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VII. Some Issues Facing The School

The picture we have sketched of the School of General Studies has been somewhat static. This is only to be expected when we study an organization solely at one point in time. However, in several places we have had occasion to mention strains and stresses. Let us review some of them again, and speculate how the School might adapt itself to them in the future.

Adults taught by their contemporaries or juniors might sometimes feel that their instructor uses his position to impose his immature views on their more mature ones. Comments such as "I could have taught that class better than he (the instructor) did" or "I know so much more about this than he (the instructor)"; "he has never lived with it like I have" turned up now and then in interviews and in situations when an advisor discussed a program of courses with students. Such challenges of the legitimacy of the distinctions in knowledge between students and teachers remain sporadic and individual. Only on one occasion did we observe an organized challenge. In approaching the studentsí Social Council with a request for cooperation in this study, it became apparent that the Council had appointed a sub-committee to review the grading practices of the faculty. The author gained the confidence of the group to attend a meeting of this committee. It seemed clear that its members were motivated by two grievances. First it was felt that knowledge acquired in real life, "in the school of hard knocks" as one member put it, did not carry enough weight in the grades received in the School of General Studies. Second, it was felt that the School had no common grading standards. Some instructors were called "easy" graders, others "stiff" graders, and many frustrations were reported along the following paradigm: "I worked harder than ever in class I and got only a B-, but in class II where I honestly didnít work at all I got an A." However, the efforts of this committee petered out and it never seemed to have reported to the parent-group.

Other student complaints, however, obtained a better hearing. Everyone in the School who had repeated occasions to discuss studentsí programs of study Ė that is, Deans, Advisors to Students, and Departmental Representatives Ė were faced with the recurrent student question: "How can I get this done as fast as possible; I have no time to lose?" The adult students were clearly irked by the requirements to accumulate 124 semester hours of work prior to their graduation and the physical impossibility of spending more than a limited number of hours a week in the class room. When Dean Louis M. Hacher suggested that devices should be found to "accelerate" certain students through the School a responsive discussion started among the Faculty. The outcome of these discussions was a faculty resolution with the following points:

  1. A maximum of thirty points could be achieved, with full credit, by examination.
  2. The Program was to be under the direction of a faculty committee, with the departments concerned making decisions regarding acceptable examinations and passing grades for advanced credit.
  3. No credit by examination was to be allowed for subjects normally required for admission.
  4. Credit earned by examination was not to be granted until the student had demonstrated his capacity to do satisfactory advanced work in his overall program. 28)

After several delays the University gave its approval and the acceleration program went into effect in 1958. This is nothing less than a shattering of the stale American habit of counting academic competence in terms of the credit system. A new system is on its way that simply gives degrees to all those who obtain commensurate knowledge, not just to those who expose themselves to all the extraneous devices used to give this knowledge to minors. We would dislike any system that would restrict each citizen to the acquisition of a limited amount of the insignia of wealth, power, taste, or salvation each year. Why then accept a system that limits the amount of the insignia of knowledge that can be acquired in a year?

The adoption of the Acceleration Program is a first step to remove such an unreasonable limit. More can undoubtedly be done along the same lines. At present the School requires that the three-point course for undergraduates should meet three hours a week. There is little need for this in an adult college. One or two hours a week Ė balanced by increased reading assignments Ė might suffice for adult students to pass the same examination. Also, one might predict a general de-emphasis on class room work and increased emphasis on completed examinations in the computation of academic standing for the adult students. The most important publication of the School of General Studies in the future might not be catalogue telling when classes meet. It might rather be a bulletin listing the scope and requirements of various examinations. Then, the faculty would spend less time teaching and more time giving students guidance to reading material.

Other issues facing the School of General Studies result from tensions experienced by students and teachers when they compare themselves with their peers in other divisions of Columbia University. A few students in General Studies express a great deal of hostility toward the students in Columbia College. Impressionistic observations indicate that such aggression is not always completely idiosyncratic, but is correlated with the social structure of the University community. One young student recalls:

I got ill last semester and they put me in the infirmary. There were mostly College boys there, and we argued a great deal about the College and General Studies. They really got me mad, and we had a real fight throwing pillows at each other.

Here is a person who likes to think of himself as a "student at Columbia University," a phrase that recurs often in his interview. He talks about the prestige of the University, about the Bicentennial Celebration bringing the name of Columbia to the renewed attention of the nation and the world, about the famous scientists at Columbia, and so on. It appears that he derives a great deal of satisfaction from being associated with Columbia University, and every time he is responded to as a "Columbia University student" his self-esteem goes up. However, he attends the School of General Studies, the youngest and least known of the undergraduate divisions of Columbia University. Whenever he is reacted to as "General Studies student" rather than as a "Columbia University student," he experiences a let-down in his self-esteem. When the College boys reminded him of this affiliation and invidiously compared it with their own, he tried to shut them up. It is impossible to tell how frequently such instances occur. Actually there appears to be relatively little contact between the students of General Studies and those of Barnard or the College, and most contacts are, of course, handled more smoothly than this one. However, experiences like this one generate a desire that the School of General Studies obtain some of the status symbols of the other undergraduate divisions, for example, large buildings of its own, a college newspaper, some extracurricular activities, a library of its own, et cetera.

And, among the teachers, there is a parallel concern for the standing of the School of General Studies. They, too, feel a discrepancy in the esteem that goes with being "a professor at Columbia University" and being "a professor in the School of General Studies". Here is a list of grievances that seem fairly common among the teachers in the School of General Studies:

I see no reason why we should have to teach 12 hours a week when instructors in the (Columbia) College teach only 9.
Why canít we get private offices like they have in the Graduate Department?
We really donít get any help with clerical work at all in General Studies. Many of the other professors in our Department have private secretaries.
I wish I could get a research assistant this year.
The good students are very good in General Studies. But, the bad students are very bad. We should look over people a little bit more carefully before we admit them.

A more serious complaint is voiced by a professor whose integrity is beyond doubt:

When I was appointed to (a tenure position in) General Studies, I expected that my colleagues (of tenure rank) in General Studies would be of the same stature as the colleagues I would have had if I had been appointed to Columbia College or the Graduate School. But, it didnít turn out that way. I think, then, departments try to shove their weak sisters off on General Studies.

This is a serious charge since it hits the core of the concern of a university. To say that a university has a poor scholarship rating is as damaging as saying that a business is run at a loss, a government is losing control over public order, a museum has a collection of ugly pictures, and a church has lost the road of salvation.

On closer consideration it appears that this more serious complaint is related to the earlier more trivial ones. We know that the teachers complain about the fact that they have to teach more hours a week than others at Columbia; about their less adequate office space; about the lack of secretarial service available to them; and about the fact they virtually never get any graduate teaching assistants assigned to them. And not infrequently they complain about the less than careful admission procedures of the School which allows too many marginal or sub-marginal students into their class rooms. So long as all these conditions prevail in the School of General Studies, it is only natural that many teachers will prefer appointments in other divisions of the University (or elsewhere). It is, thus, hardly by design that "departments try to shove their weak sisters off on General Studies". The "weak sisters" will end up there because the better teachers are able to obtain appointments elsewhere. Thus, a series of fairly trivial grievances tend to cause the more serious question of the academic standing of the School. Therefore, in the name of academic excellence, strong pressures must emerge asking for improvements on all fronts of faculty grievances. 29)

There are frequent informal discussions on campus about the academic merits of the School of General Studies. It is not easy to take a reasonable stand in these discussions. The objective indicators we have used tell a fairly consistent story: the School of General Studies is located on a level of scholarly competence that compares favorably with that of most American undergraduate colleges. Sixty-eight per cent of the teachers in the School hold Ph.D. degrees, a proportion far above the national average, forty per cent. As mentioned before, a core of the teachers have an impressive record of scholarly publications; in two years 66 faculty members published 25 books and 112 articles. Perhaps the best indicator is the fact that almost two-thirds of the graduates of the School go on to advanced work at Columbia University or other graduate and professional schools, most of which have high requirements for admission. All this puts the School of General Studies way ahead of the average American college. However, it does not necessarily put the School ahead of the average Ivy League College, which constitutes the proper comparison for the undergraduate colleges of Columbia University. This feeling of being good, but not as good as one ought to be, provides some of the healthiest pressures toward improvement in the School of General Studies.

Outcomes of college education other than knowledge are not easily caught by statistical indicators. It is certainly reasonable for the School to say that with older students taste and character development "must take place elsewhere". But do they actually take place elsewhere or take place at all? Since 55 per cent of the degree students are transfer students we know that they were exposed to whatever training character and taste their previous college could impart before they left it. There is no reason to call the moral integrity of the student body into question. However, the level of taste and style has been called into question by the Department of English. While a fair number of students in General Studies write and behave with a great deal of poise, there are too many who do not live up to college canons of style. This fact is evident from examination papers in most any class and it received a tragic expression when some students started a weekly paper which the Dean had to repress after a few issues; not because of its content, but because of its poor stylistic quality which was thought to be a shame to the School.

The abandoning of those devices of the conventional colleges that have more to do with the control of minors than with the education of men and women is only partially complete in the School of General Studies. To take one example, the instructors in the School of General Studies are still required to enter on their grade reports the number of times a student was absent from class. Students are barred from receiving full credit for a course if they have over a certain number of absences. This is clearly a rule that is more in the interest of the regulation of the activities of minors than in the interest of education. Columbia College, for example, has the identical rule. It is revealing to note, however, that in the adult college this rule is not always enforced. The grade sheets of eleven departments with 102 classes in Columbia College and 250 classes in the School of General Studies were compared to see whether or not absences were reported; 30 per cent of the Columbia College instructors reported cuts as compared to only 18 per cent of the instructors in the School of General Studies. There is little reason to assume a higher rate of absenteeism in the conventional college than in the adult college. An explanation of the differences might, rather, lie in the absence of repercussions for the latter from not reporting cuts as compared to the former school, where some repercussions are possible. If a minor is caught violating community mores during class time, his family or the police might well reproach the college for not keeping him in classes. If an adult does the same, it is considered his own business for which he bears sole responsibility. The School of General Studies does not have to control minors; and a device for that purpose becomes atrophied, as indicated by the figures just quoted. It might not be long before the school formally drops the rule that instructors shall report cuts.

In other and more important respects the School of General Studies has abandoned aspects of college organization related to the latent function of controlling minors. The School has dropped the device of keeping students in class from 12 to 18 hours a week, and it has dropped the practice of spacing these class room hours over the week so that surveillance of the students is easier. In the School of General Studies there is no minimum course requirement that a three-point course shall meet on three separate days. Furthermore, the practice of thinking of college as a four year sequence is beginning to disappear. Graduation in the School does not coincide with becoming an adult and it is no longer necessary to sit in class for 1,600 hours in order to graduate. If the examinations of the Acceleration Program reveal the proper academic knowledge, adult students are graduated with a lower number of hours. The conventional colleges cannot easily liberalize these requirements, since they exist also in the interest of the social control of minors. Thus, our study of an adult college reveals that several aspects of conventional American undergraduate education have little to do with education and much to do with undergraduates who are minors. 30)  Any attempt to change or improve the American college system should take this into account.



28) Louis M. Hacker, School of General Studies, op. cit., p.33.

29) Of course, improvements in teaching hours, office space, secretarial aid, research and teaching assistance, and admissions procedures are going to cost money. In informal discussion on campus it is sometimes said that the School is not good enough to deserve the expensive measures required for full parity with other divisions of the Columbia Corporation. This is a kind of argument that provides its own viscous proof: the School isnít good enough to get the money, and without the money it will never be good enough. At present it appears that the University cannot afford to plow back the surplus earned by the School of General Studies into the School; it is needed instead for other operations of the University which are considered more essential. Nor does it appear that a milder financial climate for the University (or any private school) is a likely prospect so that this situation will be changed.

However, one might expect an easier climate of negotiation for the School within the University community. The School is gaining attention. Some of its alumni move into very responsible positions. Magazines and newspapers mention the School in laudatory ways. Representatives or delegations from other universities come visiting to get acquainted with its operations. The University and the educational world in general are slowly becoming aware of the fact that, by design and coincidence, a pioneering and inventive college for adults has emerged on Morningside Heights. And, when the Ugly Duckling is becoming recognized as a Swan, there are certainly easier times ahead!

30) There are many reasons why it might be of interest to contemplate a general effort in American society to lower the age defining majority. If such a reduction would take place (not only in legal terms but also in every relevant aspect of public opinion) one might predict a large number of interesting consequences. (The constantly younger marriage age in the United States might eventually force such a trend.) If this happens we might expect all colleges to look more like the School of General Studies; the economy would face increasing earning power of the young who would be eligible for responsible high-paying jobs at an earlier age; the voting age would be lowered so that the lag between the civic courses of the school and practical political acts would disappear; the draft age would either be lowered or, more likely, the armed forces reorganized to suit married soldiers, the church rituals for adolescents would regain their status as rites de passaga into adulthood; and new forms of teenage life emerge to deal with the increased tensions of the quicker transfer from protected childhood to competitive adulthood.

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