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Attack on Academic Rigidity Calls for 'Major Departure'

The New College Plan

By Craig K. Comstock

Professors have long indulged in a favorite indoor sport known as Plan the Ideal College--usually played over cups of coffee in the Faculty Club. In most cases, however, the game is just for fun, and the brave visions never get beyond the lunch table. It is rare that a systematic study is made and oven rarer when the academic community perks up and shows interest. But the unusual happened last December when four well-known colleges in western Massachusetts--Amherst, Mt. Holyoke, Smith, and the University of Massachusetts--issued The New college Plan. Written by C. L. Barber, Stuart M. Stoke, Donald Sheehan, and Shannon McCune, the report briskly outlines "a major departure in higher education."

Calling for a "coeducational, residential college, initially of about a thousand students" located near the four sponsoring insttutions, The New College Plan opens a 56 page attack on academic rigidity:

It is a widely-held conviction among liberal arts faculties that our system of courses and credits has got out of hand, and that our students are capable of far more independence than they exercise in present college programs. We propose a college which frees both students and faculty from the system which makes education a matter of giving and taking courses to cover subjects.

Seminars Start Education

As Professor Barber put it, "knowledge does not come in fancy packages." But New College will not wander off into vague experimentalism either. Although strict course requirements, as well as academic departments, will be eliminated, the suggested alternative seems sound.

At New College, subjects will be covered, not by providing complete programs of courses, but by training the student to master recognized fields of knowledge. A systematic and sustained effort will be made to train students to educate themselves. As freshmen, they will start with seminars especially designed to be the first step, not the last, in independence. Other devices, such as student-led seminars associated with all lecture courses, will all follow to reinforce this initial experience.

To some educators these are frightening words. Traditionally, the freshman gets his basic training in a battery of survey courses: he is whisked through the centuries, fed a few Great Ideas, forced to memorize a multitude of facts. This peculiar ritual ends with a process of mental regurgitation, commonly known as "the final." No matter what name it hides under, the survey course is supposed to provide a rock-like foundation for greater things.

At New College, a large proportion of faculty time "will be invested in showing groups of 10 to 15 freshmen what it is like to work as a scholar by directing them in the exploration of a limited subject matter." The faculty will consider its job not to fill intellectual filing cabinets, but to develop in its students "a capacity to continue their education throughout their lives."

Students will study only three courses at a time, a arrangement making possible concentration of effort and high levels of achievement. The Faculty, on their side, will give only one lecture course at any given time; the rest of their energies will be devoted to the several kinds of seminars which characterize the curriculum.

Free from the rigid requirements of a department, the New College student will develop his own program of concentration. Keeping his general field in mind, he will make "any combination of courses, individual projects, and field examinations which he can justify to a faculty committee" drawn from the three academic divisions--Humanities, Natural Sciences, Social Sciences.

We calculate that the New College plan, by giving up the attempt at a complete course offering (impossible for a college in any case), will make it possible for a faculty of 50 to give a first-rate education to a thousand undergraduates. This ratio of one to twenty will go with efficient size of classes: relatively large groups in lectures and small groups in seminars.

Only 50 lecture courses will be offered each year. By preventing a proliferation of lowenrollment courses, and thereby holding its faculty to an active minimum, New College will be able to pay the full cost of instruction with a tuition of around $1000. There will be no need for faculty endowments. At many colleges, an even higher tutition charge today covers less than the actual costs.

In addition to a "thoroughly alive" course offering, New College will embody another curricular innovation: a month-long midwinter term, when the whole college will join with visiting teachers to study two courses "providing a common intellectual experience." One of these conference-courses will deal with a subject "of central importance in Western culture," the other with a non-Western topic, the subjects changing each year over a four year span. Unfortunately, such a midwinter term could easily become an aimless interlude, devoid of excitment. But, if carefully planned, it could also turn into one of the great attractions of New College.

In another "major departure"--this one outside the academic field--the Report continues:

We should add that the several innovations we propose for New College, including in the extracurricular area the elimination of fraternities and intercollegiate athletics in favor of more spontaneous forms of student recreation, are changes that would reinforce each other, so that a style of life should emerge at the College which would have its own momentum. This does not mean we look to the establishment of a place which would appeal only to special "experimental" people, either as students or faculty.

Although many Amherst students take a dim view of the anti-fraternity clause, Professor Stoke pointed out that anumber of highly successful colleges manage without them--Oberlin, for example. "We have no intention of making New College a monastery," he chuckled, "we want the students to have a good time."

Intercollegiate athletics will be eliminated in favor of "giving sports back to the students." It is ridiculous, Stoke explained, "for thousands of students to sit and watch 22 men play football." New College will aim for active intramural competition.

Loan or Gift Needed

But the New College Plan is still just an imaginative report, and its chances of reaching the brick-and-mortar stage are uncertain. When the Report was released in December, one optimistic committee member offered "even money--not much money, but even money," that they will raise the $5 to $20 million to construct the physical plant. But most foundations, while happy to finance reports and studies, decline to pay for buildings. If New College is to succeed, it will require an unprecedented loan, or a substantial gift from a benefactor who recognizes the educational advances the Plan represents.

The Fund for the Advancement of Education, which financed the initial Report, recently announced a grant of $25,000 for three advanced studies: of architecture, financing techniques, and curriculum. The curricular study will look further into the aim of the New College program: "to establish a pattern of independent behavior training in it at the outset."

On the other hand, New College will not set its students adrift without teaching them how to navigate. There will be systematic steps toward greater independence, starting with the carefully guided freshman seminars, progressing to Lecture-Student Seminars, and ending with the senior seminar, a preparation for the senior thesis.

"Getting Around" in Subjects

Broad knowledge will not be pre-digested for New College students; it will come as a natural consequence of exploration, of "getting around" in their subjects. Methods are best introduced, not in the abstract, but in action. The fall freshman seminar will teach methodology by exploring limited subjects, each teacher deciding on a subject and its limits with a view to best showing a group of about thirteen students how he works, and how they can work, in using his discipline.

At Harvard, probably the best example of this approach on an elementary level is Humanities 6, which limits its reading list, but pays careful attention to each work. New College will not hurl Great Ideas at its students, but will let them dig around in the material out of which great ideas emerge.

Many good students will have to be weaned gradually but firmly from the habit of shaping all their remarks for the benefit of the teacher; other students, who have resisted this tendency, will find an unfamiliar pleasure in expressing to their peers their own unforced responses to what they are reading.

Although student-led seminars are open to endless cracks about "group dynamics," any device which encourages the student to forget his teacher as a grader is valuable. In courses and on field examinations only three grades will be given: "fail, satisfactory, distinction." There will be no pluses and minuses, no hallowed Rank List.

The fact that the student seminars will be composed of men and women working together should be helpful: though one can generalize too far, providing that a style of life has been established which respects the process of sharing intellectual experience, the two sexes bring out the best in each other intellectually.

According to Stoke, "The girls tend to do the reading more carefully, and the boys to say more exciting things in class." In addition, the co-ed atmosphere will prevent an unfortunate pattern of formal week-end social life.

The goal will be to recruit a student body not markedly distinguishable at entrance from those of first-rate colleges. Inevitably, the fact that New College is a new kind of institution will tend to attract, during the first years, students to whom pioneering makes an appeal. That will be all to the good.

Sounds like Quincy House.

But it would be equally unwise to recruit students chiefly on the basis of taking part in something "experimental." The "experimental" has, for many, the implications that discipline is unnecessary, that the arts offer a way of life which can elude normal obligations and limitations, that the educational community should be set up in opposition to the society as a whole. Such utopian and Bohemian aims are not part of the New College proposal.

It's not difficult to see what colleges the Report is talking about. According to Shannon McCune, "we don't want more than the usual quota of screwballs." But New College is not planned as a roost for "greasy grinds" either. Its students, according to McCune, should be "young men and women of imagination and curiosity--in many fields."

Whatever they are like, the first batch of New College freshmen will face an experience markedly different--in means, though not in its purpose from their friends at more conventional institutions.

No Language Requirement

The language requirement has been eliminated in the conviction that students who take a language on compulsion and without aptitude gain too little from the experience to justify what it costs them and the college.

One of three courses in the first year will be in physical science, "designed to put the student in the position of working as a scientist." It will not be a survey, nor will it simply talk "about" science. All students will perform some of the operations of science, "and so acquire experience which can form the basis for a general understanding of scientific method and history."

Though The New College Plan itself remain an unexplored possibility, the Presidents of the four sponsoring institutions show enthusiasm. "We are all eager to have the project explored more fully," said Richard G. Gettell of Mt. Holyoke, "and have high hopes that what started as a gleam-in-the-eye may, before too long, become a reality." Charles W. Cole of Amherst said that "were New College created, it would have a tremendous impact on existing institutions and on the whole problem of creating new ones."

Because "changing a curriculum is like moving a graveyard," as McCune put it, the Committee early decided to make a fresh start with The New College Plan, rather than attempting to introduce any "major departures" in the sponsoring institutions. But New College, as President Cole remarked, is expected to suggest important changes at the Four Colleges.

Institutionalized Gut?

However, even with a fresh start, New College will find it hard to inspire the style of life" which could make the College a great place to learn. It is easy to imagine students paying lip service to "intellectual excitement" while actually looking on New College as an institutionalized gut. Student seminars tend to bog down if students fail to do thoroughly the reading required for vital discussion.

Furthermore, the much talked-of independent study, no matter how carefully introduced, could become a farce; students might interpret freedom from rigid course requirements as freedom from serious work. The New College planners are men of high professional standards, but their task is a difficult one: to create an intellectual "style of life" that is genuine in an atmosphere of independence.

If the New College idea is attempted, as it should be, the educational rewards could be significant. If not, the Plan itself, as Professor Barber put it, "ought to keep faculty committees in agony for years."

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