Failure to Launch

The history of higher ed is littered with big ideas that never quite took off.

People who pay attention to the field of higher education like to joke that it took decades for the overhead projector to make its way from the bowling alley to the classroom. Of course, this being academia, no one can quite agree on just how much time passed—some say thirty years, some say ten, some say forty—but the point generally goes unchallenged: colleges are conservative to a fault when it comes to incorporating new ideas. Up until the late nineteenth century, most American colleges were still feeding their students a curriculum developed in medieval Europe; faculty are still employed on a tenure system whose sole purpose seems to be to reward good work by taking away any incentive to ever do it again.

Nevertheless, ever since the first professor fell asleep during his own lecture, educators have been trying, and failing, to overhaul the system. The history of American higher education, for all the system’s enduring institutions, is littered with next big things, those game-changing innovations that were almost certainly going to add a new dimension to the Quadrangles—until they didn’t. Think of them as the Segway motorized scooters and Dippin’ Dots ice cream of higher education. So as we wait for the Internet to wash away the Ivory Tower, here’s a quick look at some of the paths not taken.

Let the people rule. Few big ideas have failed as fantastically as the one that turned administrative affairs into a Hobbesian state of nature. At the University of Wisconsin’s Experimental College (“Ex-College”), founded in 1927, students lived with their professors (known as “advisers”) and were encouraged to create their own democratic system to govern the two-year school. Alexander Meiklejohn, the program’s founder, believed that a liberal arts education would strengthen his students’ democratic ideals. Instead, his students rejected the idea of government entirely (although Meiklejohn could take small consolation in the fact that they at least reached their decision by democratic means). The move was indicative of a student body that, at least in the public eye, seemed so firmly resistant to convention that allegations of radicalism ran rampant. Wisconsonites took notice when an Ex-College alum, serving a one-year sentence at the Milwaukee House of Correction for fighting a police officer at a labor demonstration, announced a run for governor on the Communist Party ticket from his cell. An all-male student production of the sexually explicit comedy Lysistrata only compounded conservative Midwesterners’ suspicions.

Students weren’t likely to get much more structure from their academic pursuits, either: classes were informal, often conducted one-on-one, and a premium was placed on individual initiative. One group of students left campus for three weeks to ride the rails across the Depression-era Midwest, having decided on a whim to conduct independent-study projects on what it was like to live in a boxcar. There were no courses, only general topics: the first year was devoted almost entirely to learning about Periclean Athens, followed by a summer’s worth of reading on the growth of Muncie, Indiana. Tragically, the Experimental College closed in 1932, when support for the school evaporated among the general public and Meiklejohn had no choice but to pull the plug.

Physical education. Fueled by a combination of Protestant zeal and misplaced priorities, college educators in the late nineteenth century came to view physical education as every bit as critical to a balanced education as knowing one’s Virgil and Aeschylus. In an 1895 publication, the University of California, Berkeley, proudly compared the “physical culture” of its male students to those at Yale, Amherst, and Cornell, charting the increase in lung capacity, strength, and girth over two years as an alternative measurement of the school’s many virtues. Pioneers like the University of Kansas’s James Naismith (the inventor of basketball) and the University of Chicago’s Amos Alonzo Stagg (the inventor of the tackling dummy) were staunch proponents of Muscular Christianity, the idea that manliness and good health were essential components of a good Christian character. Even Theodore Roosevelt hopped on the bandwagon, arguing in The Strenuous Life that the American male had become soft in the belly and effeminate in nature; sports would instill the strength and discipline that was missing.

The growth of the athletic ideal, however, outpaced the safety precautions—the new contributions to student life often came at the expense of actual student lives. During the 1905 college football season, there were three fatalities and numerous injuries. (Putting his father’s ideas into practice, Ted Roosevelt Jr. broke his collarbone playing for Harvard.) A Cincinnati Commercial Tribune illustration that winter depicted a smiling Grim Reaper perched atop a goalpost, sickle in hand, peering down at a pile of bodies; as John Madden would say, “Boom!”

Universities instituted a spate of reforms, but even so, ten more football players died in action four years later. College faculty and administrators moved to ban the sport unless serious changes were made, helping to pave the way for, among other things, the forward pass. The idea that education was a physical process as well as a mental one has since lost much of its initial forward motion, but has left a legacy far more enduring: a model of intercollegiate sports as a high-stakes business in which universities seek revenue and exposure by running semiprofessional sports franchises.

Little Red Schoolhouse. Conservatives have long derided academia as a bastion of the peace-loving, free-market-hating, gender-neutral radical left. Ronald Reagan scored his first major political victory by vowing to “clean up the mess” at Berkeley during his first gubernatorial campaign, later delivering on the promise by dispatching the National Guard to Telegraph Avenue. Former North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms once dismissed his state’s flagship University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill campus as “the University of Negroes and Communists.” But in the early twentieth century, a number of colleges did spring up with the express purpose of promoting a far-left agenda. Some schools, like the Work People’s College in Minnesota and Brookwood Labor College in New York, simply ran their course. But none fell apart in quite as catastrophic a fashion as Arkansas’s Commonwealth College.

The idea, at least in the beginning, was that the school would value hard work, in and out of the classroom (students grew their own food), and develop the next generation of labor leaders. As founder and antiwar activist Kate Richards O’Hare announced when the school opened for business, “Commonwealth comes into being to build a culture in overalls and workmarked hands.” Instead, the school was effectively taken over by the Communist leadership of the Southern Tenant Farmers’ Union (STFU, as it was affectionately known). Rural Arkansans, it turned out, were reluctant converts to the cause; the school was accused of being funded by Soviet “red gold” and later blacklisted by the American Legion for a number of reasons, including failure to fly the Stars and Stripes. Under political pressure, the state rescinded the school’s accreditation in 1940. Commonwealth did produce one notable politician, however: Arkansas’s militantly segregationist governor Orval Faubus briefly attended the school, a historical curiosity that, when revealed to the public, nearly derailed his first gubernatorial campaign.

Sensitivity training. Think the Real World meets Dead Poets Society. Enacted in—when else?—1969 at Johnston College, a cluster experiment of California’s University of the Redlands, the idea was to use a heightened sensitivity to one’s own feelings to create a more advanced learning environment. If students and faculty could more fully understand the emotions of their peers, learning would become a more collaborative and efficient process. It worked well enough for NASA, from whom the idea was loosely borrowed—but then, so did freeze-dried ice cream.

With a staff of psychologists on hand, students and faculty prepared for the first day of classes by playing volleyball and participating in thrice-daily encounter sessions during their summer retreat in the San Bernardino Mountains. Splitting into groups, students called each other names, hugged, cried, and then wrote about how it made them feel. At the time of the school’s founding, Time declared Johnston “The New Eden,” suggesting that the plan “could be a wavelet of the future.”

So how could a system built on something as sturdy as the psyches of eighteen-year-olds fall apart? Quite quickly, it turned out. The idea failed to win over students—enrollment dropped by nearly 70 percent within a decade—and not everyone’s feelings turned out to be so constructive: Redlands alumni wrote angry letters to administrators asking what had happened to their school. The free-for-all ended in 1979, when Redlands administrators folded Johnston, which had previously enjoyed semi-autonomy, into the university and toned down its curriculum.

The national university. Were it not for his ambiguous last wishes, James Smithson might best be remembered as the author of the scholarly paper “An Improved Method of Making Coffee” and for his analysis of the chemical properties of women’s teardrops. But upon his death, the wealthy British scientist willed his fortune to the United States—which he had never actually visited—to promote the “diffusion of knowledge among men” through an eponymous institution. The behest triggered a showdown over the first failed big idea to grip American higher education: the national university.

In a collegiate climate long dominated by pseudo-seminaries, a federally funded, secular research university that would serve as a magnet for the country’s best and brightest seemed like a natural fit. After independence, the Philadelphia physician and Founding Father Benjamin Rush proposed a national university focused on training Americans for the skills they’d need to build a competitive new nation. George Washington and each of the next four presidents agreed. But Congress, wary of expanding federal power, repeatedly said thanks, but no thanks, finally dealing the movement a fatal blow with the decision to appropriate Smithson’s funds toward a museum, not a school (or, as John Quincy Adams hoped, an observatory).

Perhaps it was for the better: while the federal government would eventually revolutionize higher learning with the Morrill Land Grant Act, the American model took a far more competitive tone than its founders first surmised. The first science departments popped up at top schools at roughly the same time the Smithsonian opened for business on the Mall, and demand for a national university disappeared.

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

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

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

Tim Murphy

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