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.