The history of higher ed is littered with big ideas that never quite took off.
Little Red Schoolhouse. Conservatives have long derided academia as a bastion of the peace-loving, free-market-hating, gender-neutral radical left. Ronald Reagan scored his first major political victory by vowing to “clean up the mess” at Berkeley during his first gubernatorial campaign, later delivering on the promise by dispatching the National Guard to Telegraph Avenue. Former North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms once dismissed his state’s flagship University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill campus as “the University of Negroes and Communists.” But in the early twentieth century, a number of colleges did spring up with the express purpose of promoting a far-left agenda. Some schools, like the Work People’s College in Minnesota and Brookwood Labor College in New York, simply ran their course. But none fell apart in quite as catastrophic a fashion as Arkansas’s Commonwealth College.
The idea, at least in the beginning, was that the school would value hard work, in and out of the classroom (students grew their own food), and develop the next generation of labor leaders. As founder and antiwar activist Kate Richards O’Hare announced when the school opened for business, “Commonwealth comes into being to build a culture in overalls and workmarked hands.” Instead, the school was effectively taken over by the Communist leadership of the Southern Tenant Farmers’ Union (STFU, as it was affectionately known). Rural Arkansans, it turned out, were reluctant converts to the cause; the school was accused of being funded by Soviet “red gold” and later blacklisted by the American Legion for a number of reasons, including failure to fly the Stars and Stripes. Under political pressure, the state rescinded the school’s accreditation in 1940. Commonwealth did produce one notable politician, however: Arkansas’s militantly segregationist governor Orval Faubus briefly attended the school, a historical curiosity that, when revealed to the public, nearly derailed his first gubernatorial campaign.
Sensitivity training. Think the Real World meets Dead Poets Society. Enacted in—when else?—1969 at Johnston College, a cluster experiment of California’s University of the Redlands, the idea was to use a heightened sensitivity to one’s own feelings to create a more advanced learning environment. If students and faculty could more fully understand the emotions of their peers, learning would become a more collaborative and efficient process. It worked well enough for NASA, from whom the idea was loosely borrowed—but then, so did freeze-dried ice cream.
With a staff of psychologists on hand, students and faculty prepared for the first day of classes by playing volleyball and participating in thrice-daily encounter sessions during their summer retreat in the San Bernardino Mountains. Splitting into groups, students called each other names, hugged, cried, and then wrote about how it made them feel. At the time of the school’s founding, Time declared Johnston “The New Eden,” suggesting that the plan “could be a wavelet of the future.”
So how could a system built on something as sturdy as the psyches of eighteen-year-olds fall apart? Quite quickly, it turned out. The idea failed to win over students—enrollment dropped by nearly 70 percent within a decade—and not everyone’s feelings turned out to be so constructive: Redlands alumni wrote angry letters to administrators asking what had happened to their school. The free-for-all ended in 1979, when Redlands administrators folded Johnston, which had previously enjoyed semi-autonomy, into the university and toned down its curriculum.
The national university. Were it not for his ambiguous last wishes, James Smithson might best be remembered as the author of the scholarly paper “An Improved Method of Making Coffee” and for his analysis of the chemical properties of women’s teardrops. But upon his death, the wealthy British scientist willed his fortune to the United States—which he had never actually visited—to promote the “diffusion of knowledge among men” through an eponymous institution. The behest triggered a showdown over the first failed big idea to grip American higher education: the national university.
In a collegiate climate long dominated by pseudo-seminaries, a federally funded, secular research university that would serve as a magnet for the country’s best and brightest seemed like a natural fit. After independence, the Philadelphia physician and Founding Father Benjamin Rush proposed a national university focused on training Americans for the skills they’d need to build a competitive new nation. George Washington and each of the next four presidents agreed. But Congress, wary of expanding federal power, repeatedly said thanks, but no thanks, finally dealing the movement a fatal blow with the decision to appropriate Smithson’s funds toward a museum, not a school (or, as John Quincy Adams hoped, an observatory).
Perhaps it was for the better: while the federal government would eventually revolutionize higher learning with the Morrill Land Grant Act, the American model took a far more competitive tone than its founders first surmised. The first science departments popped up at top schools at roughly the same time the Smithsonian opened for business on the Mall, and demand for a national university disappeared.
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