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McCormick, Bart E. (ed.) / The Wisconsin alumni magazine
Volume 28, Number 3 (Jan. 1927)

Frank, Glenn
An experiment in education,   pp. [87]-91

Page 90

good many things that they now ask the
college to do if the college could contrive
to send to them students with richer
backgrounds. and- more realistically
disciplined minds.
            It is, I admit, difficult to see how any
          such synthesis of even the major find-
          ings of modern knowledge could be
          caught in a two-years' curriculum if we
          continue to teach entirely in terms of the
          subjects and departments that are to-
          'day the basis of instruction, unless each
          subject were to be taught by a polymath
          like Aristotle, Leonardo da Vinci, Adam
          Smith or Thomas Henry Buckle. It may
          be, therefore, that we shall find that
          the only way we can manage to induct
          students into a general understanding of
          their civilization will be to teach during
          these two "general" years ini terms: of
          situations rather than subjects. I need
          not do more than suggest, in passing,
          what teaching by "situations" rather
          than "subjects" means.
            If we were to undertake to teach base-
          ball, let us say, to a seven-year-old boy
          by. the "subject" method, thi is the way
          we would go about it. We would ask
          him - to meimorize the biographies of -the
          great players of baseball, past and pres-
          ent. Then we would ask him to pass an
          examination - on the lives -of Christy
          -Mathewson, Ty Cobb, Hans Wagner,
          Babe Ruth and others, We, would then
.         ask him to make a study of the various
          kinds of wood out of which bats are
          made, the countries from which the
          woods came, and so on, again subject-
          ing him to an examination. We would
          then ask him to make a study of the
          principle of the gyroscope involved in
          throwing a curve, the law of falling bod-
          ies involved in throwing a drop, and so
          on, again putting him to the test of an
            All this on the theory, apparently that
          when he had mastered the details, he
          would suddenly be consumed by a pas-
          sionate interest in the game. But by
          watching one boy for one month, it
          becomes clear that the way to awaken
          his interest in baseball is to take him to a
          big-league game, get him a good seat in
          the grandstand, allow him to feel the
          thrill of the game and to yell himself
          hoarse for a hero. After that, he will sit
          up all night sleuthing and snaring ex-
          planations of details.
            The suggestion that we may find it
          impossible to overcome the fragmenta-
          tion of knowledge and the scrappiness of
          culture within the obvious limitations
          imposed upon us when we teach by sub-
          jects, and that, in the earlier years of
          general instruction, we miy be driven to
          teach by situations rather than by sub-
          jects is quite convincing in the abstract.
          I am sure that most of us expand the
boundaries of our culture and extend
the scope of 'our information by this
method. Outside our specialties, I am
sure that few of us take on and work up
,a subject. We become interested in some
human situation -or problem, begin to-
follow the gleam of our interest, unravel
the tangled elements of the situation,
read about this and that aspect of it,
talk it over with jnterested associates,
and before long, in a quite informal
fashion, we have come to know a great
deal about something quite outside our
professional field. So, I say that the
suggestion that we might achieve a
broader culture and a better sense of the
relatedness of things by studying in
terms of siftuations: rather than subjects
is quite convincing in the abstract.
But the moment we attempt to step
from the abstract into the concrete and
undertake to visualize such a teaching
policy in operation in a university, a
thousand difficulties arise., Few have
ventured to condescend to details re-
specting this suggestion as far as college
instru:tion goes. It, has usually been
left in'that twilight zone of the abstract'
where we keep ideas that would be good
if they could be made to work.
   While the editor of The Century Maga-
 zine, I printed an article by Alexander
 Meiklejohn, in which he tentatively
 suggested that, we might find our way
 out of the confused wilderness of un-
 related specialisms, not by any formal
 synthesis of modern knowledge in    a:
 curriculum, but by devoting the fresh-
 man- year to the comprehensive study
 of a single historic episode such as the
 Greek Civilization, setting the fieshman
 to reading literature of that period and,
 under the friendly guidance and stim-
 ulation of a faculty of men who were
 masters of special fields, taking that
 civilization to pieces, seeing how it
 worked, what forces animated it, what
 \germs of the future were thrown up by
 it, etc., the assumption being that in a
 year of roaming within the catholic
 boundaries of that singularly fruitful
 experiment in civilization, the freshman
 would see and handle most of the begin-
 nings or early forms of modern knowl-
 edge and life. He suggested that the
 sophomore year might be devoted to a
 similar study of some other and later
 historic episode, say English civilization
 in the nineteenth century, or maybe-our
 own American civilization, the assump-
 tion being that the students would
 doubtless be led during the sophomore
 year to draw comparisons between the
 ways different peoples go at the job of
 building and administering a civiliza-
 tion, what kinds of civilizations occur
 when different sets of factors are pres-
 ent, etc., etc.
   This is, of course, an adaptation his-
 torically or retrospectively to higher
  This leads me to raise this question
that may be worth asking in the event
that such a proposal is considered un-
practical. May it not be that such study
by situations is a fruitful method that
could be carried bn concurrently with
our regular teaching by subjects? Might
it not -be worth while to consider the
wisdom   of a dual teaching program,
with specialists in isolation teaching by
subjects as now, providing the element
of analysis in education, and the same
specialists in cooperation guiding stu-
dents in the study of situations, providing
the element of synthesis in education?
I do not mean the mere addition during
idle hours of discussion clubs and forums
in which students and teachers might,
if they would, pull the result4 of ,sepa-
rate class-room instructions together.
1 mean rather- the deliberate introduc-
tion into the regular college procedure
of a program of study in which the
rigid departmental boundaries would
be ignored, in which groups of students
and groups of teachers might join in a
cooperative effort to unravel and to
understand certain representative hu-
man situations in which the knowledge
of all departments meet and mingle to
form just the sort of coherent social
process or- problem the students will
have to face and fathom later. May
there not be possibilities worth investi-
gating in a college program under which
teachers would conduct research and
instruction individually in terms of their
respective subjects, coming together also
to work cooperatively in terms of the
interpretation of representative human
   Most of us are in agreement that the
 day of the polymath is passed. The
 sort of general introduction to, life and
 knowledge to which we have referred
 might seem to call for a special faculty
)'an~uary, 1927
education of the project method that.
has been worked out in primary and
secondary education. And there is at
least this advantage in taking a situa-
tion out of the past rather than out of
the -present-it will stand still while
you study it.
  Here at any rate is a definite sug es-
tion of teaching by situation rather than
bysubject in the college. Is such a
project feasible? Could such a proposal
be made to work save in a small college
in the hands of a mall faculty of specially
selected men who, by happy combina-
tion of temperament and training, had
retained something of the qualities of
the old general scholar and were of the
tutor extraordinary type? Could it be
made to work throughout our college
and university-world? In short, is it a
repeatable- scheme?,   -

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