College Guide


August 20, 2009 12:54 PM Failure to Launch

The history of higher ed is littered with big ideas that never quite took off.

By Tim Murphy

People who pay attention to the field of higher education like to joke that it took decades for the overhead projector to make its way from the bowling alley to the classroom. Of course, this being academia, no one can quite agree on just how much time passed—some say thirty years, some say ten, some say forty—but the point generally goes unchallenged: colleges are conservative to a fault when it comes to incorporating new ideas. Up until the late nineteenth century, most American colleges were still feeding their students a curriculum developed in medieval Europe; faculty are still employed on a tenure system whose sole purpose seems to be to reward good work by taking away any incentive to ever do it again.

Nevertheless, ever since the first professor fell asleep during his own lecture, educators have been trying, and failing, to overhaul the system. The history of American higher education, for all the system’s enduring institutions, is littered with next big things, those game-changing innovations that were almost certainly going to add a new dimension to the Quadrangles—until they didn’t. Think of them as the Segway motorized scooters and Dippin’ Dots ice cream of higher education. So as we wait for the Internet to wash away the Ivory Tower, here’s a quick look at some of the paths not taken.

Let the people rule. Few big ideas have failed as fantastically as the one that turned administrative affairs into a Hobbesian state of nature. At the University of Wisconsin’s Experimental College (“Ex-College”), founded in 1927, students lived with their professors (known as “advisers”) and were encouraged to create their own democratic system to govern the two-year school. Alexander Meiklejohn, the program’s founder, believed that a liberal arts education would strengthen his students’ democratic ideals. Instead, his students rejected the idea of government entirely (although Meiklejohn could take small consolation in the fact that they at least reached their decision by democratic means). The move was indicative of a student body that, at least in the public eye, seemed so firmly resistant to convention that allegations of radicalism ran rampant. Wisconsonites took notice when an Ex-College alum, serving a one-year sentence at the Milwaukee House of Correction for fighting a police officer at a labor demonstration, announced a run for governor on the Communist Party ticket from his cell. An all-male student production of the sexually explicit comedy Lysistrata only compounded conservative Midwesterners’ suspicions.

Students weren’t likely to get much more structure from their academic pursuits, either: classes were informal, often conducted one-on-one, and a premium was placed on individual initiative. One group of students left campus for three weeks to ride the rails across the Depression-era Midwest, having decided on a whim to conduct independent-study projects on what it was like to live in a boxcar. There were no courses, only general topics: the first year was devoted almost entirely to learning about Periclean Athens, followed by a summer’s worth of reading on the growth of Muncie, Indiana. Tragically, the Experimental College closed in 1932, when support for the school evaporated among the general public and Meiklejohn had no choice but to pull the plug.

Physical education. Fueled by a combination of Protestant zeal and misplaced priorities, college educators in the late nineteenth century came to view physical education as every bit as critical to a balanced education as knowing one’s Virgil and Aeschylus. In an 1895 publication, the University of California, Berkeley, proudly compared the “physical culture” of its male students to those at Yale, Amherst, and Cornell, charting the increase in lung capacity, strength, and girth over two years as an alternative measurement of the school’s many virtues. Pioneers like the University of Kansas’s James Naismith (the inventor of basketball) and the University of Chicago’s Amos Alonzo Stagg (the inventor of the tackling dummy) were staunch proponents of Muscular Christianity, the idea that manliness and good health were essential components of a good Christian character. Even Theodore Roosevelt hopped on the bandwagon, arguing in The Strenuous Life that the American male had become soft in the belly and effeminate in nature; sports would instill the strength and discipline that was missing.

The growth of the athletic ideal, however, outpaced the safety precautions—the new contributions to student life often came at the expense of actual student lives. During the 1905 college football season, there were three fatalities and numerous injuries. (Putting his father’s ideas into practice, Ted Roosevelt Jr. broke his collarbone playing for Harvard.) A Cincinnati Commercial Tribune illustration that winter depicted a smiling Grim Reaper perched atop a goalpost, sickle in hand, peering down at a pile of bodies; as John Madden would say, “Boom!”

Universities instituted a spate of reforms, but even so, ten more football players died in action four years later. College faculty and administrators moved to ban the sport unless serious changes were made, helping to pave the way for, among other things, the forward pass. The idea that education was a physical process as well as a mental one has since lost much of its initial forward motion, but has left a legacy far more enduring: a model of intercollegiate sports as a high-stakes business in which universities seek revenue and exposure by running semiprofessional sports franchises.

Tim Murphy is a reporter in the Washington, D.C., bureau of Mother Jones.


  • John Knox on September 14, 2009 9:18 AM:

    Tim Murphy may be just a little too young to understand that most experiments in higher education, and other parts of society, fail in the short term--but inspire in the long term.

    How often does one read a biography of a famous person and find that he or she was involved in some kind of impressive, novel experimental effort that was crucial to his/her later success, but which died an early and much-lamented institutional death?

    Or, to put a sharper point on it, let me add a couple of examples to Murphy's "Failure to Launch":

    WaMo's Bitter Blues: In 1969, Charlie Peters founded the Washington Monthly. It never made much money, it never won a Pulitzer, and Peters stepped down as editor-in-chief in 2001. FAIL.


    King of the Whose? In Roman-occupied Israel, a prophet named Jesus recruited a few followers, ran afoul of the authorities, and was executed. His advertising campaign, "The King of the Jews," was mocked by not only the authorities but also by the masses. His few followers dispersed at the time of the execution, some denying any knowledge of the doomed prophet. FAIL.

    A couple of abject failures, right? By some measures, and particularly in the short-term, perhaps so.

    But you can't hang a price tag on inspiration, especially in fields such as journalism, education, and religion that have a strong idealistic, even utopian aspirations.

    The most insightful words I've ever read on this subject come from Page Smith, founding provost of UC-Santa Cruz, in a lengthy interview following his resignation over the denial of tenure to one of UCSC's outstanding teachers. Here's what Smith said about his views at the very beginning of the founding of UCSC, a time when most people and provosts would have been exploding with enthusiasm and high hopes and over-the-top rhetoric. Not Smith. This is from pp. 85-86 of

    Smith: ...I was quoted as saying before the college started, the University started, that I thought it would fail. Well, what I said . . .

    [Interviewer]: You were quoted by whom?

    Smith: By Bill Twombley in the Los Angeles Times.

    [Interviewer]: You were quoted as saying that UCSC was going to fail even before it started?

    Smith: Yes. Even before it started. In the news story he had asked, "What do you think the long-run prospects are?" And I said, "Well, I suppose, in a certain sense it will fail as every enterprise with high goals and ideals fails to fully achieve them. But," I said, "I think it will be, can be, an important and interesting experiment that may have a salutary influence on higher education generally."

    Smith had it exactly right. ALL such experiments "fail." And yet, they have salutary effects that ripple out--and over time, the ripple effects call into question the initial judgment of failure. As Peters and members of his era will remember:

    "Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance."

    Thanks for listening.

  • Anonymous on September 18, 2009 1:01 PM:

    "Failure to Launch"? Huh, more like "Failure to Research." Though the author is correct that Johnston College was incorporated into the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Redlands (it is now the Johnston Center for Integrative Studies), the grand experiment continues. In fact, Johnston is one of the oldest and longest-running experimental learning programs in the country, is one of the University's largest academic programs, and is still semi-autonomous in its governance. Today, some 200 talented and passionate Redlands students live and learn together in the Johnston complex. In consultation with faculty, students design their own academic concentrations, or �emphases," write contracts for their courses, and receive narrative evaluations in lieu of traditional grades. Johnston also continues to honor experiential learning and recognize its validity as a method of learning integration. And, guess what? We also still head up to the San Bernardino mountains every year and talk about our feelings! Interested in the facts? Check out

    Kelly Hankin
    Associate Professor of Film Studies
    Johnston Center for Integrative Studies
    University of Redlands

  • Amy Bowinski on May 03, 2010 9:07 PM:

    I have to agree with Kelly Hankin.

    As a graduating senior from the University of Redlands Johnston Program, I found what the author wrote about the start of Johnston accurate (as far as I know from talking to professors and alumni) but the ending lack-luster and leaving an incorrect impression. The Johnston Center is a thriving and vibrant community in which students follow their passions and while we do have structured classes, many of of those, if not most of them, are designed in part by students at Curriculum building events through which faculty and Johnston students work together to design and create classes for the coming years.

  • on June 04, 2011 10:01 PM:

    I am also a graduate of the Johnston Center for Integrated Studies (1998) and am frankly appalled that your editor(s) allowed such baseless and vinegary bunkum to make it passed the cutting board process. In addition to repairing sentence and spelling mechanics, are editors not also responsible for fact-checking?

  • Craig Cheatham on August 21, 2012 9:41 PM:

    Kelly Hankin, Failure to research is right!

    I'm a graduate of Johnston College at the University of Redlands, 1978. Tim Murphy's comments are snarky and ignorant of the facts. The UofR did not shut down the program because of a lack of student's interest in the program. The UR Treasurer at the time is quoted as having said the the university was "legally bankrupt" and the University had to reorganize to survive. JC had contributed to the overall budget, and yet the founding endowment had never been fully transferred to the college. The university expected the college to be a cash cow, not allowing for lean years. It was a convenient way to get a bee out of their bonnet.

    The erasure of Johnston College in the reorganization of the UR is much more about a clash of cultures. The flagrant liberalism of Johnston offended both town and gown. When I started at Johnston, the conservative Baptist university still required Chapel attendance on Sundays for regular UR students. The cultural divisions were deep and there was mistrust on both sides.

    However, the educational living/learning rubric of Johnston was extremely successful. The principles of self-directed learning and academic evaluation have infiltrated the general University, and the re-born Johnston Center for Integrated Studies is a jewel in the crown of UR, touted by administrators and faculty, and heralded in media reviews.

    So, Tim Murphy, you can get by with this kind of crap as an intern, but if you are going pro, dig deeper and get your facts strait. You can't cherry pic info to support your bias. That's not journalism.