In 1965 Tussman launched an experimental program on the UC Berkeley campus modeled after Meiklejohn’s Experimental College at Wisconsin in the 1930′s. It was a two year program offered to a group of 150 entering freshmen meant to replace the normal curriculum for the first two undergraduate years. The experiment lasted for four years. This is a restrospective account of that endeavor written in 1988.
Home of the Experimental Collegiate Program, 40 years later (2008)
I pass the house every day. It stands at the edge of the campus, looking very much as it looked a quarter of a century ago. It had once been a fraternity house, but when I first got involved with it, in the early sixties, it had been standing vacant, almost derelict, not yet assigned to its university use. It became the home of the Experimental Program and the center of my life for four years—a slowly fading scar for a lot longer. It now, more sedately, houses a graduate program. The last time I stepped inside, almost a decade ago, I noted the familiar mellow wooden panels in the great hall, now without a defacing collection of student poems protesting my behavior, and I saw, still in use, the enormous round wooden table that had taken up most of the room in my office—the table I had found in the university warehouse, around which the fabled Teggart had once conducted his seminar.
There was a time when the sight of the house in the early morning produced a surge of anxiety, a deep reluctance to approach the door, to open it and step into whatever it held for the day. And for some years after I had ceased to enter, the mere sight of the building as I drove past evoked a vague sense of apprehension that dissipated slowly as I moved through the paces of a normal academic day—as a disturbing dream lingers and fades through an uneventful morning. But now when I pass the house nothing happens. It may be possible at last, “all passion spent,” to recollect in tranquility.
The question most difficult for me to deal with is “why did the Program fail?” I usually rush to explain that as an educational venture it did not fail; that it “failed” only in not establishing itself as a permanent part of the university. But there is something unsatisfactory about that answer. Why, if it was educationally valid or even significant, did it disappear without a trace?
I have never really told the story of the Program. In the middle of its third year I wrote Experiment at Berkeley, giving an account of the rationale and of some of the problems we were facing. It was essentially a progress report. I have never completed the report nor written anything about the problems of “educational reform” or about the state of college education generally, or joined very seriously in our local educational controversies. When the Experimental Program had run its trial four-year life I returned to writing and to departmental teaching for the dozen years until retirement. I did not turn away from the Program as a sad experience best buried in oblivion, but, obviously , I put off writing about it. Experiment at Berkeley does give a good idea of what it was all about, so some of the things I would want to say have already been said—although without the benefit or disadvantage of several decades of reflection. There are things to add and things that deserve emphasis and amplification, but apparently not urgently enough to have overcome my reluctance to plunge back into the depressing world of educational controversy to reargue tattered issues.
Since this is reflection on educational reform let me say that I am not concerned with “normal” educational improvement. Reasonably good teachers improve with experience, although they may grow out of the stage of energetic novice enthusiasm whose glow may be mistaken for the aura of Socratic genius. The teaching of good teachers tends to grow better; the teaching of poor teachers tends not to improve, or not to improve enough to make up for the belatedly discovered mistake in hiring. Improving the educational system by improving teaching is obviously a good thing. But American higher education is not in danger of being destroyed by bad teaching, nor, if it needs salvation, is it going to be saved by an outburst of great teaching or by the improvement of its normal teaching. The state of the art of teaching is not , for the college or university, a life-threatening problem.
And, of course, in a good or, as we are in the habit of saying at Berkeley, a “great” university, the level of conventional teaching is bound to be rather high. There are always complaints, some even legitimate. Classes too large or too hard to get into, confusing advice, preoccupied or unsympathetic faculty. But the place is undeniably full of vigorous minds engaged in research and in teaching, full of bright students doing what bright students are supposed to do. Most consider themselves lucky to be where they are, not awaiting reform.
Why then, at such a place, in the early sixties, did I think that a drastically different educational model should be tried? And not tried merely as one does an experiment to prove a point or a theory, but as an effort to bring about a significant change in our educational way of life—to work out a conception of an alternative pattern; to show that it worked, in practice, much better than the conventional pattern—much better, since if it was only as good as or a slight improvement over what we had, it would not be worth the trouble—and then to keep it alive as a regular and even growing part of the university and a model for adoption by colleges and universities everywhere. That was the idea, the dream, the project.
The Program was not a response to particular events or pressures. Students had not yet discovered the delights of hurling themselves upon the cushioned cogs of the machine demanding institutional change, and, in any case, student educational demands, as they came to be made, were utterly at odds with the spirit of the Program. There was deep irony in the fact that the student movement on the educational front fought under the banners of the system it thought it hated. That is, it demanded “decontrol,” the abolition of “requirements,” consumer sovereignty, an elective system ad absurdum—the marketplace, in short. Whereas, alas, I considered the model of “the marketplace” applied to education or to the mind as bizarrely oxymoronic. But I am getting ahead of myself…
The Program, I repeat, was not a response to pressure. No one was demanding it or anything like it. So far as I am aware, I did not need it. I had recently returned to Berkeley after a half dozen or so years in the East. I was delighted to be back. I was a professor in the philosophy department. I had tenure. I had written a book. My classes were going well. I had a backlog of writing projects. I was not even on a committee to foster educational innovation. Why, then, an unsolicited venture in educational reform?
I suppose that a purely analytic treatment of the educational issues posed and faced by the Experimental Program could avoid that question. The account of genesis is more historical and biographical than analytical; the order of creation and development is not the same as the order of justification. But this is a sort of Apologia and an Apologia, if we can judge by its great models, is a complex mixture of the two orders. At any rate, I will say something about the genesis of the Program, not so much out of autobiographical concerns as for its relevance to the problem of introducing significant change into the educational system. Significant or at least drastic change—if that is, in the end, what one wants.
There is a kind of ameliorative change that is rather easy to achieve. A professor can usually fiddle with his course as he pleases. He can change its substance and its methods as he thinks best without anyone’s permission. With little trouble he can substitute new courses for old ones and keep his teaching in line with his interests and educational convictions. This sort of change is generally so easy that there is seldom an accumulation of frustration calling for drastic measures. From the faculty point of view, being able to teach what one wishes, as one thinks best, without external interference, is, short of teaching less and in the extreme case not at all, to enjoy the good life. To change, modify, improve the courses one teaches does not require one to be an educational reformer.
There is also a familiar class of educational changes beyond these that, generally, do not interfere very much with the established way of life. Should a requirement be added or dropped for all or for a special group of students? More math or writing or a foreign language or American or Western or World history? Should all students be required to achieve computer-literacy or ethnic-consciousness? Should a new or an inter-disciplinary “major” be established or the requirements for a particular major changed? Should grading be tougher, more revealing than tactful, or forced on a curve, and should students grade their teachers? Should we divide the year into quarters or semesters? Should we have small courses or seminars for freshmen?… Questions of this sort have popped up on the academic agenda for as long as I can remember, staple items in the politics of education, normally requiring collective faculty and Administrative action. Faculty members differ in their degree of concern with such matters taken as general educational questions. They will, however, be alert to proposals that effect their own teaching, resistant to those that might require them to handle their own courses differently, and supportive of the claims of colleagues to teaching autonomy.
It is obvious, of course, that all this is about courses, about their inner life and their external ordering. The course is the familiar, the inevitable unit of our educational life. To teach is to give a course; to study is to take a course or a mildly ordered collection of courses; to administer is to arrange that the takers and the givers are properly brought together. The fate of the Experimental Program can be foreshadowed in a simple statement: In a world of course-givers and course-takers it tried to abolish the course.
I need here to account for two things: the shaping of the alternate conception of lower-division liberal education, and the motivation to try to bring it into existence.
I forget who it was who first said “nothing is ever said for the first time”—broadened for this occasion into “or thought.” Discovering what you believe is discovering the tradition into which you fall. My deepest educational conviction is certainly not original. It is that what we call “liberal education” is essentially the education of the Ruler. It is not primarily aesthetic—for the heightening of “enjoyment,” the enriching of leisure. It is not the education of the human being as human being. It is not education for scholarship or research or the professoriate. It is not primarily spectatorial. It is vocational, and the vocation is governing or ruling—in a broad sense, politics. It is the forbidden fruit so deeply associated with our aspirations for participation in the ruling function. To say this is, of course, to raise all sorts of spectres and to summon hostile spirits from the vasty deep—worthy opponents, decent, well-motivated, cultured, humane, skeptical, tolerant, anti-authoritarian opponents—all honorable, although tending to archophobia and to regarding this “merely” political emphasis as a disparagement of the mind that is to be valued for its own sake. Nevertheless, it was, for me, the conception at the very heart of the Experimental Program, without which I would not have tried to launch it and without which, therefore, it would not have come into existence at all. It was, although I am resigned to the probability that this will seem at least paradoxical, the educational vision of a rabid democrat.
I consider myself indebted for this view to my teacher, Alexander Meiklejohn, and I have been dominated by it for as long as I can remember, and long before the Program took shape. I need to acknowledge, although I do so reluctantly, a fundamental disposition expressing itself in a drift into political and legal philosophy, manifesting an intellectual provincialism giving its special character to the curricular core of the Program. “Reluctantly,” because I would like to think of the Program as based on something more than a temperamental devotion to the “political” as against other claims. At any rate, I start with the wonderfully baffling idea that liberal education is education for the ruling function, and the companion conviction that since everyone in a democracy is to share in the ruling function, everyone needs to share in the education reserved, in elitist societies, for the ruling class.
To this must be added the perception that the college was not providing it and, rather fortuitously, that there was a vacuum where it should or might be. The freshman and sophomore years, the lower division, is generally the wasteland of American higher education. That is, in part, because we still tend to protect those years against the vocationalism or professionalism dominating the graduate schools and even the upper-division “majors,” without having a very clear idea of what we are protecting them for. The lower division student is not yet under the aegis of a particular department, has not made his fateful choice and is considered to be engaged in remedial or preparatory or exploratory or even “general” education. From the point of view of the dominant power structures—graduate and research oriented departments—the lower division is someone else’s responsibility, a holding area in which some grazing is done before, fleshed out a bit, the creature can be put to serious work. If anyone is responsible for the lower-division student it is probably a powerless dean trying to marshall some educational energy not elsewhere engaged (and therefore a bit suspect), for a venture professional scholars seldom find professionally interesting or important—except, perhaps, as an exercise in recruiting. But this is an old and hackneyed tale and I will not linger over it. The Program idea was to take the conception of liberal education as broadly politically vocational and insert it into the spiritually empty lower division years—thus filling a deep but unfelt need while at the same time giving a significant point to an otherwise pointless phase of American college education.
The curricular embodiment of this conception needs to be spelled out, but it might appear to be something that could be done in the usual way by stringing courses together and, if necessary, creating some special courses—by creating, in effect, a lower-division variant of an upper-division disciplinary or inter-disciplinary “major.” Why, then, did the Program abandon the course structure and propose instead a single massive highly organized two-year program? Since this was the distinctive feature of the program most responsible for its unique quality and for its special problems, I suppose I should explain. But I may do so slowly and in bits and pieces.
Imagine, if you can, that you are a freshman newly enrolled in the Program. You will be introduced to the idea that, unlike what you have been used to, you will, during the life of the Program, be doing—be thinking about—only one thing at a time. And you are told that for the next two weeks or so you are to spend all of your time, all of your time (well, almost all, since you will be allowed to take one course, a language course, for example, in addition to the Program. “Comic relief,” I heard it called) reading or “studying” Homer’s Iliad. You are advised not to bother reading about Homer or The Iliad, not to consult secondary or scholarly or “critical” material–just to read The Iliad itself. You will not be aware of the blood that had been shed in support of those instructions, of the academic proprieties being trampled on, but you might consider it a strange beginning to a college career. You had expected more formidable assignments but, accepting unexpected gifts, you decide to go along—not without the shadow of a worry that you may not be going to get a real college education after all. (“All the guys in my Dorm are already taking quizzes in three subjects and I’m still just fooling around with The Iliad!”)
What we are trying to do, and probably without much initial success, is to lead the student into the experience of relaxed, enjoyable immersion, a sustained involvement of mind, in a great work whose significance is far from obvious and about whose significance nothing, at this stage of the game, should be said. Many people will go through college—through a lifetime—without such an experience. Two whole weeks out of your life in which your job is to soak yourself in The Iliad or something like it. But this is not to be an exercise in solitary reading. Everyone in the Program will be doing the same thing, including the faculty. And during those two weeks there will be some scheduled Program activity. Informal lectures or panel discussions, seminar meetings, a short paper to be discussed in a private tutorial session. And all, during that two-week period, on The Iliad. Intensive, undistracted, essentially enjoyment-directed. Clearly, all our resources are marshalled to encourage the having of a particular kind of intellectual and emotional experience. It is very difficult to describe, but we have gone to a great deal of trouble to try to make it possible. We have cleared the decks, provided the time, gotten rid of a distracting multiplicity of intellectual tasks, tried to discourage the desire for information of a scholarly, historical, literary, sociological sort, to restrain the tendency to find out what others have said, from doing “research.” But what, you may well ask, is there left to do? And why do that? This is, I am afraid, one of those familiar situations in which it is futile to try to explain to someone why he should do something until after he has done it. Of course, freeing up time, telling students to relax and wallow in a book and try to enjoy it, doesn’t do very much. If you have been taught to read rapidly you will have forgotten how to read slowly; You will simply read rapidly and wonder what to do with all the spare time on your hands. And no one will enjoy something because a teacher tells him to. And what, by the way—if it is difficult to explain what the student was supposed to do—was the faculty supposed to do?
I am almost afraid to confess that the faculty was not supposed to do what it was supposed to be good at, what it had been chosen by the university to spend its life doing. We were not to practice the “disciplines” with which we, as faculty members, were identified. There were five of us. I was a member of the philosophy department, usually teaching courses in political or legal philosophy. I had recruited as colleagues in this venture: a political theorist with a great reputation as a charismatic teacher; a talented poet, a bit Byronic, who later created some havoc as the academic vice-president of a private University and died gloriously hang-gliding ; a radical youngish civil-liberties lawyer, a bulldog in argument, reputedly a strong “socratic” teacher; a mathematician-engineer, a well-known maverick, politician, golfer, and a man of broad culture. None of us had grappled professionally with The Iliad. What or how were we to “teach”?
But I should explain first ( I see I may have problems with Shandyesque tendencies) how this odd crew came to be gathered around the large table contemplating such a strange problem. I need to make a rather delicate decision. Or rather, explain it, since I have obviously made it. I am going to talk about faculty colleagues. I need to, or I can’t explain why the odds are so stacked against the success of such a program. There is really very little written about the college teacher at work. I used to read every academic novel I could get my hands on, and it is surprising how little is revealed about teaching. Compared to the surgeon working in the glare of the operating room the professor’s teaching is normally a private affair, largely shielded from peer scrutiny. Of the several dozen colleagues from a variety of departments with whom I have gossiped at lunch for several decades, labored on committees and manned the academic barricades with, I cannot think of one whose class I have ever visited or who has visited one of mine. We assume, I suppose, that we can infer from a person’s ordinary behavior how he would behave as a teacher. Apart from ordinary risks in inference I have discovered belatedly that, adding to predictive risks, there are actually teachers who think of teaching as a performing art, and who, when they enter a classroom, become strangely transformed. Ordinarily, it may not matter. As long as each is enclosed in his own watertight compartment the great ship of learning can stay afloat even if some compartments collapse or shelter weird side-shows. But if you put to sea in a single ark…
Between the conception and the fruition lay a great many obstacles. The first step I took, before I discussed my plan with anyone else, was to drop in on President Clark Kerr. As university president, he was not directly in charge of the Berkeley campus, but I thought his support would be useful. I told him I wanted to try to establish a variant of Meiklejohn’s Experimental College and wanted to know whether, if I got through the campus obstacles, there would be difficulties at a higher level. I remember his pleased smile. “Ah,” he said, ” the revolution from below!”. Of course he was all for it. He believed in education and, as president, there was little he could do; education was in the hands of the faculty. I told him I’d be back if I got far enough to need his help, and we parted cheerfully.
There were a number of decisive points at which, if I did nothing, if I sat still, peace, like a frightened kitten, would return, but if I did something, took the contemplated step, wrote the letter, asked to appear before the committee, I would have to face the next problem, more deeply and inextricably involved. And eventually, retreat would no longer be an option. The visit to Kerr was a first tentative step; I had indulged an impulse but had not yet assumed a commitment. I cannot explain the movement from having an idea about how things might be, to actually trying to do something about it without evoking the compelling powers of discipleship, of hero-worship, of sheer stubbornness and pride. I was driven by the desire to vindicate the educational vision of Alexander Meiklejohn. Of course, I got no encouragement or support in this venture from Meiklejohn himself, although he was still living in Berkeley when I made the opening moves. I now think that I was obtuse not to realize that he must have had deep reservations about my project and that, had I asked him, he might have advised against it. (What, I wonder, would I now say if an old student told me…?) But it never occurred to me to ask, and he died before the Program came into being. I mention all this to acknowledge that, as is so often the case, behind the public proposal lurks a private passion.
I would need to do three things to bring the program into existence. First, I would need to draw up an educational proposal that could win the approval of the appropriate faculty authorities. There had to be something on paper a committee or a Faculty could consider and judge academically legitimate or respectable or desirable. This would pose some problems since I was asking approval not for the usual single course in a traditional departmental subject, but for a non-departmental offering worth the equivalent in academic credit of about sixteen out of the twenty semester courses normally taken in the first two years. Beyond the enormity of that, I was unable and unwilling to do more than offer a brief sketch of the plan. I did not propose to spend time working up a detailed syllabus to offer to a committee for its approval, not only because I found the task uncongenial, or because I shuddered at the thought of opening myself to the scrutiny of what I felt, correctly, to be the hostile academic mind of which, in educational matters, I had a rather deep distrust, but because, for reasons I now turn to, it was impossible. What was needed was a formulation clear enough to give a fair idea of the plan and vague enough to allow for a wide range of discretion as we went along.
I needed—this was the second of my three tasks—to find or recruit colleagues. In the intuitive groping for form I had settled on about 125 to 150 students as a good number. And since I did not want an experiment that, if successful, could be dismissed as “too expensive”, I thought we needed a faculty of five or six—something like a ridiculous 25-1 ratio. So I began to look for four or five colleagues. Who?
It was clear, to begin with, that it would be foolish to consider anyone without tenure. We needed regular tenured Berkeley faculty members whose respectability would do something to fill the gap left by the sketchiness of the proposal. On the other hand, we needed teachers who were bold or reckless enough to step out into a wilderness unmarked by reassuring disciplinary signs. Respectable adventurous teachers are not people to whom you can hand a syllabus someone else has worked out. Normally they are the masters of their own courses. If they enter into cooperative ventures at all, they do so as “colleagues.”
My problem, then, was to find colleagues; and that turned out to be extremely difficult. I could not simply approach someone as if with a tabula rasa. Should we make up an educational program? I wanted people who liked the general idea and were willing to work out the details together as we went along. But acceptance of the general idea, as I described it, was a primary necessity; there were some curricular and pedagogic givens–or I would not have bothered with the whole business. And this created a situation about which I was quite uneasy. I was clearly the prime mover and conception guardian, but I was trying to find full colleagues—I was quite romantic about collegiality—who would be happy to implement the plan. It was to be our program even though it was really my idea. As you can see, I was a bit naive.
Most of the people I approached were not interested or available. They were fully occupied with their work, had all sorts of plans and commitments, wouldn’t think of taking two years off to go slumming outside their own fields, were vaguely puzzled that I would, but no, thanks. I hasten to say that I do not criticize them. They were fully occupied with research and teaching and university service, they were doing good, even distinguished, work and there was no reason for them to stop in order to do something they didn’t believe in doing or didn’t think they could do well. Nor do I really object to the fact that the Berkeley faculty is what it is—a group of hard working, self directed, high powered, research and graduated school oriented professors—clearly reflecting its primary function. But there is a lower-division, and I thought we could afford, there, a daring attempt at a different form of significance—staffed by its regular faculty, not by a group of lower-division teachers not up to regular or peculiarly Berkeley standards.
I had great difficulty recruiting, and might well have had to give up. But in the end I found two who could come in, but only for a single year, and two who could come in for two years—enough for the launching. We decided to settle for a group of graduate student teaching-assistants instead of trying to find a sixth faculty member. The process was even more complicated than it sounds. It was a sort of juggling act. I couldn’t really push for program approval until I could point to a faculty. I couldn’t tie down a faculty member, get him to change his plans and arrange leave from his regular duties in his department, unless the program was given an academic green light, and that was far from a sure thing—in fact it was downright unlikely. And finally, nothing could be done without a budget—salaries, space, staff support, and all that. And it was hard to arrange that without having done the other things first—which could not be done first without budgetary assurances. And I was in a hurry; I did not intend to get bogged down in “planning;” it was “next year or not at all.”
In the end, budgetary and other matters depending on the Administration turned out to present no problems at all. The Administration was invariably and ungrudgingly helpful, granting every request (of course I made only reasonable requests) and easing every difficulty. Academic approval was, I think, the greatest hurdle. I won’t trace the complicated process, but one scene persists in fond memory.
It was a meeting of the College of Letters and Science at which I was to present the plan for approval. I had distributed a couple of pages explaining the Program curriculum. Sketchy, of course, and not very deeply analyzed. I elaborated a bit and took questions. Then up rose a stalwart old-timer, an old-world social democrat whom I greatly admired for his stentorian defense of freedom and virtue in past academic battles. “I see,” he boomed, “that you start with the Greeks. Very good. Then you jump to seventeenth century England. Also very good. Then you go to early America and then to present day America. Good! Good! So it is a historical program, is it not?”
It wasn’t, but I hadn’t figured out quite how to describe it. I began something like “not exactly” or “well, sort of, but…” But he would not be denied. “A historical program! But look at the gaps. Full of gaps. For a historical program too many gaps!” He smiled at me, pitying, benign. “Too many Gaps. I will vote against it!”
Someone came to my aid. “Isn’t it really just a study of periods of crisis, of revolution—that’s it, a study of revolution?”
“I suppose so,” I mumbled gratefully—a mumble I would pay for later.
Then rose a very bright young Professor, greatly admired for having introduced the phrase “academic oatmeal” into faculty Senate deliberations, to ask whether I was open to suggestions. “If I started considering all your good suggestions,” I said tactfully, “I’d end up where we are now. So I guess it’s take it or leave it.”
Naturally, after that brilliant defense, it was approved. I’ll skip further harrowing details; in a relatively short time we were all ready to go. But before I get back to The Iliad I want to take up several things that combined, as it turned out, to make my life miserable, taking all the joy out of the first two years.
There was the House. It was obvious that some sort of physical center was needed. If students were to interact in a common program there had to be someplace for them to meet. Space was scarce and we considered, as a last resort, taking over a student dorm. Apart from whether that would have been possible, we were not sure it was a good idea to add the problems of residential separateness to those of distinctive curricular eccentricity. In the end we considered ourselves lucky to be able to capture an abandoned fraternity house on the edge of the campus, and it was patched up and sparsely furnished for our use. Rooms were fixed up as offices for the faculty, a few as seminar rooms. There was a Program office, a large reading room, a great hall. Not lavish, but adequate. I suppose it was because I began with such high hopes that I came to detest the very sight of it. I had dreamed that it would be the lively center of our life, a place you could drop in to at any time and find students and faculty working and talking… Well, I am not, a quarter of a century later, going to allow myself to feel again the disgust at the ugly culture that came to dominate and to mock the university conception of civilization. What should have been part of an adult university became a juvenile counter-culture hangout. I felt responsible for the existence of the House and felt guilty at my betrayal of my university colleagues who had trusted me to conduct, in their name, an experiment in liberal education. For the first two years, the sight of the House made me sick.
Contributing to the discord was a decision we had taken, about which the faculty had had its first disagreement. When it appeared that we could not find a sixth faculty member we decided, as I said, to take on five graduate student teaching assistants. There was to be a great deal of writing and we thought we would need help in reading and discussing student papers. There was never any thought—we explicitly rejected the thought—that the TAs would assume full or general faculty roles. We were seeking assistants, not colleagues. We invited applications. There was a complication. Usually a TA is a graduate student working for a PhD degree in a department, assisting in an area, a discipline, in which he is working, getting experience in his own field. That was not possible in our “non-disciplinary” program and we worried about diverting a graduate student from his primary work in his home department, but we concluded that if the TA was kept narrowly to reading papers and discussing them with the students, the experience would be a good one and not too distracting. In the process of selection it became clear that a graduate student very active in the student movement had virtually managed to wring an utterly unauthorized promise from our poet. Trying to forestall this, I had, in turn, gotten the assurance that no commitment would be made. I did not want him because I had seen enough of him to conclude that he was a pretentious militant who would not accept an “assistant” role and would dedicate himself to bringing the revolution to the program. I thought he would be uncontrollable and destructive and that we would have enough problems without this one. So I explained why I was against taking him on. His faculty “sponsor” admitted the danger, but said he had indeed promised and that he would undertake to “control” him. I knew he would be unable to do that and I was adamant. What to do?
Since this was a rather fateful turning point, I must explain that we had no formal structure of authority. We had no chairman, no director, no head, no CEO. I happened to still be chairman of the philosophy department, but that had absolutely nothing to do with the Program. I never had a Program title but had drifted, not unnaturally, into being the one who had to sign things. Whatever I may have thought, I religiously refused to let the words “my Program” cross my lips or even emerge from between clenched teeth. I was, as I have said, Romantic about collegial equality. But a decision needed to be made and, oddly enough, we had no way of doing so. I felt strongly enough about this matter to brood, over a week-end, about simply asserting a veto power, but I didn’t think the program would survive such an act and, against my better and bitter judgment agreed to abide by a majority vote. I lost, of course, 2-3. I never forgave the triumphant three—two of whom knew they were only to stay in the Program for one year but still had no qualms about violating the obviously appropriate principle of consensus. Needless to say, my worst fears were quickly realized, and in a few short months the entire faculty agreed that we would have to work without TAs, although the damage had been done and the first Program was in something of a sullen, alienated shambles.
But while the problem of authority manifested itself first over an “administrative” question it underlay the Program more fundamentally and, because of its intrinsic nature, in ways not generally present in the college at large. The Program attempted to establish an intellectual community, a “college,” and it conceived of such a community not as a collection of persons living in the same place, or rooting for the same team, or, as Clark Kerr once said, united by a common grievance over parking, but as a group of persons studying the same thing. We had a required curriculum that lasted for two years and we were all to go through it together—reading, writing, thinking about the same works at the same time. So to begin with, there had to be some curricular-determining authority. Obviously, the “faculty.” The Program did not share in the increasingly popular view that a student’s human right to participate in the decisions that effected his life extended to his voting on the reading list or deciding whether, indeed, he would write an assigned paper. But usually , where the Course is the unit of educational life, the individual professor is in authority, determines course content and method, and works out a modus vivendi with his students. In the Program, no single professor was in authority, could not do as he pleased about those things normally subject to his pleasure, was not free to exercise his discretion, let us say, in modifying or changing assignments. Faculty and students alike subjected the Program to centrifugal forces that could all too easily have destroyed its unity, its character, its very excuse for existing. If, for example, we had decided to raise the problem of obedience to law by reading Antigone, it was not up to one of us to decide to read Billy Budd instead, or even in addition. We might entertain an argument that Billy Budd was better than Antigone and that we should all read it instead, but we wanted all students to be studying the same thing. If faculty members are free chose their own variations they will do so in preference to arguing about the best common decision, avoiding the most fruitful kind of educational discussion—apart from destroying what is common in a supposedly common enterprise.
Or, if a student, living at his own unique rhythm, wanted extra time to complete a paper due, for good arbitrary reasons, on Friday, he needed to be told to get it in on time, that we did not want a better paper later, that we wanted the best he could do by Friday, that there was no such thing as a “late” paper, that he was, after Friday, to be starting on the next assignment, not to be alone and palely loitering with the old..
Or again, a student will announce, after The Iliad (which the student may have been reluctant to read in the first place) that he now wants to devote his life to the study of The Epic, and would like to be excused from Thucydides and all that in order to work on Beowulf and Burnt Njal and Gilgamesh and Aeneid and Morte d’Arthur, etc.—and is stunned when he is told that if he wants to stay in the Program he will do the Program work and that if he wants to write his own ticket he can leave.
I need hardly point out that all these—and other—tendencies to fly apart, to take our separate amiable ways to salvation, come clothed in attractive educational or metaphysical garb. The enemy is not the power of brute anti-intellectual inertia; it is the romantic, individualistic, consumer-oriented view of reality with which we have perforce become well acquainted. Under some circumstances it carries the day—”nothing,” I used to say, “is as irresistible as an error whose time has come “—and it was sweeping the American campus even as we tried to establish a small island of sanity. But to protect the Program required the systematic and constant assertion of authority. Its common character had to be protected against the tendency to fly apart. Someone had to say “No.”
Oddly enough, after my defeat in our one and only vote, it was as if by general consent, without comment, I was left in charge. I made a few unsuccessful attempts to develop a genuinely cooperative way of life. An attempt to establish a faculty dinner meeting once a week was abandoned after a single farcical meeting. The assembly meetings, because, I think, of faculty reluctance to perform without shining, fell apart. A small student faction took over the House and drove most students away. Some faculty members became “cult” or coterie figures, subtly shielding students from my tyranny. And I sank more deeply into the dictatorial or authoritarian role. Anguish at a distance is, I find, essentially Comic, and I am now faintly amused at what once tormented and enraged me. I remember lying awake nights reviewing the twisting path from Clark Kerr’s office to yesterday’s ordeal at the House, resolving that I would not, after everything I had gone through, abandon the program to the irresponsible views or impulses of those who would turn the Program into a caricature of the elective system that had reduced American college education to the mediocre joke against which the Program was to stand as a fruitful alternative. If the Program had been my idea, the mess was my fault; I would fight it through, and, after the first two-year run—I could see no way of salvaging it—try again with a different faculty. And in the meantime I, who was still a card carrying member of the American Civil Liberties Union, a veteran of the loyalty oath fight, a Meiklejohnian extremist in defense of the First Amendment and, for that matter, a deep rebel against the practices of the educational establishment, slipped without a murmur into the role of wielder and defender of authority.
It was, of course, necessary. For example, when even those who had voted for my TA bane had had enough of being undermined and agreed unanimously (the last straw for the sponsoring Poet was overhearing the advice given to a student who had emerged from a tutorial session. The Poet had requested an exercise in the rewriting of a short paper. “Don’t do it,” we heard the TA urging, “don’t do what he says. Just do what you want…”) that the TAs should all be allowed to finish the year but not be reappointed, I said that they should be informed in time to apply for appointments in their own departments. All agreed. As the deadline approached, worried that if they were not notified they would have a legitimate complaint, a claim to reappointment, I kept reminding the faculty. But weeks passed and they were not notified by their strangely reluctant supervisors. Finally, I told the secretary to hand each TA a letter, by me, informing them that they would not be re-employed. Naturally, at the next assembly I was handed a petition by students requesting that the TAs be reappointed, and naturally I said “no.” (I admit it may have been tactless of me, standing at the podium, to do what I usually do when presented with a bit of student writing—reach for a pencil and start correcting…) I did not bother to embarrass anyone by stressing that it was a unanimous faculty decision, and no one came to my support. There was an uproar, but I did not budge. Nor explain. What was there to explain? That this was a counter-revolutionary putsch? Or that in a Program that did not allow students to determine the curriculum students had no role in choosing their teachers? I had to go East for a conference on education—ironically, to explain the Program—and when I returned I found that all the furniture in the great hall had been piled into a pyramid that reached the ceiling. The deserted house echoed to my steps. I did nothing and the pyramid gradually eroded. We staggered through the year. For the second year I was able to get some faculty replacements and we managed a sort of weary truce. Quite a few students dropped out and into the regular university across the street, many unwilling to put up with the turmoil. Most of the most active of the rebellious students stayed on, naturally, manifesting their own deep loyalty to the Program. I should say, lest this general complaint misleads you, that on the whole the students were intelligent, energetic, imaginative, and with a strong sense of integrity. Also, in spite of everything, full of charm and promise. I really remember them with pleasure. I owed it to them to have chosen a faculty less beset by vanity and insecurity. And I owe it to the TAs, also, to acknowledge that, on the whole, they were well-motivated and helpful. After the first year we worked without them, and the decision to do so was a wise one. But not because of ideological or personality clashes or because they were poorly chosen but because of something deeper. Bright graduate students are at the stage of their careers at which they are most technically involved in their disciplines. If they teach, that is what they should be teaching. They should not be thrown into a non-disciplinary arena where they cannot use what they are in the process of mastering. It is no reflection on their intelligence or teaching talent to say that are not, at that stage of their careers, ideally suited for ventures in liberal education, however attracted to it they may be.
This has been a longer excursion than I had expected into the institutional background of the Program. It is time to return to a consideration of what would justify all the trouble. What were we to do with, to make of, The Iliad? We had all read it during the previous summer (or rather, “reread” it, since I learned that you do not ask a Professor if he has read one of the obvious classics, you ask if he has reread it recently). Obviously, we did not expect our Engineer to focus on the fortifications of Troy and the defenses of the beached fleet, the Poet to focus on the Homeric art or do an Auden on the Shield of Achilles, the Political scientist to lecture on government on the Plains of Troy, the Lawyer to enlighten us about Agamemnon v Achilles in re Briseis, the philosopher to pontificate about Zeus, fate, and freedom. But what? We were rather nervous. I remember the Lawyer complaining privately to me with a hopeless shrug, “What’s there to teach? There are no arguments to analyze!” He cheered up when I suggested that the Thersites episode could be seen as a free-speech class-struggle case. Well, it’s really a wonderful book and you might want to reread it if you haven’t done so lately. But teach it?
Years later I was a guest at a gathering of St. John’s faculty—a highly accomplished group of teachers—and strolling to lunch I listened to a senior member fondly extolling his own old teacher. “My life changed forever when he walked into a class on Homer and asked his first question !” I broke in eagerly, afraid he might not explain, to ask what the question was. “Oh”, he said, surprised, as if the answer was obvious, “What was Achilles like?” I remember my surge of pleasure at his reply. Of course! Nothing about the profound significance of the Homeric world view and all that. What was Achilles like, and Hector, and Helen, and Agamemnon.. .and off we go.
By instinct or by some happy accident we decided that at the first assembly—”lecture” — each of the five faculty members would simply read out the passage in The Iliad that appealed to him most, with perhaps a brief remark. It should make an interesting, revealing, provocative opening exercise, encouraging students in a similar venture, sharpening the intensity of their reading. I still, after twenty years, remember it vividly. The Engineer who was also an elected city official, a practicing politician, focussed on the futile attempt of some Greek leaders to lure Achilles who was, as we know, sulking in his tent, back into the struggle, and marvelled that here was a man with a grievance who, unlike most political leaders he knew, simply couldn’t be bought, wouldn’t compromise, had no price… The Poet movingly deployed the scene in which the aged King Priam was reduced to pleading with his son’s killer for the return of his son’s body. The Lawyer, of course, read the Thersites bit with great passion, his voice ringing with indignation over the fact that Odysseus would simply strike the only man who dared to question the value of the war at a public meeting while fellow soldiers laughed and applauded Odysseus, ridiculing their own spokesman, as blood trickled down Thersites’ back and a tear ran down his cheek. I read the long passage in which Hector, awaiting the furious approach of Achilles and almost certain death, toyed with the possibility of avoiding battle, yearning for the bygone days of peace, resigning himself to his doom in a soliloquy unmatched, I think, except for Satan’s on Niphates in Paradise Lost.
Well, the The Iliad is full of great things and we did our best reading our Rorschach bits. Except for the Political Scientist. He stood up, opened his book to the first page, read the opening sentence, turned to the back of the book, read the last sentence, opened it somewhere near the middle and read a random sentence. Then he said, “It’s an organism. Wherever you cut it, it bleeds.” And resumed his seat. Point, set, match. A sharp collective intake of breath from the assembled students. Hail the victor! While I thought, “The S.O.B. He’s staked out his position. The Program Rebel. Not for him to do what we had agreed to do. Even in a Program itself in rebellion he is more rebellious still. Pompous drivel, but appealing. Impressive. He is going to play the Pied Piper and steal the children…”
I am quite aware that by even mentioning this episode I invite you to think me over-sensitive, jealous, unbalanced, disturbed by what I should have merely smiled at. I did, in fact, merely smile. I did not say what I thought. But what I thought was utterly correct, prophetic. I saw a subtle breaking of faculty discipline, an “individualistic” act, an invitation to the battle of vanities. The Political Scientist had clearly gotten off to a good start and was never headed. The radical lawyer, thenceforth, played the even more Radical Lawyer, the romantic poet the even more Romantic Poet. Only the mathematician was unaffected, full of down-to-earth common sense and aware that there was no place for him in the dance of prima donnas. As for me, my role was unmistakable. I was the symbol of authority, of the establishment, the doomed defender of the flawed system (Aha! Hector!). I must have found the role congenial, since I sank into it easily and seem to have been playing it ever since.
I will let this odd episode stand for the many ways, subtle and not so subtle, in which the conflict between the tendency to fly apart into autonomous journeys and the insistence on a common path found expression. Obviously, the easier course is to abandon resistance to entropy or the death-wish and allow everyone—faculty, and perhaps even students—to go their own ways, pursuing their own interests. But the whole point of the Program was its commitment to a special kind of common intellectual life that by its very commonality nourished a deeper individuality. There was no reason for our existence if we were going to recreate the free market that generally prevailed in the University—autonomy for professors, elective options for students. It took a constant and active assertion of authority to counter the tendency to degenerate into chaos.
In a jointly taught program, the unity of the faculty on certain questions is crucial. On certain questions. I want to make it clear that vigorous faculty disagreement, open, prolonged, heated, is essential to the vigor and success of the enterprise. I used to say that we must agree on “constitutional” questions in order to disagree on “legislative” ones. Perhaps I should say that we must agree on procedural matters in order to be able to disagree fruitfully about substantive questions. To agree to read a book is the necessary prelude to significant disagreement about it.
But the distinction between procedural and substantive is not always clear and I will refer to a controversy that seems to have made an indelible impression on those who witnessed it. We had agreed to read Hobbes’s Leviathan. The reason for doing so—although there are many reasons—is that Hobbes makes the fundamental case for respect for political authority as the alternative to a life that is, as everyone has heard, “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.” You can quarrel with this formulation, but it is close enough to remind you of what the general question is and, I need hardly remind you, of its special appropriateness for the world in the mid-sixties and of the opportunity it offers to bring the discussion of urgent questions from the street to the classroom. Whether you agree with him or not, Hobbes is formidable and worth, educationally, grappling with.
The Political Scientist was to do the introduction. Imagine my feelings as I heard him say that Hobbes was very powerful, an overpowering writer, but that his doctrine was pernicious. If you followed the first step, you would be trapped by the argument (not true, by the way). So you should not pay attention to what Hobbes says, but only notice his rhetorical artistry, read it as a literary critic would. But pay no attention to his argument; don’t try to grapple with that. Instruction, in short, about how not to read a book we were supposed to read.
I, of course, rose to make an unplanned rejoinder—to the effect that the reason we were to read Hobbes was so that we would have to deal with an argument—a desperate message sent across three centuries from the midst of a terrible civil war—not to enjoy, unmoved, a literary and rhetorical gift. I may have lost my temper and revealed a small fraction of my contempt for the mind of an educator capable of making such a statement. I refrain, even now, from saying what I think. Well, the moment passed, but from that moment working in harness was impossible and we could, at best, barely tolerate each other’s presence.
There are some lessons to be drawn from this episode. I begin with the reminder of the very oddity of the possibility of its occurrence. In the ordinary course of events he would be teaching his own course in the political science department and he might or might not, at his discretion, include Leviathan and deal with it as he thought best. I would be teaching a course in the philosophy department, might choose to use Leviathan, and would deal with it as I thought best. We would neither know about nor be in a position to interfere with each other’s conception of what to teach and how to teach it. It could even be argued that with each free to follow his own professional judgment the best teaching would result. Certainly, there would be less conflict.
But in a program, as distinct from a single-teacher course, certain problems force themselves on to the agenda. I can no longer continue to use, or use in a special way, the books that I, for some reason or other, find congenial or fruitful or simply reassuringly familiar. I must propose something to colleagues who have their own preferred lists. We must make a case for what we do; we will argue, sometimes bitterly, since the stakes are, in spite of superficial appearances, quite high. And we will have to decide, if we are to continue together and not settle for each going his separate way, about a significant range of educational problems that may seldom, in other circumstances, come in for serious consideration at all.
So that once the “private” course is abandoned the teacher finds himself in a transformed and problematic world, without familiar landmarks and accustomed usages, naked to his colleagues, forced to justify his conception of the teaching art and even to change his practice. The common program is a cauldron for the brewing of educational insight, and I use this image fully aware of its evocation of Medea—some promise of rejuvenation, some destructive dissection, lots of heat. The difficulty is this: on the one hand, involvement in a common program is the great device for forcing attention to the essential and neglected problems of education. On the other hand, collegial life in such a program can be so searing and demanding that one must doubt whether, except for a short time and by a happy accident, such a program can be institutionalized—except by heroic efforts and unusual commitment to a mode of educational life whose very point an outside observer is hardly likely to discern.
But I must turn to other matters—although there is more to be said about the virtues and difficulties peculiar to “programs” as against “courses.” Curriculum! In my missionary years I used to point out that the Program had two distinguishable aspects: its non-course pedagogic structure, and its completely required curriculum. I would make the point that the structure had its own virtues and could be adapted to a variety of situations and was not tied peculiarly to our curriculum. I thought, especially, that it would be easy and useful to try it for an upper-division departmental major, unplagued by our special personnel and non-disciplinary features. And, of course, I had to grant that even for purposes of lower-division liberal education the world did not have to begin with The Iliad and proceed through Greeks, Jews, and Englishmen to Henry Adams and Malcolm X as we were doing. The form did not entail any particular content. It did mandate a common required curriculum, but it did not require this particular one.
Nevertheless, I did and do have a special attachment to this particular one, although my defense of it has tended to be a bit diffident. In my eagerness to convince others of the virtues of the Program I might stress the structural pedagogic features and might even push my view that a liberal education required a broadly “political ” curriculum—the cultivation of the sovereign mind. And although I would offer our curriculum as an example, I shied away from defending it as anything more than a contingent option. I was doing, in short, what we tend to do in academic life—avoiding argument about curriculum.
I tend to think (mistakenly) that “required” applied to “curriculum” is redundant, but in the world of the contemporary American college it is merely anomalous. If we must have requirements—from time to time we are shocked into saying we must have some—we try to have as few as possible. To the assertion that all students need this the rejoinder may be that they also need that and the other. You can’t require too much so you must decide which. Everyone should certainly have a basic course in American history! Yes, and for that matter, in world history too. After all! It’s terrible how we are turning out monoglot English language chauvinists. Everyone should be required to master a second language! And how about math? It’s the language of science, and look at the Japanese! And our scientific illiteracy! And our computer illiteracy! and our literary illiteracy! And our ethnic ignorance! And our sexism! And can we really give anyone our degree without teaching him some economics? And isn’t there something about philosophy, or ethics or values…ah, yes, almost forgot that…
Obviously, we can’t have everything and we can’t easily agree about what to require, so we end up about where we are. We agree, shaking our heads sadly, that High Schools should have prepared our students better, but now that they are here, apart from a bit of remedial work, we offer freedom and pluralism. That is, we offer our students “freedom” to choose, and justify our own irresponsible reluctance to impose requirements as “pluralism.” A feeling of weariness steals over me as I face the prospect of arguing about that most dubious of freedoms, student elective freedom, about treating the student as a customer or a consumer who, presented with a rich catalogue containing a myriad of courses, is supposed to know what he wants or know what he needs. “Elective” should be a vacation, not a way of life.
Suppose we consider the tension, the interplay, between what a student chooses to do and what he is required to do in the course of his undergraduate college education—a more pervasive problem than is suggested by “electives” and “requirements.” We may begin with the recognition that his very presence is an ambiguous mixture of freedom and necessity—of wanting to be there and having to be there if he wants to have a certain kind of life. It is important to recognize, that the normal American student is in college because it is the normal place to be at that time of life, not because he is driven by a thirst for the higher learning, by a desire to be a professor, to spend his life within earshot of the bells of the Ivory Tower. His presence is “voluntary”, but in a Pickwickian sense. Let us say then, that the student presents himself, enrolls in, chooses to enroll in, the College of Letters and Science still undecided, as he is permitted to be, about his or her “major” and subsequent career. What shall he study? Or rather, what courses should he take? What can he take? what must he take? What does he want to take?
The burden of choice is mercifully relieved by the existence of some requirements. If he has not already satisfied our minimal demands in language or mathematics he is encouraged to attend to such matters promptly, and to take the required course in reading and composition at once. But beyond this, dim visions of the future begin to make their demands. The decision about the major (even about career and life) looms. Students will have to choose by the third year, and will discover that there are “prerequisites”. That is, before they can be admitted to a particular major they will be expected to have taken some lower division courses in preparation. By this device, some departments have come, with dubious legitimacy, to preempt almost half of a student’s lower-division pre-major course life. And the danger of not knowing what you are going to major in is that when you do decide you may be delayed or prevented by lack of foresight about pre-requisites. So, in addition to general requirements there are prerequisites to worry about–courses you must take first if you want to take something else. And it is often the case that if there is something you want to do there is also something you are required to do along with, in addition to, what you want to do. If you decide to major in Philosophy because you are interested in moral problems you will find that you have to struggle with Logic, which you may not be interested in at all. In fact, every major, in addition to the goodies that attract you, is likely to involve you in doing things you don’t want to do, or at least think you don’t want to do. (It is surprising how often we find that what we think we want to do turns out not to interest us after all, while what we think we are not interested in turns out to be very interesting). And not only the major, or the career for that matter, but any particular course will be a mixture of the chosen and the given, the wanted and the required. You chose a course because it involves X and find yourself willy nilly also involved with Y.
All this is to induce some confusion about the chosen and the given, the elected and the required, in the realm of education. I do this in the hope of making what I want to say more palatable to readers for whom “freedom of choice” is a primary value. That is, that the significance of one’s education depends less on the operation of student “choice” at every point than on the involvement of the student in coherent sequential activity imposed by the situation—a coherent sequencing that the student, by virtue of his status and condition—not by virtue of his sinfulness or folly—is generally unable to provide for himself, even aided by the misconceptions of his peers. The question, then, is not how much “choice” the student has–he will always have some—but what we provide in the way of coherent sequenced intellectual life within the framework of choice—within the structure of a single course or a loosely related sequence of courses, the structure of the upper-division major, the structure of a graduate or professional school program. Obviously, only the first of these is available for the lower-division orphan. He has only courses. I used to say, when I was saying things like that, that a collection of coherent courses is still an incoherent collection of courses, and I would still defend my early description of the life of the lower-division student as, perforce, that of a distracted intellectual juggler.
So it was partly to remedy the fragmentation of attention and energy, especially in the lower-division, that I developed the conception of a two-year Program, that operated not by stringing unrelated or loosely related courses together but by abandoning the very conception of the course and claiming and directing the bulk of the student’s attention for the first two years. From the faculty point of view, this shift in unit involved the difference between planning a course—which every faculty member does routinely—and planning an education—which a faculty member is seldom if ever called upon to do. A Program makes such planning both possible and necessary and imposes a frightening responsibility on a faculty more accustomed to assuming responsibility for a course and letting the invisible hand take care of education.
The very conception of the Program as the significant educational unit called for a common required curriculum. And since, as I have said, the point of the enterprize was to provide something in the way of liberal education, the”content” was to be broadly and thematically “political”. But thematic concentration, the determination to do a single thing at a time, had a price—the omission of many important things, and we were always worried by the price and, apart from our own doubts, had to defend ourselves against the charge that we were leaving out too many important things—especially science and mathematics. My own response was to grant the importance, regret the omission, insist that we were not going to do a number of different things in the program, and invite the challenger to show us how science and mathematics could be integrated into the program. I had, in fact, hoped that our mathematician would solve the problem and suggest appropriate changes. But his response to repeated prodding was something like “no, not now…” I got a card from him during a later summer, from Greece where he had just enjoyed a performance of the Bacchae. A p.s. on his card excited me: “Have solved Program science problem!” When he returned, I was waiting. “What’s the answer?” He seemed for a moment not to remember. Then to my baffled disgust, “Oh. Just add Prometheus Bound to the reading list.”
No one else accepted the invitation, and I am convinced that it cannot be done. The categories of “science” and of the “humanities” are radically different and irreducible to each other; they are simply different enterprises, both important, and you cannot do both at the same time without doing two different things at the same time. Of course mathematicians and scientists have a great capacity to make you feel guilty if you neglect them, were not inclined to worry about integrating important nonscientific matters into their teaching( “students should get that stuff elsewhere”) and were prone, in those days, to throw C.P. Snow at you, who, having spoken of Two Cultures, liked to point out that whereas scientists were familiar with Hamlet, humanists were not equally at home with the Second Law of Thermodynamics (alas! no movie yet about the Second Law). We hardly argue this issue anymore, partly because no one seems to be worrying about “integrating” anything into a coherent educational scheme.
But in those days I marshalled some sort of diffident defense, quite unconvincingly, hardly convincing myself. All sorts of people, including students, were sure we should be doing something else. I will not attempt a defense now. If you want me to, I’m in the phone book. I might say that it took me a long time to lose my sense of guilt about science and math—after all they have “become death, destroyers of worlds”—clearly important. But a few years ago, drawn into recalling the past and giving an account of the Program to a convocation of professors, I was approached over a second drink by someone who introduced himself as a professor of mathematics. “Why,” he asked—not asked, really, but accused—”did you leave out mathematics?” ”Mathematics? ” I tried to raise my eyebrows. “Why not? “I replied. “It’s not that important. They can take it somewhere else”. He stared at me in shocked disbelief. But I felt liberated.
So we had, for students who “voluntarily” entered the Program, a completely required curriculum spanning two years—a relatively brief respite from a lifetime of discrete courses—relieving students of the problems of choice, imposing on the faculty the burden of creation. The starting point was the Athens-America conception that Meiklejohn had developed in the 20s at Wisconsin, but beyond that inspiration we went our own way, adding, as Matthew Arnold might say, the Hebraic to the Hellenic strain by dividing the first year between the Greeks and Seventeenth (more or less) century England—the King James Bible, some Shakespeare, Hobbes, Milton, and on through Burke and beyond. The second year was to carry us into America—presenting interesting curricular challenges of greater difficulty. My own inclination was to focus on the Constitution, on Constitutional Law—a sort of Gentile variety of Talmudic studies—(since we are, more than most, a people of the law Book and since most of our problems are transformed, sooner or later, into judicial questions), and Literature as the path to the understanding of the American situation, and if I had to do the Program again I would want to try to do that again, but better.
Still, I do not want, in this account, to re-argue the curriculum, but only to say how it seems now upon reflection. What can you say about the Greeks except that we are forever in debt to whoever brings our mind, with or without our consent, into engagement with Herodotus and Thucydides, Homer and Hesiod, Sophocles and Aeschylus, Plato… Greece seem almost to have been created for our enlightenment, and the Hellenic Testament, the story of its glory, its mind, and its self-destruction, the sad long day’s dying, pervades any fortunate Western consciousness. Still, there are some things very close to us that are quite alien to the Greeks. I cannot imagine a Greek Job, and Job, with his anguished cry for justice, is a pervasive echo in our lives. To study the Bible, Milton, and Hobbes is to take a second step towards self-knowledge. There are lots of things we didn’t do, but what we did in the first year alone justifies the entire enterprise. Each new reading joined the thickening context of understanding, remaining permanently on the table, a permanent part of the mind. What I said in a daring moment in Experiment at Berkeley is quite true—that we had discovered a version of the basic moral curriculum of the West. I seem to be still studying it. I note, with some surprise, that the manuscript I am now completing, that I call The Burden Of Office and think of more informally as Agamemnon And Other Losers, consists entirely of studies of some Program readings.
Of course, neither the form nor the content of the Program was perfectly grasped at the outset. We learned as we went along. While the basic pattern was the same, there was significant difference between the first and the second run. I have made no attempt here to be accurate about what happened when, to keep the two versions distinct. But we did have two attempts, two versions. It would be a bit misleading to say that the first program did not work the way I had intended and the second program did—although that is true enough. I shy away from saying that it didn’t work the first time and did the second, as if we had one failure and one success. Some of the most interesting things happened the first time, and it may be that turmoil has its own special lessons. I have come to think of the two runs, as it seems convenient to call them, in terms of two of the novels of C.S.Lewis. Out of the Silent Planet tells of Tellus, our planet, where the Great Plan was frustrated by the rebellion in Eden. Perelandra tells of the planet on which the temptation was resisted and the Great Plan worked out as intended. Lewis allows us, invites us, to infer that wonderful as the great plan was where it worked in all its docile beauty, the story about where it didn’t work as planned was perhaps even more wonderful still. At any rate, I think of the first run as Tellus, the second as Perelandra. I suffered through the first and I enjoyed the second, which was, in fact, wonderful as planned.
Two runs. If I had thought that the second would be like the first I would simply have written it off, called it off, not taken the necessary steps for a renewed attempt. But at the end of the second year of the first run the original faculty —those who had stayed on for the second year— returned to their normal pursuits. Two, as I mentioned, had signed on only for a single year. It was generally a happy parting, much relief on all sides at seeing the last of each other. But I was badly shaken. I had expected that the faculty, masters of their own classes, would have some problems working together, all teaching “our” students instead of each his own. I had expected a range of differing insights, a range of skills and backgrounds. What I had not expected was the raging vanity of the charismatic teacher. The competition of Scholars, the thirst for distinction, was a familiar and almost comical fact of academic life. But we encounter it, the vanity of scholars at a distance. You published your stuff; he published his; and when he excitedly waved the telegram announcing his award you would say (a famous episode) “What! You!” The scholarly community is diffused through the world, and you usually appeal to it in writing. Its vanity, although sometimes flagrant, is generally tolerable and not too greatly obstructive.
But the teacher, the aspiring great teacher, is, in a perverted version, the seducer, the enchanter working his magic on a concrete local group. He must capture it, or he is nothing. He does not like to share the limelight; the presence of fellow-professionals is intrusive and distracting; he is best at a one-man show; he worries about being upstaged or outshone. I think the conception of teaching as a “performing art” is deeply mistaken, but it is quite popular. And it makes cooperative teaching almost impossible.
Teaching is a subtle quasi-therapeutic art, not a performing art. It is very difficult to observe; it is not spectacular. There is really nothing much to see when you see a great teacher at work… Oh, well, it is a commonplace at the University that we do not know how to really evaluate teaching—which may be why we rely so much on consumer reports. And, like other professions, we tend to close ranks at this point. Policemen are reluctant to condemn a colleague for unprofessional conduct; lawyers hate to disbar lawyers; doctors don’t like to disqualify doctors. As for teachers— we may say someone is a fine or great teacher, or a competent teacher, or a good teacher for small classes… But we don’t seem to even recognize a category of harmful teacher, of teachers who damage minds entrusted to their care. At this point we close ranks. Except, of course, when a common program destroys the isolation of the separate classroom and makes “harming your students” also a case of harming “ours” and impossible to ignore. Life in the isolated classroom is obviously simpler.
I blamed the troubles of the first run on my ineptitude in assembling its faculty. I may have been angry and nursed grudges, but I do not feel greatly justified in blaming my colleagues. They had, after all, merely accepted or succumbed to my invitation and were only doing what apparently came naturally. And I even felt guilty about knowing things about them that I would not have known accept for the special circumstances of the Program, as if I had violated the privacy I had invited them to give up. Except for the Program, I would still, no doubt, consider some to be the strong teachers I thought they were when I recruited them, and it is unfair of me to first lure them out of their happy niches and then blame them for my disappointed expectations. I am slightly contrite.
But I was determined to give the Program another trial, and I tried a different approach to “staffing.” I went outside the Berkeley faculty and called on friends, most of whom I had known since they were graduate students and I was an assistant professor. They were teaching elsewhere, but were able to get leaves to come to Berkeley for two years —to my rescue, to my delight.
This move, of course, raised some disturbing questions. Why could I not find regular Berkeley faculty willing and able to take part? Was I trying to establish a Berkeley junior college below the dignity of what a now-defunct local paper referred to as the “U.C. Savant”? Did the Program, in that case, really belong on the Berkeley campus? I was troubled by these questions, but I did not look very hard for another Berkeley staff. A perfunctory look turned up a few who were not uninterested, “but not just now.” And I was not really interested in searching beyond the circle of those I knew, or thought I knew. I was quite exhausted and bruised and unwilling to spend the next two years re-arguing basic principles and fighting centrifugal tendencies. I wanted colleagues who shared the vision, who understood the whole conception, who did not have local charismatic status to defend, whose educational background I had confidence in, who I thought I would enjoy working with, and who I considered to be first rate minds and good teachers. Of those who came to my rescue, some had Berkeley tenure-equivalent credentials, a few were not in that particular race but had significant intellectual and pedagogic virtues.
The difference was striking. What made the difference? First, I suppose, I now had some experience and was aware of some of the things we needed to avoid. The importance of “constitutional” agreement was clear from the start—although I had thought it implicit even in the first run. The underlying rationale was more clearly formulated and was accepted as a constitutive condition of participation. But to say that is really to miss the main point: we were Friends, and not in a competitive situation. This is really an embarrassing point. I had thought the five of us in the first group were friends; so what was the difference? The most obvious was this: I had been a teacher of the core of the second group. They were in no sense “disciples” or even continuing students, but we had been through the mill together, and knew each other as only those who had been through that sort of mill together can know each other. Our essential mode was cooperative, not competitive. We argued—even quarreled —a lot, but we worked well together.
But the fact that I had surrounded myself with friends of this sort raises obvious questions. Could I not work in harness with contemporaries, only with those a generation younger? Was I taking advantage of the deference of former students? Was the whole search for collegiality really a self-centered hoax? I am, of course, bothered by the possibility, and it would be unseemly and futile to protest too much, but let me at least say something. The basic agreement on fundamentals in the second group made possible a vigorous running disagreement on almost everything else. I was not treated gently about anything—especially about the ideas that ran like persistent threads through the two year program. And since I did not have to assume the role of Program defender I found myself dramatically less “central” to its life. I had, so to speak, specialized in defending the program, and now that was a function shared by colleagues. I felt, for the first time, that I was one of a band of teachers and, when it came to that, I was not an especially good one. The others had, I thought, a better sense of the minds of our students, more devoted patience, better particular diagnostic flair and curative ingenuity and, oddly enough, a more single-minded devotion to the task. For the first time I had the feeling that I was not necessary, that the Program could get along without me, that I could relax and enjoy what we were doing. I was still, as the only regular Berkeley faculty member, responsible for whatever administration there was, and I was allowing myself to be drawn, marginally, into the turmoil distracting the campus (a turmoil that had surprisingly little effect on the Program). But the actual day to day life and work of the Program no longer depended on me.
What stands out in my mind when I now think of the Program is the habit we, the faculty, fell into of having dinner together every Thursday night in a private room at the Faculty Club. I have mentioned that the attempt to do this on the first run collapsed after a single meeting. But for the two years of the second run we assembled every week over wine and dinner and argued for four or five hours. We had some fairly firm rules. We would not bring up any administrative matters. We simply had a discussion of the material we were reading in the Program, explaining, interpreting, arguing about the significance of this or that and, as the evening drew to a close, saying something like, “you two seem to be disagreeing about the central point, so why don’t you each take twenty minutes or so to say what you think and get everyone launched at the assembly next Tuesday, and we’ll go on from there.” Volunteering was frowned on; we were drafted for this or that service and found it very relaxing.
Often it seemed that the entire Program was a spill-over from this long-running seminar. We not only discussed the material substantively, we argued about how to use it. Looking back at the first run I would wonder how we could possibly have managed without the faculty seminar. The truth is, of course, that we didn’t manage at all, and is only by virtue of the uncanny unspoilability of the basic material, the inherent fruitfulness of a dimly emerging pedagogic form and, perhaps, the notorious Hawthorne Effect that anything educationally useful emerged in spite of everything. But it was not Perelandra.
I remember the second run seminar as the most exciting, the most significant intellectual and moral experience of my whole life, unmatched, unapproached by anything I experienced in four decades of interesting university life, mostly at Berkeley which is, in many ways (was, perhaps) an academic heaven. The seminar made the Program, and I am sure this judgement would be shared by everyone who took part in it.
I note that I have written far more about the first run and its traumas than about the second run and its triumphs. Obviously, the first shook me; the second renewed my faith. All my joy in recollection is focussed on the second, all my anguish on the first. And yet I find myself writing nothing revealing about the quality of the triumph. It is easier to describe pain than health; easier, as Milton demonstrates, to write of hell than of the joys of heaven. Still, I am a bit startled to find how much the first run dominates this account, how little I do to communicate the quality of the second run. I do not intend to try to remedy that imbalance now, but only to acknowledge it.
I emerged after four years reassured that education could still be thought of as the initiation of the new generation into a great continuing and deeply rooted civilization. But this, I suppose calls for some comment.
It was Berkeley in the middle and late sixties, one of the great centers of the generational uprising. The wave of baby-boomers had broken over the college, a large cohort especially horizontally or peer group oriented. The times were stirring and troubled—the civil rights movement, sexual revolutions, the shocking end of Camelot, the war in Viet Nam loomed heavily on the horizon of those who, to the chagrined surprise of their elders, did not remember the Great War that had shaped and tempered the minds of parents and teachers. They did not remember Munich or Hitler or Pearl Harbor or D Day or reading the headlines the day after Hiroshima, the surge of relief at calling off the million-corpsed invasion, the homecomings to triumphant and shattered worlds. They could not remember what their parents could not forget, their minds could never really meet—the one proud of the triumphant American expedition against the grim Rome-Berlin-Tokyo Axis, the other ashamed of the muddled, ambiguous American expedition to a strange periphery of Asia. But the parents saw them off to college and they arrived full of contempt for the world they never made, for racial and sexual injustice and hypocrisy, angry at having had to hide from the radiant fruit of science under schoolroom desks, enraged at the “unjust war” that had been doled out to them, without a confident religion, without a glowing political ideology—the scene was littered with fragments—with its own irreverent music, with the temptations of a shortcut to the expansion of consciousness, and armed somehow (god knows who taught them that!) with the powerful philosophical conviction that no one knew better than you what was right or good or even true “for you.”
Only a vigorous imagination can begin to grasp the enormity of trying to initiate the class of sixty-something into an ongoing American branch of western civilization. They gave us a house to try it in. It was the battleground, but I’m not sure everyone recognized what the battle was all about. It was to see whether our traditional cultural resources were powerful enough to withstand the contemptuous challenge of a despairing counterculture. I suppose that sounds grandiose. I think back to the House in its seedy disarray, half deserted, a handful of disgruntled students arriving for a dispirited seminar, or, again, to an argumentative throng, unexpectedly cheerful about something or other—a confusing sequence of disordered scenes. I am reminded of the scene in which Stendhal’s hero, galloping away from a trivial bit of confusion, pauses and wonders, “Was that the battle of Waterloo?” So, I ask myself, having crept away, was that really a battle in the war over the American soul? Without banners? Without a band? Yes, it was. Sometimes it seemed as if the world was struggling to turn itself into illustrative material to accompany the core curriculum of the Experimental Program. We were dealing, of course, with the themes that swirled about one of our greatest achievements —the creation and development of the great art of Politics. To begin with The Iliad is to begin in medias res, in the midst of the perpetual war between the Human Expedition and the Human City, between the Quest and the Home. The tale is echoed or mimicked in the masterful account of the war to the death between Athens and Sparta, the paradigmatic cultures of the marketplace and the barracks, of freedom and of discipline. Against that background we grapple with the conflicting claims of Olympian rationality and Dionysian passion, with the elevation of Law over Fury, with the defiance of Law in the name of the Higher Law, with the great Platonic depiction of the parallel between Psyche and Polity ranging from the achievement of Wisdom to the reign of anarchy and tyranny in each. And then in the other of our great moods we contemplate the Covenant in the Wilderness on the road from Slavery to dreams of freedom, and ring a different set of changes on the problems of Authority, Obedience, Rebellion, War and Peace, Justice, Laws and Courts. And in the end, we come to see ourselves, to find ourselves, to know ourselves, as the present act in an ancient and perpetual drama…
So, in spite of everything, I emerged convinced that the traditional spiritual resources of the culture, far from being obsolete or exhausted, were, in fact, if we used them properly, the key to our salvation.
If we use them properly! And who, alas, is doing that? The natural University guardians of the great tradition are, of course the Departments of the Humanities. But, with a few honorable exceptions, they guard the Treasure as Fafnir guarded his—they breathe fire if anyone tries to steal it, to use it, that is, without a license. Simply put, Departments in the Humanities believe in and practice scholarship. That is to say, they are not interested in what the people they study are interested in. They are interested in what scholars are interested in and, generally, the people they study were not scholars.(“. . .Lord what would they say/ Did their Catullus walk that way?”). I respect what they know, appreciate what they do. I, who know not Greek, live on their scholarly translations. I read Dante and Virgil in translation; Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky in translation; Ibsen, even Goethe. .. I am parasitic on translators and scholars. I say a heartfelt “Thank you”. But they —”Humanists”—are obstacles to the non-scholarly human use of their work. They almost always vote against efforts like The Experimental Program. They usually consider people like me to be ignoramuses and dilettantes. They scare me, (something easy to do to an emeritus professor who still thinks he was hired by mistake) but they kill significant liberal education. Fafnir! I am a bit surprised to find myself so bitter against such nice people, but I’ll let it stand… They, more than anyone, are responsible for the feeble state of liberal education in America.
But now I turn from the central curricular problem —I had intended to attempt an extended eloquent exposition of the curriculum but on reflection, I don’t see why I should—to another pervasive aspect of the Program. Even as we were reading and arguing about freedom and authority we were also involved in an aspect of that problem as it colored the daily style of life in the Program. Let me begin with an anecdote. A few years ago, long after the Program had gone out of existence, I was invited to a reunion of graduates of Meiklejohn’s Experimental College on the Madison campus. Meiklejohn had died, but the faithful still gathered. I was invited although I had not been one of them as a student, and I spoke to them about Meiklejohn’s later years in Berkeley. At one general session a half dozen of the alumni (it seems strange to call them that) spoke in turn, reminiscing about life in the good old days in the Ex College. At the end, the chairman asked me, sitting enthralled in the audience, if I had any questions or wanted to say anything. Yes, I said, I have one question: “Did you do your work?” Someone, a bit taken aback, launched a conventional affirmative reply but was interrupted by a tumult of denials. No! no! not a lick of work for two years! too young! too much freedom!… It was a rather bitter outburst, a pent up moment of truth, a half-century old complaint. I actually do not remember whether I really said or only wish I had said what I do remember thinking. “Here we are honoring the memory of a man fired as President after bringing Amherst back to life, summoned to Wisconsin to create an educational utopia. He struggled against enormous odds, gathered a faculty, fought with the establishment, forged a novel curricular conception, investing a great mind and soul in the effort. And then you arrive, saunter off to taverns, and have the unmitigated gall to not do your work!”
Long before this episode, at one of the Program Thursday night final dinners devoted to a review of our problems, one of us launched into something like a complaint about how we were breaking our backs in our efforts while many students were just loafing. We were taping these Review sessions (I still have the transcript). I am recorded as replying “Doctors always work harder than patients”. The transcriber unexpectedly notes “Silence. And then laughter”. Silence, and then laughter. What else?
There is a problem about freedom and coercion, impulse and habit, autonomy and shared ritual, in education as elsewhere. If we can state our objectives as the cultivation of certain habits of mind—whether stated grandiosely as the habit of rational inquiry and deliberation or more diffidently as the habits of careful reading, analysis, expression, discussion —we must decide about the uses of discipline in the process. It will come as no surprise that I not only believed in a required curriculum but that I also believed students should be required to do, should acquire the habit of doing, the work. But requiring something and getting someone to do what is required are two different things. The problem was to get our students to do what we thought they should do.
To begin with, for the familiar range of idealistic reasons, we denied ourselves the usual array of sticks and carrots. We decided not to have examinations or to give grades. The university had just begun to experiment with a pass/not-pass system and we were given permission to use it, stretching its limits a bit. Everyone whose performance did not merit expulsion from the Program was simply given a “pass “—a grade that would not enter into determining his subsequent grade-point average. No one was ever expelled from the program for any reason other than serious performance delinquency. We put up cheerfully with intellectual inadequacy. I should say, on this score, that our students were good enough to have been admitted to Berkeley, but were not admitted to the Program on the basis of any special distinction. We did not want to run an “Honors” program; we wanted as typical a group as we could get and simply chose haphazardly from a large number of applicants.
There are situations in which there are examinations and grades and in which the student is told that he can do as he pleases about attendance and all that sort of thing. He will be tested and judged; how he prepares is his business. We were, I suppose, at the other extreme. There was no terminal exam to prepare for; no grade to certify anything. What we insisted on instead was that the student be there, with work at least more or less prepared. What we could not tolerate was no exams, no grades, and no “prepared” presence. Essentially, to stay in the Program meant to be there and to do one’s work.
This choice of a mode of operation created many unfamiliar problems for us. The faculty had disarmed itself, put aside the usual disciplinary weapons. Non-attendance? We’ll catch him on the Exam. Sloppy work? Do you want a C or D? It’s all so easy, so familiar. We wanted something better and discovered the challenge, the difficulty, of developing other modes of intellectual motivation and student-teacher interaction. I had a great skiing instructor whose diagnostic and instructional technique had impressed me as a paradigm of the teaching art. I tried to imagine him watching me turn my way down the slope and then saying ” C+. Next time try to ski better!” But I have seen instructors handing back a paper with the notation “C. Try to write more clearly”, and then arguing with the student about whether the paper really deserved a B.
We wanted something else. We wanted habitual prepared presence because nothing much could happen without that. But we wanted to improve the quality of intellectual activity. We wanted to find the useful thing to say about a student paper without—instead of— giving it a grade. We wanted to get the student to work harder and more fruitfully without the prod of grading. It was not easy and, at times, we wondered why we were making life more difficult for ourselves. But we persisted in the attempt to provide something other than extrinsic motivation for the exercise of the mind.
Students sometimes missed grades. One student announced that she was going to transfer out of the Program. She was a good student and, had there been grades, would have rated an A. She liked the work, she said, and she thought she was getting a lot out of the Program. And she really didn’t mind just getting a “pass”. But she couldn’t stand the fact that her friend down the hall in her Dorm wasn’t doing much, was always going out on dates, and was getting a “Pass” too. It wasn’t right. Would you like it better, would you stay, if you got an A and she got a C ? she was asked. “Of course!” she said, and departed for a fairer world.
Well, the path we chose required the insistence on a timely adherence to a sustaining common routine. But, from start to finish our performance was sporadic. The faculty had its Hawks and its Doves. Students defied expectations and it was difficult to do much about it. We could expel or threaten to expel, but that often seemed too drastic and was, from our point of view, an admission of failure. We hated to be reduced to nagging or disowning or, for that matter, to coaxing. Toward the end of the second run I began to entertain the heretical thought that we should reconsider the abandonment of grades. Grades don’t really bother the good student; they serve as a prod to the middling; they provide retribution to the delinquent. I expressed my doubts to my second-run colleagues and was thoroughly raked over the coals. They are probably right; grades are a second-best device for a second-best world. It no doubt reveals my condition when I confess that the issue does not seem to me as important as it once did.
Meiklejohn, I believe, was more tolerant of student “independence” or “non-performance” than I was, and I was inclined to think he might have been out of sympathy with the spirit in which I was approaching the problem—that a late paper or missed lecture was not a minor failing but a sign that one’s life was fundamentally out of control. Some students thought so too. The reproach pinned to the wall “Joe, Joe, What have you done to my idea?”, signed “Alec”, was, no doubt, a forgery, but, I was prepared to concede, not a bad one. Meiklejohn, I believe, had had—had been required to have— grades.
But whatever the verdict about grades as a motivational and disciplinary device, I am not in retreat at all from the view that a college, a Program, a community of learning is not a collection of individuals each pursuing his own firefly, but a company taking thought together, sharing a common life, a common discipline, a common ritual. I suppose I prefer the fellowship of the Round Table to the solitary quest for the Grail.
Towards the end of the second run a committee of the college of Letters and Science looked into what we were doing and made a recommendation that eventually resulted in the College’s giving its approval to the Program on its academic merits while, at the same time, expressing the cautious view that continuation would depend on the availability of fairly scarce resources. I was pleased, since all I wanted at that point was academic approval. I did not know how much was generally known about our internal storms. Our students were also involved, to different degrees, in the campus life of the time. I remember being strangely pleased when, during a general student strike they would show up for work, announcing that they were on strike against the University but not, obviously, against us. The Student Movement was leaving us in peace, practicing benign neglect. I knew some of the leaders, and while I was almost always opposed to what the Movement was doing on campus I was not terribly active in the fight. On the educational front, it was generally known that I held to the reactionary view that the faculty was to govern education (my burden was that I defended the faculty’s authority even while I despised the way the faculty exercised it ) and that I had scant sympathy for student participation in curricular matters. As a matter of principle this was anathema to the Movement, and they could not embrace the Program as a step in the right educational direction. On the other hand, the Program was at least a radical innovation and an expression of the University’s concern with undergraduate education. So the Movement neither supported the Program nor opposed it. I welcomed being left alone and would not really have known what to do with student “support,” would have been embarrassed by it.
The university faculty, initially a bit apprehensive that I was launching an undisciplined educational spree, seemed reassured by rumors that I was really trying to run a sort of boot-camp. An unexpectedly candid report I wrote after the first year evoked many expressions of appreciation and good will and by the time we were well into the second run I felt that the faculty was amiably tolerant, although far from accepting the validity of fundamental conceptions underlying the program.
The Administration—at least in its higher ranks—continued to be supportive (although I was aware of some hostility at the Decanal level). We were receiving favorable national publicity as educational innovators, somewhat offsetting the charge that the University was involved in research to the neglect of undergraduate teaching. Even some Regents, at one of whose meetings a prominent member had, before we were launched, criticized us as planning to teach (incite?) Revolution and had demanded, in vain, a letter supporting Free Enterprise from each of the Program faculty, were, informally, offering encouragement.
In short, as we neared the end of the second run the auspices for continuation were generally favorable and I welcomed the academic approval of the College as a minor vindication and as a necessary precondition of a move from “experimental” to “regular” status. But I was undecided about what to do. The past five years had been exhausting and I needed some leave. The Program faculty needed to return to their regular positions elsewhere. Continuing meant gathering a new faculty, and while some of the second run faculty were perfectly capable of running the Program and were willing to continue they could not simply stay on without resolving ambiguities about permanence that could not, at that stage, be resolved. I realized that to have a break in continuity would be to lose some momentum, but I did not have the heart to scramble to put together a third trial run. Two experimental runs was enough, I thought, and now the University should make a decision about permanence and, if it wanted the Program, settle upon the basic conditions of its existence. ( A canny “institution builder” might have tried to prolong the trial period indefinitely…)
For the student of institutional reform the situation was not without interest. I see it now as an encounter between the enduring and the ephemeral. The enduring University is rooted in Departments, themselves based on the great cognitive disciplines that, over time, may merge and split, slowly altering the geography of the mind. But the basic fact of modern University life is the Department; the faculty members home is the Department. That being said ( and this is an oversimplification) we will have to recognize that the University will also seem to be a great collection of Institutes, Schools, Colleges, Centers, Programs. Some of these may be quite enduring, but they are administrative modes that facilitate the trans-departmental activities of Department members. Such activity may be quite important, exciting, fruitful, opportunistic, and the non-departmental organization enables the University to respond to challenges and opportunities without having to endure frequent or traumatic fundamental restructuring. The key to the relation between the enduring and the ephemeral is the institution of Tenure. And Tenure is something you have (with a few ignorable exceptions) in Departments.
This, then, was the context in which the question of the future of the Experimental Program presented itself. Should it, could it, how could it move across the line that separated a trial venture from a regular more or less “permanent” part of the University. Let me say, to begin with, that the University—the great ponderous soulless “multiversity” of popular caricature—had shown, in my case, remarkable openness and flexibility. As a professor, I had presented to the University, from the back benches, a radical educational proposal and within a year the Program was in existence. During that year I was teaching a full load of courses in Philosophy and serving as Chairman, so that arguing for, planning, and launching the Program was essentially a spare time activity. It was an adventure, but the real point is that the University listened, smiled faintly, nodded, made a slight adjustment in the distribution of its resources (nothing much—perhaps a million or so) and said “go ahead”! Now, four years later it said “not bad” and waited for me to make the next move.
But while the University had been flexible and hospitable, I had done nothing to get the Program rooted in Berkeley’s soil. The first run Berkeley faculty had returned to their Departments and had no continuing connection with the Program. The visiting second run group had gone home. I was left, panting, in my home department. Where was the Program? Who cared? The House, unused, was, by a delicate act of University courtesy, held for my decision until I relinquished it. But I had no working colleagues on the scene and was uncertain about what to do. On the one hand, the prospect of continuing to work in —to live within, really—a Program with colleagues like those in the second run was very appealing, although I liked normal academic life also. On the other hand, the tangle of problems and decisions that loomed over the path to permanence —and as I said, I would not do another trial run—was daunting. But overshadowing personal considerations, although intertwined with them, was my loyalty to the idea of the Program as a great educational form and the sense of guilt that overwhelmed me at the thought that the Program might go out of existence because I lacked the energy or ingenuity to keep it going.
Everything was in limbo when I got a call from a newly appointed vice-chancellor. He had himself been appointed by a newly appointed Chancellor. (Chancellors were ephemeral in those days. This was our third or fourth in about as many years.) The message was that the new Chancellor wanted me to continue the Program. Would I draw up a proposal? So I drew up a modest proposal. A Program to start each year with about 150 students and 6 professors in each group. I suggested that 3 of the faculty were to be permanent, tenured, faculty who understood and were committed to the Program and who could guide the 3 transient faculty members and provide stability and experience. In addition to thus keeping the Program in existence and available on a modest scale for Berkeley students, I wanted, by inviting the right visiting faculty, to foster imitation by State and Community colleges for whom such a lower division program might be a boon. And finally, I proposed that we undertake to become a center for the study of higher-education teaching, the absence of which had seemed to me to be a scandal not mitigated by Schools of Education. I gave the three-page proposal to the vice-Chancellor and within a very short time he told me that the Chancellor was sold on the idea and wanted me to go ahead. So, what did I want? What should we do?
I was not surprised that the Chancellor wanted the Program. I thought any educator in his right mind would want it. It was inexpensive, unobtrusive, daringly innovative, serious, highly regarded throughout the country and even abroad, worth its cost in public relations alone—to say nothing of the real point, that it was a great educational program. I agreed to go ahead and got down to cases with the vice-chancellor. He was a very engaging young man, apparently marked for high administrative positions. But at that time he seemed to me to be quite naive about the academic facts of life, not knowing what was easy and what was difficult, not knowing the score, hardly knowing what the game was. But enthusiastic.
I went to the heart of the matter quickly. There was only one thorny problem: Faculty. We would need a skilled cadre. I could not do it alone. I would need colleagues. I already had three in mind, all of whom held tenure positions at their own very respectable institutions. I had taught with them and knew they were very good. I could probably induce them to come. But I would only invite them if I could offer them tenure. So besides myself I would need three to five tenure slots. Everything else was easy. I think my request seemed reasonable to the vice-chancellor. He raised no objections, and said I’d be hearing from him.
But I did not hear from him for quite a while. I did not expect to. I thought he would be discovering the difficulties in the way of capturing tenure slots. Hard-nosed Deans might not make a fuss about temporary Programs they did not believe in, on “soft” money. But tenure slots were a different proposition. They were precious, and departments fought over them. Their assignment determined the fate of Departments and the shape of the University’s future. Toleration for an ephemeral maverick program was one thing; giving away tenure slots was quite another. So I waited, knowing the vice-chancellor would be encountering static. As the personnel deadline approached I indicated that I needed a decision. Eventually the vice -chancellor informed me, with some irritation, that he was not going to turn over a half dozen tenure slots for me to dispose of as I wished (not that I had put the request that way). I did not argue, and the deal was off.
But this was rather uncharacteristic of me. I had not, in the course of establishing and running the Program, acquired the habit of taking “no” for an answer. So why did I not try to go around the vice-chancellor, or over his head, to the Chancellor, or even the President, as I had been prepared to do in the past when necessary. That is an interesting question, and when I try to put my finger on the crucial point at which the Program lost its life it comes to rest here. Not with the denial of the tenure slots, but with my decision not to fight the denial—even though, in the end, I might have lost that fight. It was convenient for me to explain, when I was asked, as I frequently was, why the program went out of existence, that the University was unwilling to assign the necessary tenure positions. That answer, while true enough, sounds as though I am placing the blame on the University, on the vice chancellor or on the lesser Satraps who were stiffening his spine. They were, no doubt, formidable adversaries, but not as formidable as my own doubts that paralyzed me at what might have been the moment of battle.
My own doubts. I could not solve the tenure question, in principle, to my own satisfaction. As I have mentioned, tenure was only granted to people in departments and on the recommendation of departments. Two of the people I had in mind held tenure positions in their own philosophy departments. Should I approach the Berkeley department with the proposition that they should take on my candidates as tenured members of the philosophy department, grant them indefinite leave to teach in the program with the option of deciding, at any time, to teach philosophy courses instead? The department had, in fact, recently gone through a bitter battle about such a case and I knew how hopeless such a request would be had I the gall to make it. I won’t elaborate on the complexities of this situation, but it was clear to me that I could not hope to plant the cadre in various departments, enjoying, as absentees, the privileges of tenure.
The alternative was to consider tenure without departmental status—an almost self-contradictory notion. We now have a few “university professors” whose tenure may transcend departments and even a particular campus, but in those days they had not yet been invented, and they were not designed for our situation. So how about simply pressing for tenure in the Program as a justified novelty. I thought of it, of course. But first, who knew how long the Program would last? And if it terminated, tenure would not persist like the grin of the Cheshire cat, it would vanish with the Program. But besides the risk that I was unwilling to invite others to assume it was not at all likely that the highest university authorities would approve some form of non-departmental organization supporting tenure appointments.
And if, in spite of the odds, it did—and this was the crushing difficulty, the one I never discussed but that weighed on my mind—I was not sure that I would want it or could recommend it. I knew how intimate and abrasive life in the Program could be. I thought it very likely that sooner or later friends would fall out, would disagree in ways that would make working together impossible, might get fed up with each other or with the Program, or with students at less than arms length, or would, in sheer exhaustion over the toil of collective life, yearn for the healing privacy of a course of one’s own. A yearning we could not satisfy in the Program. I was not unaffected by the falling out among friends in the first run, and was even more troubled by the fact that in the second run, in spite of my caution, I had invited a friend who became so upset by his disagreement with the rest of us about how to teach that he soon withdrew in embittered rage from communication and interaction and was a dead weight for almost two years. We were stuck with him because I had invited him for two years and he had taken leave, etc. Suppose he had had tenure? This experience points up the virtue of departments. A department member does not have to get along with anyone. He can despise his colleagues to his heart’s content. He need have nothing to do with them. And he can get on with his teaching and research as he pleases. Tenure in that made sense; but tenure in a Program? I was baffled. Tenure was necessary. Tenure in departments was not in the cards. Tenure in a program alone worried me. I anguished over the problem. I considered all the things you are now about to suggest. But baffled I remained.
And I was unnerved by other doubts, not about others, about myself. Life in the Program, especially during the second run, was enormously exciting, and I was really willing to do it again. But why was I so exhausted? I remember one day in the first run when, late in the afternoon, as I was settling down to some task, I saw our Mathematician sauntering towards the door. I must have sent him a reproachful look because he turned back to me. “I know what you’re thinking” he said, “but let me tell you something. I do all my work, all the reading, attend everything, meet my seminars, confer with my students. But I’m not going to overwork like you. I’m going to work the way a professor should work. This is an educational experiment, but if it can only work if the professors overwork, the experiment is a failure. You’re working too hard. I’m not going to, and I’m right…” He was right, of course. I did work too hard. I realize that the work of establishing a new Program was far greater than the work involved in teaching in an established, on-going enterprise, that life in a continuing Program would get a bit easier. But at the very least, teaching in the Program was a heavy full-time job, whereas, at Berkeley, teaching was considered only part of a professor’s work. He was supposed to be doing scholarship, research, writing as well, and his relatively light teaching load reflected that fact. Was I to become a full-time teacher? I didn’t really want to, although I was devoted to teaching. I wanted—should I be ashamed to say?—to live the life of a normal Berkeley Professor. Sometimes, during the Program, I would cross the campus to see old cronies at the Faculty Club. I was like a harassed mother who had escaped her demanding brood for an adult lunch-break. I felt the seductive charm of “normal” academic life—the intellectual tension, the pervasive wit, the intellectual privacy, the leisurely autonomy, the cool arms-length, controlled, well-mannered involvement, on one’s own terms, with others. I missed it, and I shrank from the thought of giving it up for the unremitting intensity of life in the Program. And if I felt that way now… Well, these were secret thoughts, unsharable, treasonous. Was I really prepared to wrestle endlessly with the recalcitrant young for their own unrealized good or to live the life of a missionary in a corner of a gaudy Rialto. The very question was enervating, demoralizing.
So, when the vice-chancellor told me there would be no tenure slots I did not argue. I did not spring into battle in order to face, if I won the battle, a problem for which I had no solution. Perhaps it was simply weariness. Perhaps something was operating at a deeper level, something which I have no desire to understand. I let it go. But now, when I think about the Program’s failure to graduate from “ephemeral” to “enduring”, in spite of its unique quality, I do not blame the university, I blame myself.
The fundamental delusion may have been to suppose that it was possible for a great organism like the university to nourish or sustain for long an enterprize at odds with its essential nature. The mode of life required by the Program was not congenial to the normal Berkeley professor, violating the basic assumption that one teaches what one is expert at, as one thinks best. Experts teaching their subjects to students who want to study it is our ideal condition—the best experts and the best students. Some requirements, some structured sequences. Courses, courses, courses—the established American pattern of schooling producing, not infrequently, the tough, provocative course that lingers almost alone in the fond memories of alumni. The pattern common to Harvard, Yale, Stanford, Berkeley, Swarthmore, Oberlin, Wesleyan, Amherst, Smith, Michigan, Wisconsin, Columbia, Fresno State, Ohio State, and almost everywhere else. It is easy. We know how to do it. It may not be all that good, but it cannot be all that bad. It has, after all, made us what we are. So it is not surprising that our basic pattern persists, taking ephemeral challenges in stride. A daring young president summoned Meiklejohn to Wisconsin and gave him some running room for five years before the weight of the patient regular faculty prevailed and the Experimental College vanished. Hutchins, with great energy and flair, created his college (not really all that radical) at the University of Chicago and, as he told me ruefully, the University proceeded to dismantle it as soon as he left. Scott Buchanan and Stringfellow Barr launched St. Johns on its significant path and it is still alive after half a century. But it is not a part of a university; it stands apart, a church served by its own devoted priesthood. The University of California’s Santa Cruz campus flirting initially with a “college” organization and, never trying anything terribly different, becomes more normal every year as the department, under a different name, increases its dominance over the college. The fact is, our prestige institutions are content to be what they are—course-givers with, perhaps, a few local variations. The key is, of course, the faculty. It is what it is, not something else. It does what it does best, and it is hard to get it to do anything else, and perhaps unreasonable to try. Meiklejohn and Hutchins tried to do different things with specially recruited faculties living as second-class citizens within the domain of the regular faculty. St Johns does different things, but with a “different” faculty and lives beyond the main stream. Santa Cruz wanted to do different things, not really knowing what they were, but it wanted to do them, as I learned when I was asked to serve on committees, with a Berkeley-style faculty. In the Program at Berkeley I wanted to avoid the “second-class citizen” problem by getting some Berkeley faculty to act differently, and ended up in the war of the first run. For the second run I gathered a non-Berkeley faculty that did different things brilliantly, but I could not solve the problem of turning them into Berkeley faculty.
The nature of the faculty sets limits to the possibility of “reform”—taking “reform” to mean not mending one’s evil ways but rather reshaping the structure of learning and teaching( and, of course, the better the faculty the more difficult it is to expect it, or even ask it, to change its ways). Within our conventional limits we hail as innovative the establishment of the great course. It can be a course in Western Civilization, or in Great Books, or Integrated Humanities or Integrated Social Science, or American Civilization, or Citizenship, or World Culture… Each is an attempt, frequently successful, to mitigate fragmentation and excessive specialization, to provide some integration and perspective. They are usually founded by the vision and energy of a powerful faculty member and persist, even with diminishing elan, as cherished and distinctive features of the institution. Birth by committee is, I believe, rather rare, but I am not opposed, a priori, to miracles. Beside the special course and the addition of new courses the educational change generally compatible with the basic structure is tinkering with requirements and sequences, sometimes sparked by genuine educational considerations, sometimes by political pressure triumphant, even, over responsible faculty qualms. To a disappointed or frustrated idealist like me these minor matters are barely worth the candle substantively but may be grimly amusing to observe as they reveal the interplay of intelligence, habit, power, of self-interest, ignorance and irresponsibility in the conduct of affairs in a great institution.
Well, in the immortal words of Edith Piaf, I regret nothing. It was worth doing. For many of us, it was a uniquely great educational experience. I am proud of the exasperating ephemeral now-vanished child. The House is still there, and, as I said, when I drive past it now nothing happens. Almost nothing. The other day as I drove by, a small drama from the past popped into my mind. I had walked in at about 7 AM. No one was there. I looked with distaste at the disorder, the weary furniture, the carelessly strewn objects. Then I stared in irritation at the enormous poster, the head of Dylan (Bob, not Thomas), lording confidently over the great hall. Unavoidable, dominating. It had annoyed me for weeks. On a reckless impulse I stood on a chair, unpinned the poster, rolled it up and carried it off to my office. Some hours later an indignant young man stomped in. “What happened to my picture?” I looked at him coolly. “I took it down.” “Why did you take it down?” It was not really a question. I parried with, “Why did you put it up?” “I put it up,” he said, contemptuous in advance of an assertion of authority, “because I felt like it!” “I took it down,” I said, “because I felt like it.” He stood silent for a rather long moment. Finally he nodded. ”Fair enough,” he acknowledged, reached for his poster, and left with the head of Dylan under his arm. Whim baffles whim. The memory of that small triumph of reason warms me.
In the end, the Program must be judged to have made no enduring difference to the quality of education at Berkeley. The sea of normal life has closed over the sunken hope, the surface now unbroken, the depths unvisited. I have never been tempted to launch a salvage operation or to get back into the educational wars, since, apart from other reasons, I seldom see a banner raised that seems worth repairing to—only trivial proposals, not worth fighting for, not worth opposing. And I have had my chance.
When I look back at the Program through the haze of present distance, ignoring the details of small triumphs and small tragedies, banking the glow of old animosities, stilling regret over misplays or false moves, several things stand out. First, the struggle to achieve something of a working intellectual community—a group of faculty and students engaged in a common enterprise, creating a structure of ritual and habit triumphant over the impulses of disintegration—an intellectual community as a way of life, sustained for a significant period of time. It was, in a world of discrete, self-contained, autonomous classrooms a glimpse, a reminder of the quality of a Pre-Babelian world. That glimpse of community is, perhaps, the most dominating of all my memories.
And second, the curricular conception—the attempt to provide for our present crises the cultural context within which they are to be understood. Something has happened when you can grasp the thread that runs from Orestes and Antigone to West Virginia v Barnette and the Presidential campaign of 1988. When you can see that the attempt to impose the Tablets of the Law upon the worshippers of the Golden calf is the same struggle as is involved in our attempts to make the Constitutional Covenant and the Law prevail over our hedonic impulses and narrow partialities. The failure to provide this great context is to send our students, robbed of their proper clothing, of their proper minds, naked into the jabbering world. It is stupidly irresponsible of the University to allow this to happen. It is a betrayal of its trust. It is, as I used to say, a consequence of the fact that the University, simply by being what it is, has killed the College.
These convictions, with which I began, survive in me unimpaired, although shadowed now by frustration and defeat.
December 21, 1988, Berkeley
“A Venture in Educational Reform” was first published in The Beleaguered College, Institute of Governmental Studies Press, University of California, 1997