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Northwestern University

What Students Studied and Why, Part Three

On December 2, 1951, under the leadership of Roscoe “Rocky” Miller, who had assumed the presidency in October of 1949, Northwestern celebrated with a Centennial Convocation. The University, which had weathered the disruptions of the Great Depression, World War II, and the G.I. Bill, emerged into its second century eager to reclaim at least some of the relative normalcy, prosperity, and curricular growth last enjoyed during the 1920s. In 1950, the College enrollment stood at 2900 students and there were 240 full time College faculty members compared, respectively, to 4000 and 500 today. Kresge Centennial Hall, which was completed in 1955, was able to house many of the College’s classrooms and offices. Most of the science buildings that now stand on North Campus did not exist; the same is true of the lakefill additions.

While all the curricular changes from the mid-twentieth century to the present are too vast to recount in detail, some signal events and important themes nevertheless emerge when looking back over the past 58 years. One important theme is the stunning rise of interdisciplinarity: a curricular approach which seeks to break human knowledge out of the traditional silos into which academic disciplines had been compartmentalized in the second half of the 19th century. A second theme is the continuing desire to preserve, and indeed grow, the liberal arts college and its curriculum within the broader context of a complex research university.

Western Civilization and Sputnik

Similar to the curricular emphases which had followed World War I (Crosscurrents, fall/winter 2006), World War II and the rise of the Cold War prompted a renewed interest in promoting citizenship and the values of western liberal democracy through the liberal arts curricula—understood since Periclean Athens as the elemental education for free men and women—at college and universities around the nation. History Professor Emeritus T.W. “Bill” Heyck notes that Western Civilization and American Civilization courses were “big business” at the Northwestern in the years between World War II and the Vietnam War. Such courses promoted western values as a counter to both fascist and communist ideologies. While fascism had been defeated in 1945, the outcome of the struggle against communism was still very much in doubt in the 1950s.

This emphasis on educating for democracy came about in part due to the creation of the faculty’s General Education Committee in 1954 by Dean of Faculties Payson Wild. The Committee recommended that the breadth component of the undergraduate curriculum be expanded so that all Northwestern undergraduates, including those outside the College of Liberal Arts, could take more courses in four general areas: mathematics and science; the social sciences; history, philosophy, and religion; and art, literature, and music. While courses in these areas had long been available to liberal arts students, by 1957 the greatly increased presence of undergraduates from the pre-professional schools served to expand course offerings, enrollments, and student intellectual diversity within the College. Likewise, Northwestern’s quarter system, which had been implemented in the 1940s, ensured more courses than a semester approach and thus allowed room for language, major, and general education requirements in the three divisions (natural science, social sciences, humanities) for College students by the early 1960s.

College Dean Simeon Leland (1946-66) made particular efforts in the 1950s to improve the quality of both teaching and research in the College. The general imperatives of the Cold War, and especially the launch of Sputnik by the Soviet Union in 1957, promoted the view that the natural sciences—especially the physical sciences—were of vital importance to the nation. While curricular emphasis on democratic values in the post-war period remained critical and necessitated continued investment in the humanities, nevertheless a national sense of urgency vis-a-vis the Soviets served to propel the sciences within both the College and the Technological Institute, to a new level of investment on the part of the University. This emphasis on the sciences was likewise manifest in the symbolic name change in 1963 back to the College of Arts and Sciences from the College of Liberal Arts, which had been its name since 1880. This practical consideration was supported by President Miller, arguing that “It is felt that the title will be more descriptive of the work and interests of the College.”

Freshman Seminars and New Requirements

Starting in 1962, history professor Clarence Ver Steeg, who had come to Evanston in 1950, led what came to be known as the Faculty Planning Committee which undertook over the next several years the most ambitious academic planning in Northwestern’s history. With the completion of the “lakefill” in the mid-1960s, Ver Steeg’s committee made a new university library a top priority. The University had outgrown its 1933 Deering Library and the opening of the new facility in 1970 symbolized the expansion of intellectual inquiry that was occurring at Northwestern.

Along with English professor Jean Hagstrum ’38, Ver Steeg’s Faculty Planning Committee issued a comprehensive two-part examination of the undergraduate experience at Northwestern in 1968 and ’69 in a report officially entitled “Community of Scholars,” but known on campus as the Hagstrum Report. In brief, the Hagstrum Committee agreed that a genuine community of scholars “would best be able to inculcate the key qualities of an educated person—competency, general education, and civility. Competency meant mastery of a discipline or major; general education meant breadth of learning; and civility—a wonderful eighteenth-century term—the traits of an effective and responsible member of a civil society.”

While the Hagstrum report offered a thoughtful reconsideration of liberal education at Northwestern, its recommendations, which tended to be broad in scope, were soon overshadowed by more pressing campus issues including the push to increase enrollments, the promotion of research, and the student unrest of the late 1960s and early ’70s. Comprehensive curricular reform during this turbulent time was difficult to achieve and the changes being made were often driven by many forces, not just reflections by the faculty. Perhaps the most notable curricular development during this time was the creation of the Department of African-American Studies in 1972, which demonstrated the political imperatives of the times and which made manifest the desires of an increasingly diverse student body and increasingly receptive faculty.

As the era of unrest passed, attention turned again to the larger arts and sciences curriculum, which was in “chaos,” according to Bill Heyck. Indeed, the College’s distribution requirements, which were set up along divisional lines, resembled a “Chinese menu” of choices, said another, former Associate Dean Bob Coen. College administrators thought this lack of structure necessitated change. Following relatively brief tenures by Robert Strotz, Laurence Nobles, and Hanna Gray, Rudy Weingartner was named Dean of the College in 1974. Under Weingartner’s direction, the College applied for and received a grant from the Lilly Foundation to support the restructuring of the general education requirements in the interest of greater curricular coherence. The funds were useful in encouraging faculty to design both freshman seminars, with an emphasis on dialectical rather than didactic pedagogy (the first freshman seminars had been implemented by the history department in 1969 “to encourage history majors to be more engaged and less passive”), and new courses appropriate to the goals of a revised distribution scheme based on the major areas of intellectual inquiry in the arts and sciences.

Offering freshman seminars across all College departments was “a Northwestern innovation,” notes Chemistry professor Joseph Lambert. The seminars were to be small discussion courses that emphasized written argument. Faculty, not graduate students, were to lead the seminars, serve as advisers, and introduce students to the techniques of analysis in, and philosophical perspectives of, a given discipline. Moreover, and perhaps uniquely among schools of Northwestern’s stature, first-year students would take two freshman seminars, not just one as became the case at many colleges and universities, assuming they were offered at all. To the College’s foreign language proficiency requirement, defined as the completion of two years of college level work in a foreign language, was added the writing proficiency requirement. By replacing the old Freshman Composition course with writing intensive freshman seminars, the College mandated that students demonstrate their ability to write in order to receive their degree. The Writing Program was also established at this time, both to provide students with help in their writing and to aid freshman seminar professors, who were serving as writing instructors as well. Taken together, the introduction in the mid-1970s of freshman seminars, freshman advisers, and the writing requirement made the College’s freshman year distinctive both in the ’70s and today.

It was also during the mid-1970s that the College’s distribution requirements took on their current form of two courses in each of six broad intellectual areas. The driving philosophy behind the distribution requirements was that students ought to have exposure to the full spectrum of the humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences and to the different methodologies used in various disciplines, e.g., textual criticism, archival research, and scientific method. Importantly, only courses that were foundational in nature could satisfy the distribution requirements, i.e., they were to be broad in their coverage of subject matter in a way that gave students a philosophical perspective of a discipline, in addition to introducing students to the essential techniques of analysis in multiple academic fields. Increased faculty debate about whether survey courses achieve this goal, and enrollment pressures over subsequent years, have reduced the emphasis on survey courses in the last decade.

Interdisciplinarity Starts in ’40s, Booms in ’70s

Interdisciplinarity in the college curriculum first emerged, somewhat ironically, with the completion of the Technological Institute in 1942, when it was decided that chemistry and physics were to be part of Tech, which serves primarily as the home of the McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science. That engineering, chemistry and physics ought to be taught in the same building to promote research conversations among faculty was a novel idea, and it pointed to the idea behind interdisciplinarity; namely, that the organization of subjects and fields in different ways ought to be based on changing conceptions of human knowledge. This arrangement at Northwestern effectively bridged science and engineering and allowed for the development of materials science—a Northwestern invention, according to chemistry professor Mark Ratner. The interdisciplinary program in African Studies was likewise established in 1948, yet the majority of the undergraduate interdisciplinary programs familiar to students today were first introduced in the 1970s.

The Integrated Science Program (ISP), founded in 1976, presented a new way of looking at undergraduate science education in that it comprised a general natural sciences curriculum integrated with mathematics, as opposed to focusing on a single traditional science discipline. Importantly, ISP also required its elite scientific generalists to complete the College’s distribution requirements. True to the College’s tradition, ISP students were to be as well-versed in the liberal arts as their collegiate peers; ISP was not to be an MIT-style program for specialists. As a selective interdisciplinary major, ISP also served as a model for Mathematical Methods in the Social Sciences (MMSS), a program founded in 1978 combining the study of social sciences with mathematics and statistics, and Mathematical Experience for Northwestern Undergraduates (MENU), a program for students with especially strong mathematical skills who are interested in mathematics, both pure and applied. Interdisciplinarity was also fostered between the social sciences and the humanities, and indeed across the university, with the development of the selective entrance American Studies program in 1974. The ultimate sign of interdisciplinary work, the College’s ad hoc major, was introduced during this time as well. Just as the qualities of the freshman year made the Northwestern collegiate curriculum distinctive, so too the College’s efforts to break down disciplinary barriers, and thus promote intellectual cross-fertilization among different academic subjects, helped to distinguish the College’s curriculum from those at other institutions of higher education during the 1970s.

The Heyck Report Anticipates Contemporary College

In 1988 a new comprehensive report was issued by the Task Force on the Undergraduate Experience. Under the chairmanship of Bill Heyck of the history department, the report, which became know colloquially as the “Heyck Report,” undertook to review “the full range of the undergraduate experience, including curriculum, pedagogy, student support, and student life.” Regarding the curriculum, especially in the arts and sciences, the report authors argued that, in addition to breadth and depth of knowledge, the University should ensure that all Northwestern students attain superlative levels of competence in three areas: writing and oral communication, natural science, and quantitative analysis. As the authors stated, “Matthew Arnold put it best more than a hundred years ago: a liberal education is the study of the best that has been thought and said in the world, but it is also the effort to make the best that has been thought and said effective—as he put it, ‘to make reason and the will of God prevail’.” In short, argued the task force, the mission of the College of Arts and Sciences is “to graduate students who have knowledge of the world and the ability to acquire that knowledge, and who have analytical skills, an appetite for learning, the ability to think rigorously and to communicate clearly and forcefully, and a sensitivity to that which is beautiful and that which is good.”

To manifest these ideas in the college curriculum, the task force made recommendations that are still being realized today in the 21st century. One recommendation was to create a common experience for Northwestern undergraduates. This goal has been achieved in part through the adoption of liberal arts distribution requirements by Northwestern’s undergraduate pre-professional schools. The University’s “One Book, One Northwestern” program, which was launched in 2006 with Shakespeare’s Othello, has provided an opportunity for all undergraduates to engage in common intellectual exploration. James Baldwin’s Go Tell It On The Mountain was followed in 2008 by The Reluctant Mr. Darwin, by David Quammen, chosen to celebrate the 150th anniversary of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species.

Within the College, another task force goal has been increasingly realized as well in the ever-increasing number of students who engage in research, especially seniors writing theses. This type of work, which draws on the 19th century German tradition of encouraging faculty and graduate students at the cutting edge of research and knowledge, has been matched with equal development at Northwestern of the even older British “Oxbridge” model of residential college life. Staring in 1972 with five residential colleges, today the program boasts more than two dozen residential colleges, both thematic and not. Dean Rudy Weingartner had stated in the 1970s that universities no longer taught moral philosophy—the old capstone course of the 19th century college—because no one on the faculty felt qualified to do so. While the emphases of the residential colleges may be different, together they share the perennial goal of the old moral philosophy course, to develop students of character, albeit through residential rather than classroom experiences.

The Active Intellect and the College Today

The College of Arts and Sciences Plan for the 1990s, known as “The Active Intellect,” was issued in October 1991. The report offered a sobering view of higher education nationally: the number of high school seniors had shrunk; the number of natural sciences majors had “declined seriously;” the demand for business-oriented programs had increased; the public was concerned about “political correctness” and rising costs. In short, argued the report, “a number of conditions have conspired recently to constrain institutions of higher learning, limit their aspirations for the near term, and raise public eyebrows about the nobility of their cause.” By contrast, the report authors suggested that at Northwestern, “many of the national anxieties over teaching, funding, and political pressures are minimized here by our sense of stability, vision, and tolerance.” The College’s mission, argued the report, was:

"To provide a superior undergraduate liberal arts education, in which breadth is assured by courses introducing diverse modes of inquiry and by selected interdisciplinary programs, and depth is achieved in specialized courses, independent study, and student research organized into major concentrations and certificate programs."

In the 21st century, the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences has realized the mission set forth in the 1990s. Weinberg students, who number approximately 1000 per class, choose a major, or increasingly, majors—many of them interdisciplinary—from more than 25 departments and 28 programs across the humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences. The 45 courses required for the B.A. degree, the College’s sole degree, are comprised of major requirements, electives, and distribution requirements which include at least two courses in each of six intellectual areas: natural sciences, formal studies (such as mathematics and logic), social and behavioral sciences, historical studies, ethics and values, and literature and fine arts. Students in the College must also take two freshman seminars and demonstrate proficiency in both writing and a foreign language.

To the more traditional courses in aspects of western civilization have been added courses in many international subjects, including cultural studies and languages such as Arabic and Chinese. This prolific growth has been promoted by both a top-down interest of faculty in internationalizing the curriculum and bottom-up demand from students who are increasingly diverse (incoming freshmen in 2008 hail from 27 different countries) and who desire ever-greater course offerings in formerly absent areas, such as Asian-American Studies. Expanding study abroad options, including those in Global Health, have attracted hundreds of students. New programs, such as the Kaplan Humanities Scholars Program for freshmen, inaugurated in 2007, continue to promote interdisciplinarity in, and the internationalization of, the college curriculum. Likewise, the role of research has been greatly aided by the Weinberg Undergraduate Research Grants Program, established in 2000, which now provides over $200,000 annually to college students in the form of academic year grants, conferences presentation grants, and summer research grants. Students across all three collegiate divisions use these funds in support of their independent scholarship—often thesis or honors work—in Northwestern’s labs and libraries, and sites further afield, both in Chicago and abroad. In an effort to help students navigate the far-ranging choices in today’s curriculum, the Weinberg College Advisers Program was established in 2001 to provide additional guidance and support to students from the time they are handed off by their freshman year advisers until they graduate. Indeed, freshman seminars, small classes, faculty teaching, and the advising programs have all served to maintain the advantages of a liberal arts college education in a major research university setting.

It is perhaps fitting that 2008-09 represents the inaugural year of the interdisciplinary Brady Scholars Program in Ethics and Civic Life. With an emphasis on leadership, the program at first appears to respond to a contemporary societal need, and it does. Yet at its core the Brady Program is fundamentally concerned with competencies and character, the foremost concerns of Northwestern’s founding curriculum in the 1850s. This is not to suggest that somehow the collegiate curriculum at Northwestern has come full circle to its antebellum roots. Rather, the collegiate curriculum at Northwestern remains committed both to cutting edge research, which advances the outer bounds of human knowledge, and to fundamental knowledge grounded in a liberal arts education—an education at once thoroughly contemporary and, at the same time, timeless.

Bill Haarlow is Director of College-Admission Relations and the Weinberg Undergraduate Research Grant Program. He is also Lecturer in the American Studies Program, where he teaches a seminar on the History of Higher Education in America.

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