Reflection on an educational experiment: Tutorials, 1965

In the first chapter of The Education of Henry Adams (1907), Adams tells us of a tantrum he had when he was seven. He was to start school, and he stood at the base of the stairway and screamed at his mother that he wouldn’t go, and that there was nothing she could do to make him, etc, etc.

The door of his grandfather’s study soon opened, and John Quincy Adams, sixth president of the United States—a couple years from his death, exited the study and made his way down the staircase. There, he took young Henry’s hand, and without a word they walked into town and to school. John Quincy seated his grandson at his desk, then turned and walked home.

So, what has this to do with the education of Henry Adams? you might ask. Absolutely everything.


Some years ago, my car-pool-mate discovered that I love baseball, and he suggested that we go to a batting cage and hit some flies. We had to wait in line for our turn, and ahead of us was a young man of about sixteen. At his turn, he proceeded to hit three, maybe four, maybe five fouls right into his own face. There were tears in his eyes but no more than in the eyes of his father who had brought him there. Finally, he straightened one out, and the waiting crowd—all male—cheered mightily.

As we left, I mentioned to my buddy that if it had been his mother who had brought him to the cage, she would have had him out of there after the first foul. Yeah, he said, and he never would have learned to hit the ball.


In this excerpt from Jane Austin’s Pride and Prejudice, Lizzie is interviewed by Lady Catherine de Bourgh upon their first meeting.

“Has your governess left you?”

“We never had any governess.”

“No governess! How was that possible? Five daughters brought up at home without a governess! ? I never heard of such a thing. Your mother must have been quite a slave to your education.”

Elizabeth could hardly help smiling as she assured her that had not been the case.

“Then, who taught you? Who attended to you? Without a governess you must have been neglected.”

“Compared with some families, I believe we were; but such of us as wished to learn, never wanted the means. We were always encouraged to read, and had all the masters that were necessary. Those who chose to be idle, certainly might.”

“Aye, no doubt: but that is what a governess will prevent, and if I had known your mother, I should have advised her most strenuously to engage one. I always say that nothing is to be done in education without steady and regular instruction, and nobody but a governess can give it.”


Some students scheduled to enter San Jose State College (SJS) in the fall of 1965 were invited to participate in an experimental program. The college (the state, really) required any bachelor degree to comprise n number of credits in basic educational topics. Although it was presumed that the student would dedicate his first two years to satisfying this requirement for a basic education, in practice a student might well be taking the last of those credits in his final year. There are a million reasons for this, many of them legitimate.

The Tutorials in Letters and Science program offered credit for that supposedly two-year experience, after which the student was free to take any upper division classes he cared to. In other words, the student would take one 12-unit course for each of four semesters. The matter of that course would constitute the Tutorials program. The following chart gives the general education equivalents for the Tutorials course.

To be honest, I doubt that any of us knew what we’d be missing. I suspect that one attraction to incoming students might have been that any necessity to choose a major could be safely postponed for those first two years. Because a “full load” was defined as 15 credits, most of us chose to also take one course from the conventional college offerings.

I entered SJS as a pre-med student. At an initial meeting of such folks (fewer than I would have expected, by the way), our pre-med advisor told us to look around. “Only a quarter of you will graduate in pre-med.” We all laughed. Also, I was told by that advisor that the department was allowing a pre-med student to enroll in Tutorials, but they weren’t happy about it. It was expected that we would use our single non-Tutorials class per semester to do what we could to comply with the pre-med guidelines. I had already enrolled in Biology 1, so I was ready.

I recall very little of that first year. No memories of the first semester exist at all, except for some chewing out by my tutor (normally, an English professor) for an inability to write anything more complex than my name, and he wasn’t so sure about that. The subject matter was Ancient Greece, and although I have lots of memories about that subject, I also studied philosophy in my junior and senior years, and the philosophy program requires a founding in Greek philosophy, so the origin of the memories is somewhat unclear. I think that some folks were let go from the program at the end of each semester, but it’s unlikely that this particular teacher got his complete wish. After all, it would have meant the end of the program.

So, what were we involved in?

If we had read Gary Albright’s [one of the six Tutorials professors] “The New Tutorial Program,” probably included in our college registration materials, we would have learned that the program was based upon an experiment Alexander Meiklejohn had conducted at the University of Wisconsin from 1927 through 1932. It had failed, but having the Great Depression occur two years after starting the program, it could be argued that it didn’t really get a good chance. We know now that a disciple of Meiklejohn—but not a participant in that early program, Joseph Tussman, had arranged to begin the modern version of the experiment at the University of California, Berkeley, also beginning in fall 1965. Mr Tussman was related by marriage to a professor at SJS—Mervyn Cadwallader, and Cadwallader clearly matched Tussman for enthusiasm and commitment.

The SJS program had recruited six SJS professors and invited 120 students (probably) into the program. Certainly, fewer than 100 finished the program, but how many fewer is probably lost to an absence of history.

What was this Meiklejohn trying to do?

In 1981, another Meiklejohn disciple and, in fact, teacher in that original Experimental College program at U of Wisconsin—John Walker Powell, issued an “edited and abridged” version of Meiklejohn’s original report on the U of Wisconsin experiment (written in 1932). Meiklejohn’s book of that time was called The Experimental College, and so was named Powell’s 1981 abridgement.

Powell begins his edition with his statement of Meiklejohn’s goals:

Creating a framework for the Experimental College was a difficult and challenging process for Meiklejohn and his ‘advisers’ (the term given to the teaching staff). Each decision was the product of constant discussion, dissent and debate, and subject to modification based on new experience. Frequent changes in the personnel of the advisers introduced new talent and fresh ideas to the project. But despite changes and revisions, the heart of the original plan was sustained during the college’s four-year existence:

  1. The curriculum ran for two consecutive years. But, those two years were comprised of one single, consecutive full-time “course” in which all students and all advisers participated at the same times throughout each year.
  2. The subject of the course was the nature and operation of a society, a “social order.” For the entire freshman year, the example was fifth century Athens; for the entire sophomore year, contemporary American culture.
  3. Each year’s study was further divided into six-week segments. Each focused on one characteristic element of the culture under study: class structure, government, economics, literature, the arts, and philosophy.
  4. Each student was required to read original works from the period and secondary texts about the society and the particular element of that society being studied; to write papers reflecting his perceptions and reactions; to attend a weekly tutorial conference with his adviser for that segment (assignments were shifted at the end of each segment), as well as lectures by advisers (and guests) for his own class, and others for the college as a whole. Some advisers also held weekly meetings of their own group of advisees.
  5. Lectures and readings were planned and given by the advisers expert in the field under study, but all advisers shared in the teaching of every subject. This did not mean that each adviser had to become an expert in every subject; his task was to bring his own total background and intelligence to bear upon the student’s foreground in understanding what both were studying— the nature of a human society.
  6. In 1928, a new element was added to the curriculum. Each sophomore student was required to make a “Regional Study” of a single American community (usually his own home town). This analysis of a community’s make-up and ways of living helped the student learn to apply the kinds of thinking he had done about the Athenian civilization to something as immediate as the morning paper, as personal as his own back yard.
  7. Finally, no grades were given until the completion of the second year—to meet the university’s requirements and to determine each student’s readiness to enter the junior year in the department of his choice: in Meiklejohn’s words, “to establish not what he had done but what he is now capable of doing.” During both years, however, each of his advisers reported his progress to his next adviser in a confidential memorandum. These comprised a total personal summary of the student’s growth, which at the end of the two years was summed up in an oral examination by three other advisers.

These, then, were the elements of the Experimental College. Many were not unique. Shared dormitory living was not new. Students studying the same things at the same time was unusual but not unprecedented. Combining tutorial conferences with reading, writing, and lectures is common in Britain; and off-campus research periods had American counterparts. But here the comparisons ended—and the Meiklejohn innovations, which were the heart of the matter, took over. This was not the University of Chicago plan, nor the St. Johns plan (both of which came later, and had their own unique but different tenets). Here is Meiklejohn, himself, writing in the preface to the 1932 edition of The Experimental College:

The positive term which this book uses in the attempt to fix the aim of education is ‘intelligence’. Over against the training by which pupils are fitted for vocations, over against the instruction by which students are equipped with knowledge, is the liberal teaching, which attempts to create and to cultivate insight or intelligence. The term is not an easy one to define... It is clear that into the meaning of the term there enter moral and aesthetic elements as well as intellectual. It is evident, too, that the idea implies unity of understanding as against the unrelatedness of scattered bits of knowledge. In view of what has already been said it may be assumed that the function of intelligence is to serve men in the creation and maintenance of a social order, a scheme of individual and group living, which will meet the human demands for beauty, strength, justice, generosity, and the like. But with these general remarks made, it will be best to let the term take on meaning as the deliberations of the advisers are described. These teachers have been trying to find out how young Americans can be made more intelligent. Insofar as they have succeeded their success will appear in their clearer understanding of three main factors in the problem—first, what young men are and may be; second, what America is and may become; third, what is the human purpose which is seeking to find expression both in individual Americans and in the social order which, for good or for ill, they are now creating. [1932]

Today, fifty years later [1981], we can print these words again because nothing basic has changed. Once again, as it has done sporadically during the intervening years, this nation is reassessing itself and its purposes; and, again—and by the same necessity—it is doing so in part by a searching reevaluation of its own education: the goals, the methods, the content, of what its young people need to learn.

How did we shape up against Meiklejohn’s original goals?

Point A. We also had a single course, comprising four semesters.

Point B. It was probably difficult to convince decision-making bodies of a modern university to spend a year on Ancient Greece, and another year on “America” so our course material reflected the four-semester time period of our Tutorials enrollment in this fashion:

[Reading lists are of core materials; some lists include materials specific to a seminar]

1st semester [Athens and America]:

2nd semester [Man and the State]:

3rd semester [Science and Society] (partially reconstructed from class notes):

4th semester [The Modern World; also called “Man and the Future: Contemporary Social Issues in the USA”]:

Specifically, each semester contained a core reading list, to which the individual teacher could add any number of extra materials. Each teacher’s group (originally, of 20 students) met probably twice a week to discuss the current reading assignment and to hand in papers. The original Meiklejohn structure appears to involve a tutor and student system, but I don’t recall individual meetings with any of my teachers (another student does, however). We discussed our reading in the group sessions, and wrote our papers individually.

Point C. This would appear to be the component intended to satisfy the university’s educational requirements. See the previously quoted handout on general education requirements.

Point D. As already stated. Each teacher’s group was a law unto itself, although there were program-wide activities on occasion. I remember an art lecture (one of the teachers was a professor of art history) and could probably recall other activities with sufficient stimulus.

Point E. As already stated. Meiklejohn makes a point in The Experimental College that the purpose of this two-year experiment was not to transmit a specific body of knowledge but rather to encourage the student’s proficiency in thinking critically. Therefore, it was not necessary that, for example, reading a novel required the guidance of an English professor.

Point F. I can't see any way that we addressed this interest of Meiklejohn (regional study). One big difference between our program and the 1932 version was that SJS is a commuter college. Yes, some folks live on campus but I don't recall more than one (female, I think) from our program. The only opportunity we had for interacting as a group was the lounge available to us in whatever building housed our seminars. So the desired formation of Tutorial students into a social group never materialized, at least to any degree greater than occurs when a number of young people share an interest.

Point G. We did get grades. I’m guessing that any grade less than a B meant expulsion from the program, but I really don't know.

Fifty years later, what do you think?

First, let’s look at a table of results from standardized testing. Just more than 50 of us took part from Tutorials, and I don’t know how many from the other groups.

The only thing that would seem to be important from this chart is that Tutorials doesn’t appear to have hurt any of its students.

Second, can anyone really say that they are smarter from having lived a certain way for two years than if they hadn’t? How can you compare something you’ve not experienced?

Subjectively, I’d like to believe that I benefitted from enrollment in this program. I had one experience with traditional education that both helps me compare the two approaches and also raises an important question.

The Biology 1 class I took my first semester was a traditional lower level course. It had more than 100 students in a lecture environment. Testing was multiple choice. I did miserably.

Did I not succeed because of the method of presentation? I didn’t succeed, because I didn’t know how to study. By ‘study’ I mean “obtain knowledge by transfer of a block of data to my mind.” I could think about what I knew, but I didn’t know much. Biology (and all the other sciences) requires acquisition of the tools of the trade, and those tools comprise hard knowledge gained by generations of scientists. You have to absorb this knowledge before you can apply it.

Meiklejohn clearly states in The Experimental College that his approach does not favor the transfer of specific knowledge. Perhaps we can assume then that in his view you become a scientist after you’re twenty. There’s much to recommend that idea, but it is completely unworkable. Mathematics, especially, requires blocks of specific knowledge before the next step can be taken.

I suspect that the 12-units-of-15-total approach taken at San Jose State is the key to any possible success for Meiklejohn’s approach. But the “Humanities” group noted in the chart above doesn’t just refer to folks taking courses generally considered in the humanities category. It was a specific approach to including the humanities curriculum within a traditional college experience (I have no details). Humanities was a modest 5-unit requirement, allowing for at least three classes concurrently with whatever Humanities itself prescribed.

Whatever. There’s no question in my mind but that both approaches—critical thinking and absorption of specific data—have to be accommodated in the perfect world. Did we do our part in providing data for this experiment? Of course, but what came of that experiment is not for us to say.

Musing on the experience

San Jose State was, and certainly remains, a commuter college. That means a couple things. First, students seldom lived at school. My brother and I shared an apartment my second year there, as our parents had moved across the Santa Cruz mountains, so I saw something of the resident life probably more typical of universities, at least at that time. Second, none of us was rich. Of course, there might have been the exception of whom I was unaware, but of the classmates I knew well enough to know whether they worked, they did. Pam, with whom I had a relationship most of the second year, did not work during the school year but over the summer. Her parents probably contributed something to her educational experience. Her friend Kathy—we all participated in the same seminar third semester—worked at some kind of clothing store. She was usually well dressed, so she probably worked late afternoons. Larry Duffield's dad hung drapes, and I believe that Larry and his brother helped out in that business. I worked Mondays and Tuesdays "after school," and Saturdays and Sundays. But evenings were free.

That sort of situation does not tend to foster activities among students. The best example I had in my life to prove that was my junior and senior years at UC Santa Cruz. I began there as a junior transfer student, living at home outside of Santa Cruz. I would drive in each day.

One day, as I walked up to campus from the parking lot, I encountered an older gentleman carrying a briefcase. He introduced himself, and I had the feeling I'd heard his name somewhere. Turned out, he was the chancellor of the campus (=biggest cheese), and he explained to me that his (and that of colleagues) vision was an Oxford-like campus where students lived and “worked” together (see Meiklejohn’s original conception, above). I realized that I had never attended any of the school activities (usually called College Night), and over the year I thought about this a lot. After a last summer working full time at the newspaper, I quit, sold my car, and took up residence in a dorm on campus, possibly the only senior to live there. It was a life like nothing I had experienced before, and I saw clearly what Dean McHenry was saying to me that previous year.

Back at San Jose State, I recall the Tutorials experience as strictly a daytime affair. Yes, there was an occasional event in the evening or, perhaps, on a weekend, but this was rare. As a result, I have few memories of my classmates. The pictures I have here of a daytime seminar at Gary Albright's mountain home was a unique affair, but it's fun to see some faces I actually recognize. Larry Duffield was a friend throughout high school, so these pictures taken in spring 1967 mean the sixth consecutive year of our acquaintance. Dick Blaine came out of nowhere during our junior year at Campbell High School to star in the annual musical—Carousel. Who would have known he could sing! He stayed at Campbell while Larry and I moved over to Westmont for our senior year, then joined us in the Tutorials program. I recognize no one else besides Pam Pearson.

There was more than a little hero worship, among us students of Gary L Albright. It's hard now to state just how important he seemed to us, but he did. He was a professor of philosophy (but although I would go on to take a degree in philosophy, myself, I cannot recall what his particular interest was). So, it wasn't that he taught us anything, it was more that he served as a guide to what we might be. That was enough of a burden, in those early years of college. I hope everyone was able to find someone like Albright who could show you what you might yourself become. There certainly were plenty of folks along the way to show you what to avoid.