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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

The no-fun campus. Few people tinkered quite as much with a major university’s DNA as University of Chicago President Robert Maynard Hutchins. Hutchins believed that colleges had lost their focus; what was needed was a more efficient, concentrated approach that would school students in a core set of ideas with as few distractions as possible. Following his “New Plan” for Chicago, Hutchins scrapped the football program at the school that won the first Heisman Trophy, and fought to keep fraternities and sororities off campus. He also instituted a rigorous Great Books–driven curriculum for all undergraduates, opened up admission to sixteen-year-olds, and awarded bachelor’s degrees after just two years for students who passed a comprehensive competency exam. Students weren’t at college to have a good time, he thought, and they shouldn’t stick around longer than was needed.

Hutchins was at first greeted as a liberator, at least off campus: Time plastered him on its cover in 1935, dubbed him “the golden boy,” and predicted that his “New Plan” for Chicago “should eventually transform U.S. education.” But his ideas, inevitably, proved toxic when it came to attracting students to Hyde Park, since young people tend to like distractions. Despite Time’s glowing reviews, undergraduate enrollment declined, and even many of the school’s faculty considered the scheme harebrained.

The results were mixed: Chicago churned out its share of top scholars, and the old football stadium was put to productive use as a testing ground for the Manhattan Project. On the other hand, as the New Yorker put it in 1952, the undergraduate college was “the greatest magnet for neurotic juveniles since the Children’s Crusade.” When Hutchins left in 1951, so too did most of his big ideas: fraternities returned three years later; football made a comeback in 1969. More broadly, his Great Books dogmatism helped fuel a countermovement to expand general education syllabi beyond the Western canon.

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

Comments

  • 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.

    or

    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 http://library.ucsc.edu/library/reg-hist/smith.pdf

    ---
    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 http://www.johnstoncenter.org/

    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.

  • inkedpolyglot@gmail.com 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.