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Academic Reflections 1

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American Experiences


More then 35 years have passed since I completed my B.Sc. degree at the University of Massachusetts. Experience has taught me why educators at the time believed so strongly in a well-balanced curriculum for undergraduate students. Thankfully, the humanities were heavily emphasized in my program. A series of short essays that I read in my freshman year began to open my eyes as to what universities and higher education were all about and what it meant to strive for excellence. These insights would form the basis of many of my own views on academic matters. Following are excerpts from three of the essays, published in Man and His Measure in 1964 (Francis Connolly, editor; Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc., publisher). The messages of each are timeless and worth sharing.

~ Essay One ~

The first essay is Universities and Their Function by Alfred North Whitehead (1861-1947). Whitehead begins his essay by describing the mission of the university. He states, "The justification for a university is that it preserves the connection between knowledge and the zest for life, by uniting the young and the old in the imaginative consideration of learning." He then explains that imagination is a way of illuminating facts. It works by eliciting the general principles which apply to the facts, as they exist, and then by an intellectual survey of alternative possibilities which are consistent with those principles. It enables men to construct an intellectual vision of a new world, and it preserves the zest of life by the suggestion of satisfying purposes. He concludes,  "Thus the proper function of a university is the imaginative acquisition of knowledge."

Given Whitehead's belief that the purpose of a university is to bring the young under the intellectual influence of imaginative scholars, it is not surprising that he addresses the conditions known to foster imagination and creativity. He first states,  "The combination of imagination and learning normally requires some leisure, freedom from restraint, freedom from harassing worry, some variety of experiences, and the stimulation of other minds diverse in opinion and diverse in equipment."  He asks,  "Do you want your teachers to be imaginative? Then encourage them to research." Whitehead also advises that "...the management of a university faculty has no analogy to that of a business organization... The faculty should be a band of scholars, stimulating each other, and freely determining their various activities." The heart of the matter, he says, lies beyond all regulation.

~ Essay Two ~

The second essay is The Method of Scientific Investigation by Thomas Henry Huxley (1825-1895). At the outset of his essay Huxley states,  "The method of scientific investigation is nothing but the expression of the necessary mode of working of the human mind. It is simply the mode at which all phenomena are reasoned about, rendered precise and exact."  He argues that the approach used by men of science to define and explain natural phenomena (i.e., by forming premises and hypotheses from long trains of inductive and deductive reasonings) is exactly the same as that pursued in common life. Huxley cautions that in the affairs of everyday life, as in science, there may be enormous differences in the value of hypotheses. He states,  "That one which is based on sound scientific knowledge is sure to have corresponding value; and that which is a mere hasty random guess is likely to have but little value."  Put another way,  "...the guess of the fool will be folly, while the guess of the wise man will contain wisdom."

~ Essay Three ~

The final essay is The Essentials of Education by Sir Richard Livingston (1880-1960). The aim of education, says Livingston, "...is to know the first-rate in any subject that we study, with a view to achieving it as nearly as our powers allow."  Beyond knowing what is first-rate in our daily occupation, Livingston asks, "Is not our education very incomplete if we do not know what is excellent in human nature and in life?" He adds, "...we need to have a clearer idea about the distinction between first-rate and second-rate, between good and bad, in conduct and in life." Livingston believes that if we wish to see man full face so that we can know what he is at his best, we must turn to literature where every thought, every vision, every fancy, every emotion that has ever passed through the human mind is recorded. He states, "...a lifetime of human contacts could not give us as wide an experience of human nature as literature can give."

Livingston encourages us to include in our reading, writers who have deep and long views of life, who will open our eyes and keep them open to realities to which they are apt to grow dim. Great writings, such as the Gettysburg speech by Abraham Lincoln and the close of his Second Inaugural, take us below the surface of life down to permanent issues. Livingston states, "Lincoln was a man with bifocal vision, a practical statesman, dealing all the time with the day-to-day problems of politics and war. Yet he was a man who at the same time saw them in the light of eternal issues." Livingston contends that great literature (e.g., the Bible, Plato and the great Greeks, Dante, Shakespeare) has the power to "...open and enlarge our minds, and to show us what is first-rate in human personality and human character by showing us goodness and greatness." He concludes by saying that any education which neglects this is incomplete and a very inadequate preparation for life.

Courses taken in the humanities did indeed teach me about people, including professors. Several first-hand incidents would also mark my thinking on how "imaginative scholars" see everyday life. To my surprise, one of my English professors was nearly brought to tears as he read a particularly moving passage of literature. Another of my professors in educational psychology suddenly stopped in the middle of a lecture to listen, along with some 200 students, to the last half of an inning of a Red Sox baseball game. This was in the fall of 1967. One of the students had brought a radio to class because Boston was in the World Series. I would also watch in awe as a professor taught a very rigorous course in organic chemistry using only a blackboard and a piece of chalk. No notes! Perhaps what caught my attention the most, however, was the response of Animal Science staff when, on one occasion, they suddenly realized that students could hear them drifting away from the collegial, Socratic approach to discussion. They continued talking, but in a manner more befitting professors.

Photos: (left) A welcoming sign to those eager to learn; (right) Goodell Library on the Amherst Campus. Photographs in the University of Massachusetts Index, 1968.

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2008 L. Sanford. Email