That Was Lawrence: Freshman Studies

The May 11, 1945 issue of The Lawrentian nestled a small article among larger pieces on campus life and the surrender of Nazi Germany, which reported President Nathan Pusey’s announcement of “a new course in the Humanities to be incorporated into the Lawrence College curriculum in September… known as ‘Freshman Studies’.”

Pusey, a Harvard man, sought to return Lawrence to its roots as a liberal arts college through a dramatic new program for the first year of the Class of 1949.

Professor Charles Breuning, in his fantastic history of Lawrence University, posited that Pusey created the Freshman Studies program as a reaction to the more specialized education of the US Navy V-12 program for reserve officers on campus.

Drawing from the “Great Books” curriculum at the University of Chicago and his own teaching experience at Scripps College and Wesleyan, Pusey sought to:

“…give the student a mastery of the mechanics of effective writing, reading and speaking;”

“…introduce the student, through the study of a small number of books of major importance, to the four great human enterprises—philosophy, science, art and religion;”

“… acquaint the student with the nature of a college of liberal arts, especially with the program, departmental structure and teaching personnel of Lawrence;”

“…encourage a more active student participation in the learning process;”

and “emphasize the discussion of ideas rather than acquisition of information.”

Through such a formative experience, Pusey sought to form “an intellectual minority, trained for and eager to think, not to follow and obey, nor just to drift—but to think, courageously and independently,” a challenge for the Class of 1952 at their Matriculation.

The structure of the proposed Freshman Studies classes for the academic year of 1945-1946 would be familiar to current Lawrentians. Students discussed a set list of works in small classroom settings for four hours each week, including Plato’s “The Republic,” Thoreau’s “Walden,” Sophocles’ “Oedipus the King,” Mozart’s “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik,” Descartes’ “Discourse on Method” and the 1943 Western film “The Ox-Bow Incident.”

Until 1952, freshmen also participated in three-hour weekly “lab sessions” of personal exploration of music, painting, drama and literary writing.

The faculty of Lawrence College was very enthusiastic about the goals, but some expressed concerns about their ability to teach works outside of their specialization.

In response, Professor of French Anne Jones asserted that “when [a student] sees a physicist reading ‘Hamlet,’ an English professor discussing Darwin, or an Art Historian recommending John Stuart Mill, he realizes that his teachers, professed believers in the liberal arts, are honestly making proof of their principles.”

Pusey’s experiment was a huge success. A report written by Professor Waples of the English Department asserted that the “results have been gratifying” and only requested that more sections be offered.

She also asserted that “a general quickening in the whole college was noticeable” and that Lawrence upperclassmen were rivaled by “three hundred and fifty freshmen who studied harder than freshmen had ever been known to study before.”

Only eight percent of freshmen—nineteen students—surveyed said that they were “not glad” to have taken Freshman Studies. The report also noted the beginning of a trend that many of us have noticed in conversation with our dissatisfied peers. Of those unhappy with the Freshman Studies program, about half had received D’s or F’s in the course.

Praise, however, was effusive. One comment from a member of the Class of 1949 is telling: “I have learned more about questions which have always bothered me than in any other course.”

The program, despite a brief hiatus in the 1970s, has proven to be one of the defining features of a Lawrence education, even for those who may not have quantitatively performed well.

A freshman who received a “D” told Waples that “my grades may not have shown that I have learned much, but grades can’t show just what real knowledge I have gained this first year of college…”

“Thank you for Freshman Studies.”