An Early Influence on Evergreen
By Jasmine Kozak Gilroy
The most important figure in the Evergreen State College history does not have a library or plaza named after him. In fact, he died before the school was founded without ever having heard of it’s existence.
Alexander Meiklejohn passed away at 92 on December 17th, 1964 as a retired professor still living in the college town of Berkley, California. While his obituary in the New York Times cites his passion for freedom of speech, his excellence as a professor, and mentions his success as the as the Dean of Students at Brown University, they gloss over the important bits—his forced resignation as the President of Amherst College and the failure of his established Experimental College at the University of Wisconsin- Madison.
Although the founders of our school drew from many different places when designing its academic structure, Meiklejohn’s vision for righteous higher education and the Experimental College—detailed in his 1932 book of the same name—clearly played a key role in the development of Evergreen’s values.
Alexander Meiklejohn was unanimously vote in as the President of Amherst College in 1912, just fifteen years after he received his PhD in Philosophy from Cornell University. At Amherst, he became reviled by faculty for his liberal and radical ideas about the direction of modern education. He refused to implement electives based on his opinion that electives, instead of opening student up to new ideas, allow them to allow them to close themselves off to entire disciplines save for the occasional foray into something different.
While his original vision for the perfect “Liberal College” was far more divided than what we see today at Evergreen, his basis for that structure—that education can not be complete unless it address multiple cohesive disciplines—reads strongly in our curriculum. Besides his desire for radical curriculum change, over his decade at Amherst he was also well known for his disregard for both college athletics and the elitist hierarchy of academic—despite his personal employment of six servants in his residence on the college’s dime—all of which let to his forced resignation.
After his resignation he turned down multiple offers of presidency at other schools to instead become a professor of Philosophy at University of Wisconsin Madison where he created his Experimental College—a culmination of all of his thoughts and theories on righteous liberal arts education.
The Experimental College, started in 1937, was intellectually born in one of Meiklejohn’s essays published in 1925. Students lived together with their teachers, without a schedule, without grades, and traditional classes were forsaken for tutorials and group discussions. It only lasted five years due to administrative difficulties, the Great Depression, and fear of student radicalism, but it’s structure clearly lives on in many institutions, including at Evergreen. While we may not live with our teachers we do share potlucks, go on long trips with them, and they often bring their partners and kids in for show and tell.
After the school was officially shut down in 1932, Meiklejohn moved out to Berkeley, California, where he started the San Francisco School of Social Studies for adult education, which continued to apply much of the same structure until it closed in 1942.
When Meiklejohn moved out to California, he was followed by one of his students, Joseph Tussman, who he later guided in the creation of Tussman own Experimental College at the University of California, Berkeley. Tussman brought faculty in from the main U.C. Berkley disciplines and asked them to bring their expertise to the study of cultural crisis periods in history. The program was admired for its focus on primary source documents and community outreach. The students would go out into the community and teach factory workers and laborers concepts they were learning in school, a program that in some ways mirrors Evergreen’s own Gateways. And, much like Meiklejohn’s colleges, the Tussman Experimental College skewed traditional academic structure and forwent grades. The disregard for the idea of constructed hierarchy- with grades and tenure- clearly manifests itself in the way that Evergreen approaches education, but the real radical idea that Evergreen seems to draw from Meiklejohn is that education itself should be radical- it should defy traditional forms and structures and should be a tool used by the student, instead of a tool used to mold the students.