The Experimental College

Alexander Meiklejohn

The Experimental College chronicles a remarkable four-year academic experiment at the University of Wisconsin. Originally published in 1932, the book is a classic in the history of American higher education on at least two grounds. It recounts a quest for a two-year introductory curriculum that would integrate discrete undergraduate subjects in such a way as to help a student construct a “scheme of reference” adequate to future study or life beyond college. At the same time it explores the critical meeting point between teacher and student, examining how to teach as well as what to teach.

– Roland L. Guyotte
Taken from his introduction to The Experimental College, written in April 2000.

Alexander Meiklejohn is a major figure in twentieth century American intellectual history. He was born in England in 1872 to Scottish parents who immigrated to the United States in 1880. Meiklejohn graduated from Brown University in 1893 and took a Ph.D. in philosophy from Cornell. He returned to teach at Brown in 1897 and served as Dean there from 1901-1912. He was President of Amherst College from 1912 until his dismissal by its Trustees in 1923. Meiklejohn’s national reputation, won partly on the lecture circuit as an educational and social critic in the 1920s, brought him to the attention of Glenn Frank, editor of Century magazine. When Frank became President of the University of Wisconsin in 1925, he asked Meiklejohn to come to Madison to help reform the University’s undergraduate program. The result, the Experimental College, opened its doors in the fall of 1927. It ceased operations after just five years, having taught less than 400 students in the four classes which undertook the two-year course of study.

After the College closed in 1932, Meiklejohn founded the San Francisco School of Social Studies, a pioneering adult education discussion program, and wrote books and articles on educational and political themes. His Free Speech and Its Relation to Self-Government, which appeared in 1948 when Meiklejohn was 76 years old, launched a career for him as a defender of First Amendment freedoms of speech, press and assembly during the era of the Cold War. Meiklejohn’s civil liberties theories became enshrined in the footnotes of Supreme Court decisions and especially influenced the landmark Times v. Sullivan case (1964) which broadened citizen freedom to criticize government officials. Meiklejohn was one of the first recipients of the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1963. He advised an orbit of educational and political figures, among them former students from Brown, Amherst, and Wisconsin, until his death in December 1964 at the age of 92.

A paperback edition of this book is available from the University of Wisconsin Press for $26.95. For more information on the paperback edition, visit its title page on the UW Press Web site.

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