The Brown Education Department Speaker Series kicked off this week, and was proud to feature Dr. Luther Spoehr, a Senior Lecturer in Education and History at Brown University, and the Director of Brown Undergraduate Studies. Spoehr’s main activities at Brown involve teaching about the history of American higher education and the history of American school reform. His First-Year Seminar, “Campus on Fire,” looks at American colleges and universities in the 1960s. Other courses include a survey of the history of American higher education, the history of intercollegiate athletics, and the history of academic freedom. Dr. Spoehr also does work on best practices in the teaching of history and frequently consults with schools and school systems that want to improve their history teaching.
This Wednesday, Dr. Spoehr delivered a presentation to the Department of Education entitled “Francis and Ira’s (Sometimes) Excellent Adventures: Wayland, Magaziner, and Curriculum Reform at Brown,” a talk outlining the research Spoehr has conducted into Brown’s curriculum journey since the University’s founding in 1764.
Dr. Spoehr began by discussing the University’s roots as a small school of approximately 80 male students, being taught Latin and the classics by a single professor, and then touched upon the (at the time) outlandish reforms implemented by President Francis Wayland in the 1800’s, allowing for modern languages and practical skills such as agriculture, and science and chemistry applied to the arts. These reforms were considered a failure initially, supposedly attracting a lower caliber of students, but today are frequently sited as being “ahead of their time”.
Brown University’s “New Curriculum” of no required core curriculum or distribution requirements was not born until the 1960’s, when student activists led by undergraduate Ira Magaziner (whom Dr. Spoehr has had the privilege of interviewing for his research) pushed for more engaging and utilitarian courses. Elements of Magaziner’s New Curriculum exist to this day at Brown University, and current faculty in the audience remarked that it is because of the lack of requirements at Brown that they can be sure that when they walk into a classroom, their students want to be there.