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Old Prose and Old Pros

By Clifton Cherpack

Having once served on a committee to investigate innovations in undergraduate education across the country, I found much that was only too familiar in the "new" proposals set forth in the report ("The Advancement of Undergraduate Education") recently issued by the Office of the Vice-Provost for Undergraduate Studies. It is all there: the off-campus and out-of-the-classroom education; the interdisciplinarianism; the living-learning arrangements; the expansible, collapsible, portable, individual, collective, mini-maxi majors; and the inevitable encouragement of the faculty to give over at least some of the work for which they have presumably been trained in order to plunge with an amateur's enthusiasm into nurturing and improving "the educational aspects of residential life, extra-curricular activities, and so on" (Par. 50).

After considerable reflection on the extraordinary and frequently ill-fated changes in one institution studied in depth by my committee, I have concluded that most of them were due to the fact that, since this institution offered little graduate work, and since the most able faculty members tended to move on to universities having more graduate work, few people were left on this campus who had a truly professional grasp of what constitutes disciplined, disinterested inquiry and who, on this basis, were willing or able to try to distinguish between knowledge and impressions or assertions. The initiative fell into the hands of young innovators who put their theories into practice virtually unopposed, and who often, when the practice went sour, went away, leaving hapless students and faculty members to deal with their errant brainchildren.

Fortunately, in theory at any rate, this is not the case here. There are plenty of faculty members at Penn who are competent and experienced enough to be able to know what a university can and legitimately should do, and to distinguish between changes that will enhance the learning that is proper to the university and changes, however faddish, that are not in the institution's areas of responsibility and competence. Such men and women will know from their own experience and from experiences of their colleagues elsewhere that students who are not committed to the kind of learning that is proper to the university (referred to in paragraphs 19, 20, and 31) will undoubtedly not be "won over" to such learning by the suggested schemes, and indeed, will probably not find these schemes, after the moment of novelty has passed, any more responsive to their "needs and interests" than the present ones. These faculty members will conclude that that it makes little sense to sacrifice anything of what the university does well to what it probably cannot do at all, or, at best, to what it can do no better than another sort of enterprise, like a hitchhiking trip around the world.

The "old pro" kind of faculty members that I am talking about will not attack the Vice-Provost and his co-workers for their report or for their construction of "mechanisms of implementation." He will understand that it is quite simply their job to suggest schemes, however stale they may already be elsewhere, however unfortunate they may have proved to have been elsewhere, however dangerous they may prove to be here, and to try to get them "implemented". He will further understand that if some of these schemes prove to be valuable in the long run, the Vice-Provost and his co-workers may get some of the credit, but that if some or even all of them should prove to be irreparably disastrous, the Vice-Provost and his co-workers will not be held responsible or accountable. The "old pro" will know that this is the way of the world, and that, since he and his colleagues and the students will do the suffering, if suffering there be as the result of these schemes, he will have to do his best to see to it that the proposals contained in this report are subjected to the most rigorous evaluation possible and that he will at least have some say in regard to their adoption, revision, or rejection.

If all else fails, he can perhaps see to it that all graduate departments or interdisciplinary groups require (sorry, I mean "win their students over to") maxi-minors in recreation leadership, inter-personal counseling, tour management, and the other skills that the future Ph.D. would need if he should be one day caught up willy-nilly in the advancement of undergraduate education as described in this report. Surely, the Vice-Provost does not mean to imply that any untrained person can participate successfully in extra-classroom and extra-disciplinary education, since it follows that if any body can do it there is no reason for teacher-scholars to do it. Besides, this suggestion that we train future Ph.D.'s in these tasks should please the Vice-Provost, since he writes in his report: "In principle it is better that new educational programs emerge from departments than that they be superimposed on existing structures by the Provost or the schools" (Par. 24). (If the word "superimposed in this quotation seems to the "old pro" faculty member to have a nasty ring to it, he will try not to react in an excessive manner, but may well consider this is a curious lapse in style if no threat is really intended.)

So we see that, given the presence of so many competent and responsible faculty members at Penn, and assuming the knowledge on the part of the administration that forcing (superimposing?) innovations on a reluctant faculty would be counter-productive, we are clearly in no danger of embarking on reckless experimentation in undergraduate education, and that the Vice-Provost's report should only be regarded as another occasion for friendly debate and possible compromise at faculty meetings.

Why, then, does that small voice keep whispering that when poverty walks in the door, reason, experience, and democratic processes tend to go out the window?


Originally published in Almanac April 25, 1972




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