Students wrapped up first-semester exams last week, and according to PAW intern Douglas Corzine ’20, anxiety over grading feels natural to many at Princeton, despite efforts to curb such worries. It is difficult to believe that the University would offer ungraded courses for regular credit, but the idea has at least one precedent.
In 1966, a young professor named Martin Duberman taught a course on “American Radicalism.” He appealed for special dispensation to “drop all grades” from the seminar, and the Course of Study Committee granted his request — as long as the class was limited to a single semester and listed as “experimental.” Duberman’s report on the experiment appeared in PAW’s March 5, 1968, issue.Duberman came by his interest in “American Radicalism” naturally. After authoring two well-received biographies and earning tenure, he found intellectual freedom. He refused to pay taxes supporting the Vietnam War, and was jailed for a sit-in at the U.S. Senate. He wrote a play and studied experimental art. He drew on these experiences as he designed “a radical seminar [with] no exams, no papers, no grades.” In his own career, Duberman saw how eliminating formal expectations could encourage creative thinking.
“Only when the necessity to please others is removed,” he wrote, “can the main job of self-evaluation begin.” His report on the experiment prioritizes this activity: Duberman evaluates his own conduct and allows students to evaluate their own. The essay is compelling, but ultimately bittersweet — Princeton never used the course as a blueprint for further experiments. Frustrated by the University’s restrictive nature, Duberman left for Lehman College in the early 1970s. After coming out as gay, he became an early leader in LGBTQ studies.
Duberman is now 88 years old. He has retired from teaching, but he continues to write. The New Yorker’s review of his latest book calls him “a national treasure.”
This piece from PAW’s archives offers a glimpse of what might have been.
New Directions In Education
A Radical Seminar In Radicalism — No Exams, No Papers, No Grades
By Martin Duberman
(From the March 5, 1968, issue of PAW)
In the fall of 1966, at the beginning of a new term, I received permission from the Course of Study Committee to drop all grades from my undergraduate seminar on “American Radicalism.” It was agreed that the record of each student taking the course would show only an asterisk in the space where a grade would ordinarily appear, and that the attached explanation would read: “Experimental course; no grades given.” It was further agreed that the experiment would be for a single term only, and that at its end I would present a formal report to the Committee describing the results. This is my report.
I have been an educator for ten years, but I have really been interested in education only for the past year or so. Before that I was chiefly interested in my career. I still am, but having got tenure three years ago, it became possible for me (this was not conscious: I see it only in retrospect) to concern myself solely with how I evaluated the success of my teaching and not how the senior members of my department did. My experience with teaching bears out the central point that I will be trying to make about learning: that only when the necessity to please others is removed, can the main job of self-evaluation begin. Most young teachers, like most students, are afraid much of the time they are in class, and fear guarantees that energy will go into defensive strategies rather than creative explorations.
Various threads besides the “release” which tenure gave me helped to produce my new concern with teaching and learning. Perhaps the original germ had been planted in 1962 when some students suggested that I read A. S. Neill’s Summerhill. I did, and was moved by Neill’s candor and exhilarated by his demonstration that children flourish when they are allowed freedom. After discovering Neill, I read Paul Goodman, Edgar Z. Friedenberg, and, most significantly and most recently, John Holt—in other words, the “romantics” of educational theory, as they have been dubbed by their critics. I had also, within the past two years, read a great deal about Anarchism, in line with a play I was then writing on Emma Goldman. I strongly identified with Anarchism’s anti-authoritarian basis; it was the closest I had come to feeling at home in a philosophical tradition. (I’m aware that this effort—that all such efforts—at charting “influences” is a little foolish. For all I know, the true cause of my developing interest in unstructured education may have been familial—an unresolved authority problem?—or even metabolic.)
But to continue the exercise: My experience in group therapy must also be taken into account. I cannot fully demonstrate why, but I feel that membership in a therapy group for the past three years may have been the most profound of the influences prompting me to re-evaluate my role as an educator. In the therapy group, I became aware of how many levels of the person can be “educated” simultaneously when a group is functioning well—that is, when an atmosphere of mutual trust and forebearance prevails. The willingness to suspend judgment of one another in the name of understanding, the tolerance of mistakes, the opportunity to reveal and examine one’s inner self without fear of punition—all encourage growth.
My experience in therapy made me impatient with other group enterprises that were narrowly functional—like a university seminar that merely engaged in the transmission of factual information. I knew that much more than information could be exchanged when a permissive, non-judgmental atmosphere prevailed. Indeed, little important information can be transmitted if an emotional transaction is not simultaneously in process, for an individual will not expose his deepest assumptions nor be able to perceive those of another if their relationship is purely intellectual. (I continue to use outmoded, dualistic terminology like intellectual and emotional because more accurate vocabulary is not yet available.)
Much of what I have outlined thus far became clear to me belatedly. At the time I petitioned the Course of Study Committee for permission to drop grades, I knew only that my dissatisfaction with traditional methods of teaching had accumulated to the point of irritability. I wanted something more and different from my classroom experience. I felt that most students did also. For years I had heard graduating seniors speak unhappily of their education and express bewilderment at how eager, curious freshmen had been turned, four years later, into prototypes of articulate emptiness. (“I still don’t know who the hell I am”; “I still don’t know what I want to do with my life”; “I don’t even know if such questions matter to me any more.”)
The job of self-discovery is never, of course, complete; it is hardly surprising that twenty-one-year-olds do not fully know “who the hell they are.” But the point is that they have not begun to know. In many cases, four years of college do not initiate or further, but dampen or destroy efforts at self-exploration. This may not be the intent, but it is nonetheless the result of the tactics employed by those who administer and teach in a university. They make certain that the student’s energies are directed at fulfilling tasks set by them rather than by himself; they encourage him to define his worth in terms of his success in winning their approval: high grades, good letters of recommendation, departmental honors, prizes. He is taught to regard these tangible signs of election as the only important evidence or kind of achievement, and as the indispensable precondition, almost the guarantee, of a satisfying life. What he is not taught is that orientation toward gaining the approval of others carries high costs: the acceptance of disguise as a necessity of life; the unconscious determination to manipulate others in the way one has been manipulated; the conviction that productivity is more important than character and “success” superior to satisfaction; the loss of curiosity, of a willingness to ask questions, of the capacity to take risks.
The removal of grades is a necessary, but hardly sufficient means for reversing this disastrous orientation. Grading is but one way in which we turn potentially creative individuals into data-processing machines, adapting them to their society but alienating them from themselves. More than grades must go. The entire superstructure of authoritarian control in our schools must give way if we are to enable people to assume responsibility for and to take pleasure in their own lives. We cannot expect aliveness and involvement when we are busy inculcating docility and compliance.
In this regard, the false distinctions that separate student from teacher must be broken down. What do we think titles like “professor,” “sir,” or “mister” achieve? Perhaps the illusion of respect, but certainly not its reality. Those qualities which are worth admiring in a given person—perception, experience, honesty, empathy, openness—will be admired regardless of title, and no title can create admiration when such qualities are absent. But a title can—and often does—establish a pattern of formality that prevents free exchange and the common pursuit by student and teacher of understanding. Titles also provide the professor with a subtle means of discipline and a false sense of self-importance, neither of which is conducive to humanness or communication.
Grading is but one way in which we turn potentially creative individuals into data-processing machines, adapting them to their society but alienating them from themselves.
Then there is the matter of “requirements.” John Holt has written a brilliant critique of the notion that certain bits and pieces of knowledge are “essential,” that adults know which these are and at what point and in what way they can best be fed to the young. It seems to Holt, and to me, that this is dangerous nonsense. There is no agreement as to what knowledge is essential. (Should everyone read Crime and Punishment? understand ego psychology? study Greek civilization? learn about quasar theory? All of these? None of these?)
The individual young have their own interests and timetables, and if these are stifled by the teacher’s imposed demands, the result may be a certain number of facts (temporarily) absorbed, but at the cost of knowledge becoming irrelevant and curiosity being destroyed. Schools, as Holt puts it, should be places where students “learn what they most want to know, instead of what we think they ought to know.” In any given seminar, it is far less important to convey the particular body of information that the professor happens to care about than to seek the information that the student cares about. It is far more valuable for the student to let a course on, say, the American Revolution wander off during a given session into a discussion of the “utility of violence” than to insist on the day’s set topic of the British Navigation Acts; the latter will stick for about as long as it takes the student to walk out the door, while the former could provide grist for a personal re-evaluation of lasting significance. Moreover, if knowledge is made relevant to the student’s current needs, it is henceforth viewed as a desirable commodity. A student who is allowed to ask questions that matter to him soon learns the habit of self-generating inquiry.
Finally, there is the matter of leadership. A crucial distinction must be made between authority and authoritarianism. The former represents accumulated experience, knowledge, and insight. The latter represents their counterfeits: age masquerading as maturity, information as understanding, technique as originality. Authoritarianism is forced to demand the respect that authority draws naturally to itself. The former, like all demands, is likely to meet with hostility; the latter, like all authenticity, with emulation. Our universities—our schools at every level—are rife with authoritarianism, all but devoid of authority.
In any given seminar the teacher, expounding on the subject of his choice, almost always knows more facts than anyone else. He is also older and has had more professional training. These are the raw materials—information, experience, discipline—out of which authority can come, but they do not guarantee authority. If information has not been digested and personalized, if years have added grayness rather than growth, if training has submerged the person in the specialist, then the potential authority turns into a mere authoritarian. And it is the rare authoritarian who, when given power—when put, say, in charge of adolescents—can resist the satisfaction of reducing them to his level. So it is that one generation, desperate lest its own achievement be exceeded, corrupts the next—all the while protesting benevolence. Fathers are not known to encourage patricide—and few youths grow to manhood.
But let us look at the authority, rather than the authoritarian. Even the genuine authority—no one realizes this better than he—is limited in perspective. The ideal Professor Jones, a master of both Shakespeare and himself, knows that he can be surprised. He knows that Joe Smith, freshman from Dubuque, has some special experience that can illuminate a word or passage from Hamlet: Joe may be oblivious to generations of scholarship, but he knows something about sons. And he will tell it—if the climate is right, if Professor Jones has made it clear that no one has a corner on truth, that competence is never across the board, and that therefore leadership (in a classroom discussion, in life) should shift as areas of competence shift. If he can convey that much to Joe Smith, Professor Jones will have given him the one encouragement essential to true education: Ultimately each man can, must, become his own authority. This is the one path to adulthood-and democracy.
I suppose some will feel that I have put the cart before the horse. Theory is supposed to follow fact, not vice versa. The arrangement of this report is, however, true to my experience. Previous to the experiment in “History 308: American Radicalism,” I did have decided views on education—otherwise I would never have conceived the experiment. This is not to say that the seminar merely confirmed my earlier views. On the contrary, it did not neatly bear out my theories, nor was it a wholly satisfying experience, either for myself or for the students. Nevertheless, it was a qualified confirmation, and given the context in which the experiment took place, with all that meant by way of obstacles and inexperience, even a qualified success seems to me significant. My evaluation can best be tested, however, by a detailed look at what actually took place in the seminar.
I limited the enrollment in History 308 to twenty-four students so that I could break the group into two sections of twelve, thereby making a seminar format feasible. At the first meeting, however, we met as one group, so that I could explain the content of the course and its “experimental” features. (Most of the students already knew my intentions from having talked with me earlier.)
The course was to be structured, I said, by the over-all topic “American Radicalism,” but the specific topic for any given week could and should vary in response to what they, as a group, felt would be most logical and useful. The two groups, I added, could go in entirely different directions. One, for example, might feel the need to discuss the Radical Right in detail, the other might choose to omit the Radical Right altogether. What was important, I felt, was that each group develop, as a group, its own personality and direction. There would, of course, be individual variations in interest and need, and the group should not be so determined in its collective purpose as to prevent these individual requirements from being met.
I hoped to accomplish both purposes—group identity and individual variety—through “open-ended” reading lists. I had prepared in advance, I told them in that first session, about a dozen topics which I felt could concern us during the term: the Abolitionists, the Wobblies, the Socialists, the Populists, and so forth. None of these topics was mandatory; after each session we would discuss, as a group, what we wanted to do the following week. I expected each group to reject some of my suggested topics, to deal with others only in passing, and to suggest alternative topics of its own. In order to preserve individual preference, I would make no assignment on any given subject, but would prepare lengthy reading lists, describe each book in detail, and encourage the student to choose that aspect or approach to a given topic which most appealed to him and to read those books which related to it.
On some topics one book might be so outstanding—like David Shannon’s volume on American Socialism—that I would strongly recommend that everyone read it, but not because I felt a common reading list was necessary to produce discussion, nor because I was trying to sneak in a requirement under the guise of a recommendation. Nothing, I made clear in that first session, was required: neither reading, nor attendance, nor “performance.” If, throughout the term, some students chose to do only a minimum of work or none at all, there would be no reprisals, since the course would not have grades, exams, or papers. (In this regard, I added that if anyone wished to write down anything at any point, I and no doubt others would be glad to read it—and this happened several times during the term.)
During the first meeting we also decided on the membership of the two groups. I had hoped for a fairly even division, and a tally of preferences showed an exact split of twelve and twelve. Although this was accidental, the membership of each seminar was less random than might appear. Friends tended to sign up for the same seminar, with the result that the two groups differed significantly from each other.
Nothing, I made clear in that first session, was required: neither reading, nor attendance, nor “performance.” If, throughout the term, some students chose to do only a minimum of work or none at all, there would be no reprisals...
Everyone in the evening seminar, it turned out, was a senior, whereas the afternoon group included four juniors and one sophomore. This was significant because, as all the undergraduates agreed when we discussed these matters at the end of the term, seniors are more “deadened,” more cynical and disinterested, than those who have not yet “been through the system.” The undergraduates also pointed out that fewer members of the afternoon group had previously known one another or been friendly. This they considered a decided advantage. It was easier, they felt, to discuss the “big questions,” to generalize and speculate, in front of comparative strangers.
The students also pointed to the different pattern between the two groups in terms of “eating club” affiliations. The afternoon seminar included more Woodrow Wilson members and more “independents”; moreover, only two of its members belonged to “big five” clubs, whereas almost all of the evening group did. Members of the “big five,” the students agreed, emphasized “keeping cool,” remaining detached, “above it all,” presenting only the superficial aspects of self. In a seminar, such values would manifest themselves as an unwillingness to allow emotion to enter into discussion, to expose one’s deeply held values, to engage another person in any full confrontation of opinion and belief. The “big five” personality was further described as involving a distrust of anything “different,” “strange,” “off-beat,” a tendency to value and to adhere to that which is traditional and respectable. I should stress that those members of the seminar who were themselves in the “big five” clubs fully agreed with this diagnosis.
Finally, the undergraduates came to believe, and I concur, that the afternoon group was simply lucky in its “chemistry”—a factor beyond prediction and not susceptible to close analysis. By “chemistry” they meant that the members of the group took to one another early and well. Mutual respect and trust were established among people of widely different viewpoints; this made it possible to expose feelings and to engage in debate without excessive fear of “being made a fool of.”
Following the organizational meeting, the first full session of both groups was devoted to the “New Left.” I had suggested, and the suggestion had been adopted, that we begin our study of “American Radicalism” with the contemporary scene and then go back in time to study other radical movements, such as the Abolitionists, the Socialists, or the Wobblies—though the actual choice of topic would depend on group decision each week.
The afternoon group took off in a blaze, without even a brief period of awkwardness or hesitation. Indeed, the rapid-fire exchanges, the passionate interruptions and debates worried me a little. The pace and tone seemed to smack of hysteria. People were not listening carefully to one another; they were briefly silent in order to prepare their next broadside, rather than to digest what someone else was saying.
Though the general feeling was that that were going swimmingly, I was not alone in having doubts. After the second session, a student named “Paul” handed me a typewritten statement he had prepared.* (I had encouraged the students from the beginning to let me know—in whatever form they wished—their opinions on how things were going, and especially if they felt any discontent.) Paul, who up to that point had not said a word in seminar, was decidedly discontented. He found the seminar “anarchic more than democratic,” merely “a series of chain reactions.” This especially bothered him “on a personal basis” because he felt unable to participate in discussions if he could do so only by fighting for the opportunity: “I refuse to out-shout or vie with someone who begins to speak at the same time I do. To participate in the seminar requires of me a combativeness, a competitiveness, and a disregard for others which I do not want to cultivate in myself.”
* All names are fictitious.
I agreed with Paul, but thought he was exaggerating, and doing so in order to avoid his own share of responsibility. I knew Paul well; his statement represented his ideal of himself more than his actual self. He had, in fact, a pronounced combative streak of his own, but preferred to deny it. He was frightened by his aggression, and it was this, more than the group climate, which prevented him from participating.
Still, he had made a legitimate point, and the point needed airing. An opportunity presented itself at the next session. We had spent the meeting, our third, on the Abolitionists. I had played a more active role which, by the end of the session, left me uneasy, so I asked whether the group thought the meeting had been too structured in comparison with the earlier sessions, and my role too prominent. The reactions were varied. The more we talked, the more I began to see that the source of uneasiness, mine and theirs, was that leadership had shifted into new hands. I had earlier outlined this as one of our chief aims, yet when it did happen, a number of us were made uncomfortable.
Toward the end of this session, one member suggested that some mechanism be established for allowing people to make points without having to interrupt or to concentrate their attention on finding an opening into which they could jump. In the discussion which followed, we agreed that we did not always listen carefully to one another and that it was not always possible to speak without interrupting. We also agreed, however, that there seemed no way to correct these occasional defects without re-introducing, through some such device as hand-raising, a formality which we felt was less desirable still. The student who had brought the matter up, when pressed, had no suggestion as to how we might improve communication. The general feeling was that on the whole the group functioned unusually well, that perfect communication was impossible and the expectation of it unrealistic, and that additional devices for trying to achieve it would defeat the spontaneity and ease of the sessions. Better, we concluded, to leave it to each individual to assume increased responsibility for talking only when and as long as he had something to say and for listening closely when someone else was talking.
In my view, this discussion had good effect. By the next (fourth) session, the hysteria had notably abated, members were listening to one another more attentively, and the group had begun to function as a group—that is, to work together toward understanding, each for himself, the material. The “shakedown” period for the afternoon seminar was over and its prospects seemed promising.
The evening group had a quite different history. Its first session, on the New Left, was not so lively as the afternoon one had been, but I thought that was all to the good. Some restraint was natural during the phase of getting to know one another and was to be preferred to the hyperactivity of the afternoon group. In the following three weeks, unfortunately, the restraint grew and the liveliness diminished. Later, when the term was over, some of the students wrote (on a voluntary basis) retrospective evaluations in which they offered explanations for the failure of the evening group to catch fire. (Significantly, only four members from the evening section turned in evaluations whereas eight from the afternoon group did.)
The explanations offered by these four students stressed the hampering effect of a chronological approach, the minimal interest of some members of the seminar in its subject matter and experimental format, and the initial uneasiness at the lack of factual emphasis—an uneasiness, they agreed, which later gave way to appreciation as they came to question their previous definition of what was “useful” knowledge. These explanations are, to my mind, peripheral at best. Much more important in understanding the failure of the evening session, I believe, is the collective personality of the group. In this regard, I have already discussed the “cool” presentation of self stressed by the “big five” mentality. Another attribute, which I have not yet touched upon, may, in fact, be the most crucial of all—passivity.
I became aware of this problem only gradually, as various comments and bits of behavior began to add up to a coherent pattern. One student, for example, early tipped me off with his complaint about “the dominating nature” of certain members of the evening group. There were many times, he said, “when one person or another would try to add something to a discussion and either be unable or cut short.” He then added, and I think significantly: “These people, including myself, were not forceful enough to interject their ideas until they were no longer pertinent.”
In a discussion of the New Left, there followed an unusually animated discussion of Princeton’s SDS chapter and why it had not drawn support on campus. During the discussion, the passive orientation of most members of the group was clearly exposed.
A view much expressed was that those who joined SDS did so for the simple reason that they were not members of the “in” group on campus. Not only were their motives highly suspect, it was said, but their personal style was distasteful: They dressed like “weirdos,” they “smelled bad,” they were “dirty.” How about their position on current issues? I asked. Was SDS right in its diagnoses? Did it point to real ills in our society? There was general agreement that it did. Then why, I asked, did they not join SDS? Was it really because the personal style of its members put them off, or were they using that as a convenient excuse for not becoming active in behalf of their own beliefs?
A visiting scholar joined the discussion at this point. She said that the refusal to take responsibility for one’s own life—or, as a subdivision of that, to assume direction for one’s own education—was probably the single most characteristic trait of Princeton (perhaps of all American) undergraduates. Her remarks cut deep. A few admitted the indictment, painfully. More protested it, though not with much conviction. Later, with leisure to digest her remarks and to confront them in privacy, others came to admit their validity.
Three weeks later, the issue of passivity was again brought up, this time by one of the members of the seminar. Hank had been one of two students in the evening group who had persistently tried to establish active discussion. Discouraged at the meager results and hearing of the success of the afternoon section, he decided to sit in on one of its meetings to see if a different climate did, in fact, prevail, and if so, why. He brought up his findings that same evening.
In a quiet way, without trying to provoke guilt, he reported that he had attended the afternoon session, had been amazed at the intensity and intelligence of the discussion, and had wondered, “Why we don’t swing the way they do.” His tone and attitude were free enough of hostility and of accusations against individuals that no one felt especially threatened, and a discussion followed which, I felt, was frank and searching.
As Hank saw it, he said, the basic failure had to do with their refusal to accept responsibility for themselves as individuals and also for the group of which they were a part. They preferred to continue in the traditional mold, to hope that someone else would, as always, “do it for them,” and to encourage me, especially, to be that doer. In short, they preferred dependency to active exertion in their own behalf.
At this point, I spoke up. I agreed, I said, with Hank’s diagnosis, and moreover it had set me to thinking about the utility of the kind of experiment we had been attempting. Perhaps, I said, it was too late by age eighteen to begin encouraging people to exercise control over their own lives, to discover and respond to the pressures within rather than to directions from without. Their pre-Princeton experience in authoritarian homes and schools may have established the habit of docility so firmly that subsequent encouragement to self-regulation could do little—other than confuse. Perhaps the real surprise, I said, was not that the evening section had had trouble functioning in a permissive climate, but that the afternoon group had not had trouble; perhaps the chief puzzle to be solved was not why most Princetonians do not know what to do with freedom, but why a few do.
I said, too, that despite all this I thought we had to be careful in our definitions and estimates of what made a “successful” seminar. I, for one, did not feel that mere noise or vociferousness was proof that something was happening. Activity, when manic, was itself a form of passivity, though disguised to look like its opposite. “Busyness,” like “boredom,” could serve as a device for avoiding self-confrontation. Passivity was best measured not by how often a student spoke, but by what he said. The passive person surrendered direction of his life, and this could be accomplished in varied, even directly opposite ways—by being inarticulate or by being overarticulate. The active person was present in his own life and concentrated his energies on engaging, not avoiding, himself.
As a result of this self-examination, the remaining meetings of the evening section seemed to me more fruitful; there was wider participation and the discussions were better informed, more centered on matters of substance, and more lucid in content. After the final meeting, one student commented, “too bad this wasn’t the first instead of the last.” Another claimed (though I do not agree) that “in a less dynamic way” the members of the evening group ultimately “got as much” out of their seminar experience as the afternoon group had.
In about the fourth week, Sherm and a few others suggested that since the seminar was studying radicalism and was itself a radical experiment in education, it followed that its members should take the lead in “radicalizing” its own community—namely, Princeton University. Aside from the inherent value of the undertaking, it would, secondarily, enable seminar members to discover empirically the problems characteristic of all radical movements.
I made it clear from the outset that if a movement for change at Princeton were to develop, it would have to be their movement. I would be glad to participate in strategy sessions, but, as in the seminar itself, I did not intend to play, either openly or covertly, the role of Gray Eminence. It was agreed that those interested in the “Princeton movement” would get together at 10:15 P.M. once a week, after the close of the evening seminar.
These sessions went on, irregularly, throughout the term, with attendance varying a good bit. In the beginning fifteen of the twenty-four seminar members attended, ten of whom were from the afternoon group. Only one member of the evening group, Hank, showed up with any regularity. I myself attended almost all of the meetings, occasionally contributing a comment or question, but more often simply sitting in and listening. As the term proceeded and as pressure from other course work mounted, attrition set in. At some meetings only six or seven students showed up, and now and then a meeting would be called off entirely “because of midterm exams” or the like.
In the first few meetings, an effort was made to thrash out what a university ideally should be and to what degree Princeton met those specifications. A voluntary committee of four formed to draw up a “Statement of Principles,” and after innumerable delays and false starts, it presented a draft statement to the full group, where suggestions were made and new drafts subsequently drawn. Two such statements were eventually mimeographed, but by then exams and papers had descended, and still further inroads were made in attendance. I know that one “Statement of Principles” was circulated privately to various student leaders, faculty members, and administrative personnel, but beyond this the movement brought no concrete results.
That nothing more materialized can be laid, I believe, not only to the competing demands of course work and campus activities, but also to the division of views on tactics and theory which existed among the seminar members and to their feeling, assumed from the first, that any sizable campus-wide interest in behalf of change was unlikely. Yet the sessions themselves, which probed, often with sophistication, into basic aspects of university structure and educational theory proved of considerable value to those who attended—certainly to me. Members of the movement did gain insight into the kinds of social obstacles that have often defeated radicals in the past, into the nature of the Princeton community, and, perhaps most important, into their own inability to resist the pressures of conformity and routine, to place their concern (often deep) about public malfunctions above their fear of personal reprisals.
At the final meeting of the term, the two sections again met as one to evaluate the seminar experience. The views expressed in that meeting, in combination with material presented by those who turned in written evaluations, make up the topical summary which follows.
There was no dissent from the view that the elimination of grades and tests had been liberating. One student expressed appreciation for being “treated as if we wanted to learn,” for the recognition that it was possible to discover and nurture internal incentives in place of external ones—a substitution especially welcome because the latter encouraged not curiosity and satisfaction, but merely competition and showmanship. Another student expressed relief, apparently shared by all, that the “stultifying effect” of exams had been removed. For once, he said, “students were not required to tailor thoughts to those useless three-hour blitzes and were allowed to let their thinking run free.”
There was no dissent from the view that the elimination of grades and tests had been liberating.
The only regret expressed was that grades and tests could not be eliminated from all courses. So long as those devices remained operative in the rest of the university, so long as “professorial retribution” continued to hang over them in other courses, they could never take full advantage of the liberating potential of a single unstructured seminar. One student put the matter this way: “When one is taking three other subjects, two of them departmentals, which are all-important to grad-school admission, which in turn will supposedly determine much of one’s future life, the tendency is to put off the ungraded work, as we all did.”
It is often said that grades are necessary “training for life,” for the competition that defines and measures all aspects of adulthood. While one may agree that competition is omnipresent, one can question its desirability and necessity. To the extent that we know anything about human nature, and we don’t know much, there is little reason to believe that the competitive drive is an instinctual and therefore inevitable component of behavior (witness the human product of the kibbutzim in Israel). Competition continues to be the hallmark of our society because we continue to train our youth to act competitively, to measure their worth in terms of how successfully they dominate others rather than themselves.
The grading system also trains young Americans to be more adept at judging others than at understanding them, and at judging, moreover, on the basis of limited and largely unattractive qualities: how well an individual “performs” in public; how readily he assimilates established values; how responsive he is to pressure situations; how adept he is at memorizing and verbalizing; how mechanically he can provide “right” answers; how obediently he can avoid “wrong” questions.
I do not doubt that tests and grades prepare the student for the American life style. The question is whether we approve of that style and wish to perpetuate it.
When the coercive power of the grading system is eliminated, can we rely on any alternative stimulus to motivate students to learn?
Quite a few seminar members felt that “natural curiosity” was a sufficient motivating force for learning, but a number of rebuttals were and can be made to this assumption. First of all, even if “natural curiosity” is innate, it can be argued that the deadening procedures of pre-Princeton schooling will have bred this quality out of many undergraduates. Those whose curiosity has at least partially survived are then subjected to, and often defeated by, the rituals of the Princeton system.
Moreover, there is reason to doubt, as Bernard Z. Friedlander has recently argued, whether “natural curiosity,” “hunger for learning,” or “joy in knowledge” can be relied upon as a sufficient incentive for academic learning. Friedlander points out that young children are chiefly curious about matters that relate to sexuality and that such curiosity is not automatically transferable, as the child grows older, to scholastic topics. Indeed, if curiosity about sex is not satisfied—and in our society it is more usually disapproved and suppressed—the child’s interest in asking questions may be permanently destroyed. Having been given no answers or false answers to questions of pressing urgency, he is not likely to consider raising questions about matters of less potent interest.
All of which raises the pessimistic possibility that curriculum reform on the college level may be an enterprise of marginal value only. By age eighteen, it could be said, it is too late to salvage curiosity. One could answer that those who arrive as freshmen at college, especially at a “prestige” college, can be assumed to be those whose early craving for information was satisfied and encouraged. This answer is not, however, very persuasive. The arrival of freshman Jim Brown at Princeton’s portals means only that he has distinguished himself in a secondary school, that he has performed better in meeting its requirements than most of his classmates. Since those requirements are usually geared to satisfying the needs of teachers rather than students, Jim Brown’s high grades may directly reflect, in inverse ratio, the slow strangulation of his own curiosity.
At discouraging moments during the seminar, one thought kept occurring to me: Anyone interested in education should teach on the primary-school level, where there is still some chance of it mattering. At other moments, however, I preferred this more sanguine syllogism: The curiosity of many students arriving at Princeton has already been destroyed; it is too late in any significant degree either to harm them or to help them. Nevertheless, some freshmen are still eager and alive, and it matters very much whether they are subjected to destructive discipline or encouraged to seek, without fear of retribution, honest answers to honest questions. The experience of History 308 provides evidence to confirm both the discouraging thought and the sanguine syllogism.
With a single exception, the students admitted that they did less reading and studying in the seminar than they did in courses with assignments and grades. The confessional chorus was loud and long-lamentations of mea culpa generously interspersed with recriminations against a “system” that “feeds our worst impulses.” A few students, in their extremity, were reduced to suggesting as a remedy the very coercions against which they otherwise protested. “I think,” wrote one, “that it may have been worthwhile if I had been expected to present a paper or perhaps an oral presentation… This would have forced me to do reading in areas where I was lax ... to gather my thoughts about radicalism in general.” Yet in another part of his written evaluation this same student expressed the opinion that my method of indicating the subject matter and value of each book on a list of suggested titles was preferable to the usual system of assigning a common set of readings. The conflict in this student’s feelings—the way in which he simultaneously called for more coercion in written and oral work even while expressing appreciation for being allowed to set his own reading pattern—accurately represents, I believe, the blurred reactions of the majority. They were excited by freedom and yet, because they failed by their own (perhaps excessively demanding) standards fully to grasp its opportunities, repelled by it.
The strengths and weaknesses of our seminar discussions were best perceived, it seems to me, by members of the afternoon group, perhaps because they were convinced of the overall value of the discussions and so felt less inhibited about articulating its incidental deficiencies. The chief complaint centered on what was called “formlessness,” or “lack of direction.” Only a minority viewed this as a deficiency, and no two people who did shared the same reasons for thinking it so. The most extreme statement came from a student who claimed to be “basically happy” with his seminar experience, but felt that he could have got still more out of it had the sessions been tightly organized. He suggested—and this, I feel, is yet another example of an endemic unwillingness or inability to exercise individual responsibility—that since “it would have been very difficult for any of us to impose this kind of discipline successfully,” the solution was for me to impose it on them. He did not suggest how I could do this without inhibiting spontaneity and destroying “the relationship of complete equality between professor and student” that he himself felt had “contributed so much to making our discussions worthwhile.”
This position, shared by others, was sharply rebutted by the majority. They agreed that discussion frequently became generalized, unknowledgeable, and discursive, that the “bull quotient” was often high and that “a snarling five-man cacophony” often replaced thoughtful dialogue. But such “dysfunctions” are to be expected, they said, are perhaps even necessary bi-products, of an alive atmosphere. Talk, by its very nature, is spasmodic, discursive, repetitive, even at times incoherent. To try to trim it into neat, orderly packages is to drain it of life.
The important point they were making, it seems to me, is that human exchange is fullest when it operates on a variety of levels, including the emotional, the irrational, the fantastic. Unfortunately, most educational situations concentrate on only one level of human interaction—the rational. In doing so, they try to make people into what they are not—thinking machines—and end by turning the average seminar into an exercise rather that an experience.
The chief function of a university should not be, as is currently assumed, the accumulation and dissemination of knowledge, but rather the encouragement of individual growth. Factual information can aid in that growth, but to do so it must be made relevant to the individual’s needs; it must pose some problem, extend some challenge, answer some longing, if it is to be incorporated rather than merely appended.
There is no one way to make knowledge relevant. Any seminar is composed of a variety of individuals with disparate life styles and contrasting perspectives. Moreover, the needs of a seminar group as a whole, like those of the individuals who make it up, do not remain constant. A seminar’s structure must, therefore, remain flexible enough to register shifts in mood, and its climate permissive enough to allow individual variety in the approach and solution of problems. Some discipline is necessary to a coherent discussion, but it should be imposed not from above, but by the individual on himself when he senses that the group’s collective need demands a shift in attitude and approach.
The central point, it seems to me, is that a seminar must involve more than intellectual exchange. Opinions and values are most likely to be revealed when the atmosphere encourages rather than suppresses emotional interaction. Opinions, never shaped solely by reasoning, are always influenced by personal relationships and encounters, themselves freighted with emotion, and thus are most likely to be exposed and examined in an environment that contains an emotional dimension. We want students to “re-examine their beliefs”; that, we like to say, is the whole point of education. Since those beliefs were first formed in a multidimensional setting, they cannot be successfully challenged in a setting that is one-dimensional.
This was, I think, the main reason why so many of the students in History 308 came away from the seminar feeling, as one put it, that “no course I have ever had in this university has challenged and changed my attitudes and views as much as this ‘bull session.’” The term bull session is instructive; it was used by a number of the students to connote the sense of a discussion among friends, one more free of formality and constraint than most, one in which more of the person gets exposed and involved than it does in a seminar discussion narrowly confined to a selected topic or issue. To my mind the frequent use of the term bull session to describe our meetings is a testimony to their success.
When the essay originally appeared, PAW noted that Duberman, at age 37, had already written biographies of Charles Francis Adams (for which he won the Bancroft Prize) and James Russell Lowell, as well as successful off-Broadway play about black history, titled “In White America.” In somewhat different form this essay appeared in Daedalus ©1967.
Perhaps someone might object that I had confused the purpose of a university seminar with that of a group-therapy session, that my function as a professor was not to treat personalities, but to develop minds. I would answer such an accusation in part by denying it and in part by embracing it. I would deny that the seminar was chiefly designed to encourage members to reveal pathology, that our purpose in coming together was “medicinal.” Yet neuroses were revealed, and something which could be called “therapy” did take place. In the process of actively engaging one another, the students exposed personality traits of all kinds. To the extent that a given individual became aware of what he had revealed about himself and chose to ponder it (I do not mean openly, in seminar, but privately, with himself), some personality changes could have ensued. Henry Anderson has said: “Any experience that is humanizing might be called psychotherapeutic.” If History 308 did partake of psychotherapy, I would, therefore, not only welcome the news, but consider it the best possible vindication of the seminar—for I do not know what “education” is if not self-examination and change.
This does not necessarily mean that I believe education and therapy should henceforth become interchangeable processes. (I am not sure that I believe the opposite, either.) I do feel, however, that the simple dualism which pretends that education is concerned solely with “informing the mind,” and therapy with “understanding the emotions” falsifies our everyday experience. No one actually functions on the basis of such neat categories; our emotions always color our intellectual views, and our minds are continually “ordering” our emotional responses.
It would be grotesque and dangerous for a professor of history to claim the insight and skill needed to conduct group-therapy sessions, just as it would be foolish for a psychiatrist to conduct a seminar on Plato for his patients. But this is not to say that a university seminar does not influence the emotions of its members. We need to recognize that when a seminar is functioning well, the emotions of its members are engaged and, once engaged, will be transmuted.
Intellectual development does not, cannot, take place in vacuo. Indeed, it can be argued that intellectual development is predicated on the simultaneous development of the emotions. By intellectual development, I do not mean the amassing of facts (we all know walking encyclopedias who are emotional infants), but rather what William Kessen, professor of psychology at Yale, has called the individual’s “delight in the solution of problems, pursuit of the orderly, joy in his own active inquiry, the relief and excitement of setting his own goals.” For that kind of intellectual development, one needs emotional growth as well. The two are inextricably linked, and it is because we have tried to separate them—have tried to exclude emotion from the classroom—that we have turned out many more pedants and parrots than human beings.