILLOWER, DONALD J., and BOYD, WILLIAM L., eds. 1989. Willard Waller on Education and Schools: A Critical Appraisal. Berkeley, CA: McCutchan.


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