Stanford University

Nathaniel Gage, 'giant among educational researchers,' dead at 91



Nathaniel Lees Gage

Nathaniel "Nate" Lees Gage, a Stanford professor emeritus of education who has been called the "father of modern research on teaching," died Aug. 17 at Stanford Hospital. He was 91.

Gage injured his head in a fall and died following surgery to remove a blood clot, family members said.

Deborah Stipek, dean of the School of Education, described Gage, who retired from Stanford 20 years ago but still lived on campus, as a "giant among educational researchers."

Even in retirement, Gage, the Margaret Jacks Professor of Education, Emeritus, devoted attention to his life's work. He recently finished writing a book, A Conception of Education, that is slated for publication this year.

"Nate came into the office every day right up to his final days," Stipek said. "I kidded him about being my most conscientious faculty member. He kidded me about being the prettiest dean he'd ever had and the only one he'd ever kissed—on the cheek, of course. He was devoted to his work and to Stanford. It is hard to imagine the school without him."

Colleagues said Gage was motivated by the belief that teachers should be respected and should be effective, and that science could help them achieve both objectives.

He outlined his view in two books, The Scientific Basis of the Art of Teaching (1978) and Hard Gains in the Soft Sciences (1985). He was also the founding editor of Teaching and Teacher Education: An International Journal of Research and Studies.

"Teaching is properly done by hunch, by intuition, by experience, by ideology; what it also needs is a basis in scientific research," he explained in an 1987 interview with the Stanford News Service.

Gage is one of the modern-era scholars—1960 to the present—profiled in Educational Psychology: A Century of Contributions in an essay written by David Berliner, an education professor at Arizona State University and a longtime friend and colleague. Berliner wrote:

"Gage's empirical work and his theoretical defense of scientific research on teaching have been tenacious and are, in no small part, the basis of our contemporary faith that there is a role for traditional science in educational research, in particular, and the social sciences, in general.

"It is Professor Gage's achievements as an empirical scientist and as a defender of the role of science in education that brings him the respect of the community of educational psychologists. But I think that he is honored in our field as well for his decency, humor, affection, unfailing optimism, and for his mentoring of, and friendship with, many other scholars in the field."

Son of immigrants

Gage was born in Union City, N.J., in 1917, the second child of Polish immigrants who met and married in the United States. He graduated from high school in 1934 in the midst of the Great Depression. Since family funds were short, Gage worked for a time with his father, a paperhanger. Later, using an aunt's New York address, he enrolled in a free program at the City College of New York.

He transferred to the University of Minnesota as a junior. A work-study student, he landed a job with psychologist B.F. Skinner, who was studying the connection between stimuli and observable behavior in rats. Gage's chores included making food pellets for the rodents. He graduated magna cum laude in 1938 with a bachelor's degree in psychology.

Despite his stellar record, Gage, whose original surname was Gewirtz, was rejected by every one of the 10 graduate schools to which he applied.

"At that time, people weren't accepting Jews into graduate schools," Berliner said, adding that they did not want to "waste resources" on someone who, even with a PhD, would have trouble finding a job, given the depths of the depression and the prevalence of anti-Semitism.

A socially liberal professor at Purdue University—H.H. Remmers, who became one of the nation's pre-eminent industrial psychologists—came to Gage's rescue, inviting him to join its educational psychology doctoral program in 1938. After he was admitted, he changed his name.

During World War II, Gage spent two years in the Army, joining its aviation psychology program, where he developed and refined tests for choosing and training navigators and radar observers. He returned to Purdue in 1945 and earned a PhD in psychology in 1947.

Three decades later, Gage returned to Purdue to accept an honorary doctorate and a citation saying his greatest strength was his "ability to bridge the gap between the complex theory of educational psychology and the insistent practical demands of the classroom."

Academic career

Gage began his academic career at Purdue, where he taught for a year as an assistant professor. In 1948, he accepted a job at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where he became a professor of education and of psychology. He taught there for 14 years.

In 1962, Gage joined the faculty of the Stanford School of Education, with a courtesy appointment in the university's Psychology Department. By then, he was close to completing a book project he had begun several years earlier, the Handbook of Research on Teaching, a 1,200-page tome he edited and that Berliner described as an "intellectual milestone" in the field of educational research.

"It structured the field of research on teaching, directed attention to important topics, influenced the research agenda for a decade and affected government funding for the next 20 years," Berliner said of the book, which was published in 1963 and is now in its fourth edition.

In 1965, Gage co-founded the Stanford Center for the Research and Development in Teaching with $4 million in funding from the federal government. He held various posts at the center, which was later renamed the Center for Educational Research at Stanford, including co-director, chair of the executive board, and program director of the Program on Teaching Effectiveness.

"Its substantive contributions to research on teaching were many, but in some way its major products were well-trained, psychologically oriented personnel," Berliner said.

In the mid-1970s, Gage received a Guggenheim Fellowship and served as a visiting scholar at the National Institute of Education.

Barak Rosenshine, PhD '68, a professor emeritus of educational psychology at the University of Illinois, said Gage—his dissertation adviser—was held in high regard by thousands of students and colleagues. In 1994, Gage was addressing a group of classroom-instruction researchers before an annual meeting of the American Education Research Association.

"In his hesitant voice, Nate said, 'I'd like to comment on something I heard last year, I think it was by one of my students,'" Rosenshine recalled. "And Ron Marx [PhD '78, a professor at the University of Arizona], interjected, 'We're all your students, Nate.'"

Gage was elected to the National Academy of Education in 1979. He received the prestigious E. L. Thorndike Award for Career Achievement in Educational Psychology from the American Psychological Association in 1986. When Gage was in his early 80s, he flew to Europe to accept an honorary doctorate from the Université de Liège in Belgium.


Gage met his future wife, Margaret Burrows, when she came to West Lafayette, Indiana, while he was studying at Purdue, to visit a friend. They married in 1942 and had four children—three daughters and a son.

Daughter Sarah Gage, who lives in Seattle, said every Sunday was "family day," a day to go to the zoo, to the beach, to the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk.

"My dad loved to have fun and he loved to laugh," she said, adding that he had several stock sayings he was fond of repeating, including "Alright men, we're going through"; and "Well, I've never been permanently lost"; and "Food sure tastes good when you're hungry."

"He had a certain number of things he repeated again and again, so much so that we started repeating them, and one of his greatest joys was that his children were following his example," she recalled.

She said her father loved living in the Bay Area.

"He would always say that in Illinois, where he had come from, you could drive 30 minutes and be in Danville, but here, you could drive 30 miles and be in San Francisco," she said.

Gage's wife died in 2006. His brother, Alan Gewirth (who also changed his last name from Gewirtz), a philosophy professor at the University of Chicago, died in 2004. In addition to his daughter Sarah, he is survived by Annie Gage of Seattle; Elizabeth Gage of Hollister, Calif.; son Tom Gage of Sunnyvale; and three grandchildren.

A memorial service for family, friends and colleagues is expected to be held at Stanford in early November.