Light on the hill: A history of Tufts College, 1852-1952

Miller, Russell


The sixth president of Tufts College had not been long in office before he let faculty, students, alumni, and Trustees know that he had wide-ranging plans for the College. At the first faculty meeting in 1923-24 and again at the opening exercises for the students that fall, he announced that "the College is entering upon a new epoch," that "a new era is dawning." He sensed change in the air and promised that he would be in the midst of it. He had informed the Trustees in his annual report for 1923 that the time had come for "a radical change in the organization of the College, the time for an experiment in education of extraordinary importance." There was, he said, no way in which Tufts was basically different from a score of other educational institutions except possibly that in some respects its work was not as well done as elsewhere. If Tufts strove for quality, not quantity, it might become "one of the outstanding centers of learning in America." To this end, he offered a blueprint for the future.[40] 

Cousens proposed to organize the College into three sections. The first would consist of a course of two years leading to the degree of Associate in Arts in which most of the work of the school of liberal arts, engineering, and the pre-medical and pre-dental programs would be carried out. Students prepared to do the prescribed work could be "received rather freely" from any regular high school, and the "artificial machinery" which currently encumbered college entrance could be dispensed with.[41]  Secondary school preparation and college performance could then be realistically correlated. The two-year sequence would be an end in itself for those unable for academic or other reasons to complete four years, and would allow students with greater academic talents to find themselves. Nine out of the fifteen semester hours for which the typical


student enrolled each semester would comprise a common core, and six hours of electives could be carefully controlled to assure unity of purpose.[42]  Cousens believed that a coherent goal was lacking for students in the conventional curriculum who dropped out after preparing "for something that never followed."

Students "rigidly selected" from those earning the A.A. degree would complete two years of more specialized work leading to the Bachelor's degree, such curriculum to include also what ordinarily comprised the first two years of professional training. The third section of the College, the professional schools proper, would offer one- or two-year programs, depending on the field. This capstone of the educational system, with from only twenty-five to no more than one hundred students in each division, would require "a superlative quality of work," and be "the prize for which students compete throughout the first and second sections." He suggested, besides the existing schools of medicine, dentistry, theology, engineering, and the graduate school, schools of law, business, and teaching. This three-step pyramidal academic structure, based strictly on survival of the academic fittest, would all be housed on one campus so that a true university could be said to exist. Cousens was the first to acknowledge that his plan revealed "staggering proportions" and that it would take millions of dollars and probably the span of a generation to create. "A new educational objective" was the great task for the years ahead, and here it was.

The president realized that determination of educational policy was primarily within the province of the faculty, but in what he perceived to be "the present crisis" of higher education, Trustees and faculty had to work together. Possibly a joint committee might criticize and develop his plan. Whether he knew it or not, the way had already been paved for such a procedure. The faculty during Hamilton's administration had been concerned about the lack of close relations between faculty and Trustees, and Bumpus had pointedly called attention to the need for improved communication between the two bodies. There had been little opportunity to


consider this subject seriously during the critical years of the First World War. After more normal conditions returned, the Executive Committee in 1919 had taken up the question and had recommended that a standing Trustee Committee on Faculty and Curriculum be created, to confer and consult at least twice a year with a similar committee selected by the faculty. Its purpose was "to promote mutual knowledge, confidence, and co-operation . . . in all matters pertaining to the welfare of the College." The Board took no action on this proposal at the time. Cousens' reorganization plan, presented to the Trustees in 1923, failed to produce even a resolution.

The president did his best to get the faculty interested in general educational problems by appointing a committee to arrange for a series of informal meetings in 1925-26. That effort having produced no tangible results, a Committee on the Reorganization of the College was created in the spring of 1926; a year later a Trustee committee was appointed to work with the faculty committee, but no action was forthcoming from that arrangement either. Cousens reported ruefully to the Trustees that the faculty were "definitely opposed" to reorganizing the undergraduate program as a two-year unit, and there the matter rested.

Cousens' next attempt to introduce educational innovations occurred in 1928-29 but did not represent as radical a set of changes as his previous unsuccessful attempts. He proposed this time to reorganize the curriculum for seniors in liberal arts by relieving them of conventional course requirements, introducing the tutorial system and individual projects in their field of major interest, and requiring a general examination. Nothing having come of this proposal in terms of faculty response, Cousens then used the Trustees as a sounding board and intimated in 1930 that their basic obligation was to study "the ultimate objective of education," while that of the faculty was to make changes "in the methods of education." He was still hopeful that some day he would be able to convince a sufficient number of the right people that a large part of the senior year, at least, in the school of liberal arts could be devoted to distinctly professional training.

The numerous recommendations made by President Cousens for an overhauling, or at least a rethinking, of the curriculum in the school of liberal arts and Jackson may not have fallen on


completely deaf ears, but those parts of the Associated Faculties on the Hill failed to be stirred to any great degree. Continuity seemed to have more merit than change. The Hill faculties did review the A.B. and B.S. degree requirements in 1931-32 and did agree to some changes. The most drastic was in the science and social science requirements. Each was reduced from twenty-four semester hours to twelve, and mathematics, a required subject from the day the College opened, now became an optional alternative in meeting the science requirement. President Cousens was "a little sorry" to see the mathematics requirement abandoned, because it seemed "the surest means by which the fact that a student possessed a college mind could be established." He reconciled himself to the change by expressing a belief that curriculum requirements should be expressed in terms of group rather than single courses anyway.[43] 

Tufts had always been a source of supply for secondary school teachers, but it was not until the 1930's that pressure was noticeable from state agencies, professional educators, and public school systems to require a significantly large number of education courses to meet certification and accrediting requirements. President Cousens looked with distinct disfavor on the mounting number of so-called professional courses required in education, considering them a distinct threat to "the fundamental principles of a Liberal Arts curriculum." At the same time, in fairness to both the students and the educational system, these requirements had to be satisfied and adequate teacher preparation provided. After much discussion, the faculty in 1933 forbade a student to earn more than eighteen credits (including practice teaching) in the Department of Education.

The most controversial item on the agenda of the faculty in the fall of 1934 was the retention of the classical language requirement for the A.B. degree. Either Greek or Latin had always been required of a candidate for the A.B., and for almost fifty years both


had been required. The requirement by the early 1920's had become a pro forma affair, usually completed in the freshman year, and with very few taking any courses in either language beyond the prescribed minimum. The College had been faithful to the idea of the A.B. as a symbol of a classical education, but the latter had become largely a fiction. For some twenty years prior to 1934, only about 10 per cent of the graduates of the school of liberal arts had received the A.B. The overwhelming majority of the students had elected the B.S. degree, if only to escape the classical language requirement. After much debate, it was proposed that the requirements for admission for both the A.B. and the B.S. degree program, so far as the language requirement was concerned, be made identical; as a concession to those students who had earned four units in Latin or three in Greek in high school, they were to be admitted with fourteen units instead of fifteen. It was the consensus of the faculty that both A.B. and B.S. degrees should be granted and that the distinction between the two should rest on something more meaningful than a classical language requirement. But when it came to an actual vote, the faculty at first failed to agree on the specifics and considered no less than five plans for revision of degree requirements. It was finally agreed that the classical language requirement should be dropped both for admission and for either degree program.[44] 

President Cousens was receptive to experimentation in yet another direction besides curriculum, but again his plans were not received as enthusiastically by the faculty as he would have wished, and the Trustees did not become sufficiently interested to take any formal action. He had decided by 1932-33 that the academic calendar might be overhauled with profit to all concerned. The two-semester system was, in his estimation, a wasteful and expensive anachronism that resulted in duplication of accounting records and an elaborate plant left idle for much of the year. He came to the conclusion that the division of the academic year into two terms was "a mistake." Because of it, the catalogue was too full of short courses, time was lost at midyears, and grades were being


reported more often than necessary. He suggested that the time between semesters in January and February be used partly by the faculty for individual student conferences instead of for an excessively prolonged examination period.[45] 


[40] He went so far as to send a copy of his plans to the president of the General Education Board in 1921, but received only a courteous acknowledgment.

[41] In a memorandum which Cousens prepared for his own use, some of the important items he listed under the heading of "College Entrance Requirements" were: "(1) Statistics show that specific preparation for college is not necessary. (2) To impose on the high schools special college preparatory courses distorts the curriculum and diverts the general purpose.... (5) Graduation from an accredited high school should be the only college entrance requirement. (6) It is the business of the college to do its own sifting of material."

[42] The philosophy back of the first two parts of Cousens' proposal was much like that of the "General College" and "University College" movement so popular in the 1930's, particularly among large universities. This movement, in turn, reflected the concept of the "core curriculum" then popular in secondary schools.

[43] Freshman English remained the exception. The reductions in the so-called "distribution" requirements in the revised curriculum were made up in part by increasing the major concentration to thirty credits. There were unsuccessful efforts to require three sciences for all, including mathematics or logic for B.S. candidates. The latter course, "The Organization of Precise Thinking," was to have been offered by the Mathematics Department for those who found "difficulty, either real or fancied," in mathematics. A move to add psychology to the list of social science options was defeated.

[44] The distinction between the A.B. and the B.S. degrees was determined by the subject in which the students chose to do their major work; they were to indicate at the end of the sophomore year the degree for which they expected to be candidates.

[45] This idea bore an interesting general resemblance to the so-called "reading and consultation period" (optional with the instructor) which went into effect in 1964-65 as a substitute for regular class work during the "lame duck" period after the end of the Christmas holidays the first semester and after the spring holidays the second semester. However, the two-semester academic year was left unchanged.

  • Light on the Hill, the history of Tufts College, was published to coincide with the centennial of the institution in 1952. A second volume was published in 1986. This edition was created from the 1966 edition of Light on the Hill, Volume I.
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