Alexander Meiklejohn 1893
If the New Curriculum has a spiritual godfather, it is arguably the controversial educator and First Amendment scholar Alexander Meiklejohn. An indefatigable experimenter, Meiklejohn spent much of his life pushing curricular reform and constitutional freedom to its limits. Most of his attempts at putting his educational ideas into practice failed, but his writings have inspired many others, including President John F. Kennedy, who selected Meiklejohn to receive one of the first Presidential Medals of Freedom.
Meiklejohn began his career teaching philosophy, logic, and metaphysics at Brown and was named the second dean of the University in 1901. Twelve years later he became president of Amherst College, where his idealistic notions about education started to get him into trouble. After being called everything from a Bolshevik to a pacifist, Meiklejohn was forced to resign from Amherst in 1923. Turning down the presidencies of a number of colleges, he chose instead to accept an invitation from the University of Wisconsin to set up an experimental college that would implement his educational ideas.
The experiment lasted four years and was in many ways a precursor to the Brown of the 1970s. Meiklejohn opposed the twentieth-century model of a curriculum as a constellation of requirements in various subjects culminating in a degree in a particular major. He abolished traditional academic subject categories and organized the two-year Wisconsin program around “civilizations.” The first year focused on Greek civilization and the second on the contemporary United States. The students, who were all reading the same books, lived in one dorm, knocking down the distinction between academic and social life.
One of Meiklejohn’s central beliefs was that intelligence was nothing more than “the power of self-direction,” an article of faith that would later inform his career as a passionate defender of free speech and freedom of the press. His writings have been cited frequently in rulings by the U.S. Supreme Court, particularly in the landmark New York Times v. Sullivan case of 1964, which expanded freedom of the press by ruling that “actual malice” was required for public figures to collect damages from the publication of false statements against them. Meiklejohn published Free Speech and Its Relation to Self-Government, his first book on civil liberties, when he was seventy-six; he published his second in 1960, when he was eighty-eight. He died four years later.
Samuel Nabrit ’32 Ph.D.
When Samuel Nabrit came to Brown his welcome was far from assured. He had already received a discouraging letter telling him that, although his credentials—including a year on the faculty of Morehouse College—were impeccable, he would not be accepted. Only the intervention of John Hope 1894 (see page 54), then president of Morehouse, got him in.
The reason? Nabrit is black. “They said that the biology department was like a family,” he recalls, “and that they were worried a Negro might disrupt that familial feeling.” It was an inauspicious beginning for the man who would go on to be the first African American Ph.D. at Brown and to become the University’s first black trustee.
Nabrit, who is now 95 and living in Atlanta, grew up in a family where respect for learning was inculcated from birth. His paternal grandparents both graduated from college, and his father was a minister and high school teacher. All eight of Nabrit’s siblings went to college, five obtained graduate degrees, and one went on to become president of Howard University.
Not surprisingly, Nabrit also settled for a career in academia. For many years he was a professor at Atlanta University and later was named president of Texas Southern University (TSU) in Houston. He was also a member of the Atomic Energy Commission, and founded both the Southern Fellowship Fund and Upward Bound, organizations that foster academic advancement among African Americans.
The inspiration for Upward Bound came when Nabrit was asked to give the commencement speech at a Houston high school. When Nabrit learned that 90 percent of the students from the school weren’t able to do college-level work, he started a TSU summer program in reading, math, and logical thinking, recruiting twenty-two Yale undergraduates to live in the dorms and provide tutoring.
Nabrit is at work on his autobiography, which will be published by Atlanta University Press in February.
John Hope 1894
In the post-Reconstruction United States, there were two opposing views of the fight for equality among African Americans. The most popular, put forth by Booker T. Washington, recommended that African Americans put aside their demands for equal rights until after they’d gained an economic foothold by developing farming and industrial skills. The opposing view, advanced by sociologist and NAACP cofounder W.E.B. Du Bois, held that segregation and its accompanying lynchings meant that African Americans could only end their unequal status through civil protests and political agitation.
One of W.E.B. Du Bois’s allies on the education front was John Hope, the son of a Scottish father and African-American mother. After his graduation from Brown, Hope taught briefly at Roger Williams University in Nashville before becoming a classics professor at Atlanta Baptist College, which was soon renamed Morehouse College. In 1906 Hope became Morehouse’s first African-American president. Over the next twenty-five years the college’s enrollment went from twenty-one students to 359.
Hope’s views on race were reinfor
ced during World War I, when he served as a YMCA secretary with African-American soldiers in France, an experience that allowed him to see firsthand how badly they were treated, even when they were giving their lives for their country. After returning to the United States and witnessing the post-war race riots that consumed many northern cities, he became convinced that more had to be done for equality among the races. In 1905 he had been one of the cofounders of the Niagara Movement, a forerunner of the NAACP. Now he organized the Commission on Interracial Cooperation and became its first president.
In 1929 Morehouse and Spelman, a college for African-American women, joined with Atlanta University, and Hope became the resulting school’s president. Over the next seven years he presided over the first graduate school for African Americans, a result of his conviction that African-American students needed more than technical skills to make their way in the world. An advanced liberal arts education was the intellectual base, he believed, that would motivate them to be free.
Hope died in 1936; among those who mourned his passing was W.E.B. Du Bois, who wrote: “Negroes liked him because they felt him so thoroughly a part of them; and yet he was shy and unselfish and with a fine sense of humor. No situation was so tragic and cruel but what he saw its essential comedy.”
Mary Emma Woolley 1894, 1895 A.M.
A social, political, and academic reformer, mary emma Woolley once said it is a woman’s obligation “to take an active part in solving the world’s problems, in doing our share of the world’s thinking, and in shaping the world that is to be.”
In 1901 the 38-year-old Woolley, who was one of the first two graduates of the Women’s College, was named president of Mount Holyoke. She immediately set to work transforming the school from a female seminary into a major American college. She insisted, for example, that all faculty members earn doctorates, and she started a new system of sabbaticals to encourage scholarship. This put the school at the forefront of a new educational movement, as described in The Search for Equity: Women at Brown University, 1891–1991: “Large universities like Harvard, Chicago, Stanford, and others were professionalizing their faculties in the same way as Woolley envisioned. But the difference at Mount Holyoke was the overwhelming proportion of women on the faculty.” During Woolley’s thirty-seven-year tenure at Mount Holyoke, the faculty and student body doubled and the endowment grew more than 800 percent.
Named one of the twelve greatest women in the country by Good Housekeeping in 1931, Woolley was a tireless promoter of world peace. President Hoover appointed her as U.S. delegate to the 1932 Geneva conference on arms reduction, making Woolley the first American woman to serve as a delegate to any major international conference. Woolley’s Christian faith was central to her activism. “She rendered invaluable service,” an admirer said at her 1947 memorial service, “in aligning academic and Church forces on the side of world friendship.”
Ira Magaziner ’69
Elliot Maxwell ’68
As undergraduates during a time of tremendous social upheaval, Ira Magaziner and Elliot Maxwell turned their energy, idealism, and impatience toward the University’s curriculum and produced a 500-page blueprint for reform. That working paper became the foundation of the New Curriculum—the distinctive course of study that has shaped the University for the past thirty years, turning a once-sleepy regional college into a commanding force in higher education.
Although many of the specifics have changed over time (in 1990 graduation requirements were increased from twenty-eight to thirty courses, for instance), the pair’s insistence that students take responsibility for designing their own course of study remains central to Brown’s identity.
Magaziner and Maxwell also insisted on the importance of interdisciplinary study, a value that has inoculated the Brown faculty against the worst dangers of specialization. Starting in the early 1970s the University began formalizing the most commonly trod academic intersections, creating departments and centers for urban studies, semiotics, energy studies, women’s studies, law and liberal education, and environmental studies. Since then the number of concentration programs has more than doubled, from forty to eighty-five.
Although detractors have continued to mock Brown’s curriculum—the S/NC grade option and lack of a prescribed core have garnered the lion’s share of scorn—it has indisputably led to higher admission standards and a more competitive student body. In the early 1980s Brown became the hardest school in the country to get into, an edge that has permitted the admission office to select for students able to handle not only tough workloads but freedom as well.
In the thirty-one years since Magaziner graduated, he has continued to redesign the world around him, but on a larger scale. When his attempt to rewrite U.S. health-care policy failed, Magaziner reportedly offered to quit his post in the White House, but President Clinton asked him to stay on and shift his focus to Internet policy. He has since been credited with dictating the federal government’s laissez-faire approach to cyberspace—the impact of which remains to be seen in the twenty-first century.
For now, however, Magaziner and Maxwell’s most striking contribution remains their first: the Brown they set into motion with their innovative vision of higher education. Perhaps the greatest tribute to their idea is that after three decades it is still fresh enough to retain that adjective new.