Panel examines experimental college

As the School of Arts and Sciences feels its way towards a new curriculum, it might be helpful to learn from earlier efforts to transform undergraduate education.

With this in mind, more than 50 students and faculty packed Kelly Writers House Nov. 8 to hear about one of those earlier reforms and review it in a modern context.

The featured speaker at the symposium on “The Idea of an Experimental College” was Robert Streeter, emeritus professor of English at the University of Chicago. Streeter was one of the faculty members hired by Chicago President Robert Maynard Hutchins to teach in the new college he established in the mid-1940s. Eventually he served as its dean.

Hutchins’ college departed dramatically from the standard liberal-arts curricula of the time. The curriculum was highly structured, with only one of the four years given over to electives. Classes were small, and grades depended entirely on a comprehensive year-end exam given independently of the courses.

Hutchins wanted to “form good intellectual habits” among the students, and, Streeter said, he succeeded: Chicago graduates’ scores on the Graduate Record Examination were far above the national average.

But teaching there was a challenge. Robert Lucid, an emeritus professor of English at Penn who taught at Chicago from 1947 to 1949, said. “Every morning [during my first year], I would brush my teeth, get dressed, stroll through Hyde Park to my class and en route throw up in a hedge.”

And not all of Hutchins’ expectations were met. The students for whom the college was intended — high-school sophomores who would enroll at the start of their junior year — never materialized, and its separate faculty clashed with the graduate faculties over course content.

Even with its shortcomings, Dean of the College Richard Beeman said, “The success of the Chicago curriculum is impressive.” Universities have no way to measure the relative effectiveness of various curricula, but if effectiveness is measured by student and faculty satisfaction, then Chicago’s is successful. But “even Brown’s ‘no requirements’ curriculum [the polar opposite of Chicago’s, which the Rhode Island school adopted in the 1970s] was successful for a while” by that measure, Beeman said.

Susan Albertine, vice provost for undergraduate studies at Temple University, said that it was important for academic administrators to have an understanding of the intellectual heritage of curricular reform. Beeman seconded that notion in a way when he explained how a Chicago-style experiment would be ill-suited for Penn. “First, there is the small size of Chicago’s student body,” he said (2,700 undergrads compared to Penn’s 10,000). “Second, there is no distinction here between the college and the graduate faculties, and we do not want to create one.”

In a post-symposium interview, Beeman said that the strong attachment Chicago’s faculty felt towards their college was something he would like to create at Penn. “What Chicago was successful at was getting their faculty to believe in their curricular form,” he said. “And that’s what we need to do with ours.”

Originally published on December 2, 1999