Antecedents of the "Chicago Plan" --
Meiklejohn, Buchanan, Barr

...In 1916 Alexander Meiklejohn became president of Amherst College and his agenda focused on liberal education as a means for training the mind. He adopted the Socratic method in both his teaching and his administration at Amherst. Questions such as "Why do we do this?" and "Why do we do that?" probed the heretofore sacred cows of curriculum, college organization and teaching methods. Alexander Meiklejohn organized a faculty seminar during his stay at Amherst. (The seminar participants ... included a senior student named Scott Buchanan.) This seminar became a forum for his ideas and reforms. He proposed a curriculum of the classics with the goal of exposing students to the timeless questions of the great Western philosophers. Meiklejohn's ideas evoked scattered pockets of support, but his own colleagues at Amherst did not rally behind him. He was forced to resign in 1923 by the Amherst Board of Trustees before he could even begin his experiment....

A bold new president at the University of Wisconsin, Frank Glenn, invited Meiklejohn to establish his Experimental College at Madison. This college, which was really a 2-year college within a University, opened in 1927. Meiklejohn set his dream in motion. He implemented a fixed classical curriculum with emphasis on small seminar classes of 10-20 students. He secured a dormitory, Adam's Hall, and began a residential college program. At its crest the Experimental College socratically taught 155 Freshmen and sophomores the lessons of the ancient Athenians. But the principles of free speech, dialectical learning and freedom of thought were anachronistic. By 1932 Meiklejohn's opponents succeeded in dismantling his Experimental College under the charges of communism and free love. What his critics really objected to was his unswerving view of classical western thought as the fountainhead of undergraduate education.

Meanwhile, in [1929], a young 30-year-old president took the reins at the University of Chicago. Robert Maynard Hutchins disdained the emerging university emphasis on research and specialization and proceeded to change things. Working with the faculty and trustees he abolished competitive athletics ... and took a firm stand against vocationalism. But his most proactive idea was a "Great Books" curriculum that followed the model of Plato's Academy. When the faculty resisted, he mustered all his persuasive powers and finally succeeded in 1936. But a deep schism remained between Hutchins and the trenchant faculties at Chicago. The "Hutchins College" survived only [16 years].... Even though Hutchins eventually left Chicago for the presidency of the Ford Foundation, both he and Meiklejohn had significantly involved and impacted Buchanan.

During the early 30s Buchanan secured a faculty position in the philosophy department at the University of Virginia. Here he renewed a friendship with [the historian] Stringfellow Barr which dated back to 1919 at Oxford.... Meanwhile, a new president at the University of Virginia appointed among others Barr and Buchanan to give their judgment on the Virginia honors program. Their committee went far beyond what their administrator had commissioned. Barr and Buchanan drafted a radical program for liberal education that centered in reading and discussing 100 of the great western classics....

Their proposal was mothballed at Virginia, but emerged a few years later at a different location: St. John's College in Annapolis, Maryland, a small private institution then having accreditation problems.... The college's board approached Buchanan and Barr [in 1937] and offered them the leadership of St. John's. Barr became president and Buchanan, who disdained administration, became the dean. Buchanan set out to totally revamp the College. He drew from Meiklejohn, Hutchins and the Virginia Committee. He charted a direction that redefined the meaning of a classical, liberal arts college. [Their program of undergraduate education based on reading the Great Books continues to this day.]

     -- Keith Wilson, "ST. JOHN'S: BACK TO CLASSICS", Maverick Colleges: Ten Notable Experiments in American Undergraduate Education. [ Link is unfortunately dead. ]

See Radical Visions: Stringfellow Barr, Scott Buchanan, by Nelson & McNeill -->
Compare "History of General Education Reforms", by Lawson -->
See also "A Brief History of the Modern Great Books Movement" -->
See also "Richard McKeon" page (with reservations) -->
See another "Richard McKeon" page (without reservations) -->

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