It's a quote ripped straight from any thinkpiece in The Atlantic about college education: “The failures of higher education in America have become the concern of millions of people who a few decades ago would have been indifferent.”
Yet the thought comes from 1952, written by Northwestern professor Baker Brownell, who taught a course entitled “Contemporary Thought”. The course brought notable thinkers like architect Frank Lloyd Wright, activist Jane Addams and others as lecturers to make the university more attentive to the well-rounded development of the college student.
Today, debates rage on about the future of the university system as we know it. In October, The New York Times columnist David Brooks declared, “Universities are more professional and glittering than ever, but in some ways there is emptiness deep down.” Harper’s writer William Deresiewicz also chimed in, writing, “College is seldom about thinking or learning anymore.”
The revival of the Contemporary Thought Speaker Series in 2012, bringing speakers like astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson and activist Angela Davis, suggests that students clamor for a similarly rich understanding of the modern world. While in many ways the arguments that swirl around college campuses have changed, Brownell's concerns about the state of the university in preparing the latest generation for an increasingly complicated world mirror much of what we discuss today.
“It’s an astonishing class, one that’s a legend at Northwestern,” says Northwestern University archivist Kevin Leonard. “Every generation seems to have some professor who fits in with the time, and Brownell was that guy.“
Brownell, who lectured at Northwestern from 1921 to 1954, went further than merely debating these issues in the abstract. Instead, his work in founding the Contemporary Thought Lecture Series, a crossdisciplinary class that ran for more than two decades beginning in 1922, positioned Northwestern as a leading institution in giving students a richer understanding of the world. Just as Brooks calls on colleges today to create “interdisciplinary humanities programs” to foster students’ “emotional, spiritual, and moral sides,” Brownell took that task to heart while he was crafting the course.
His philosophical writing in the mid-20th century emphasized the importance of the “human community,” and the state of human relations in the modernizing world. He saw the ways of rural life, what he thought was the truest expression of a genuine human community, being decimated – while at the same time, the urban world limited people from actually knowing each other in meaningful ways, and made it harder to form a true, tight-knit community.
At the center of these two worries was his frustration that universities were causing students to think too narrowly, without a broader context for their world. Thanks to a growing emphasis on specialized knowledge, students were being taught in increasingly rigid departmental structures, giving them no basis to work with one another. To that end, the Contemporary Thought class gave students a rare opportunity to understand the complex world with the day’s leading thinkers across all fields as their lecturers.
“The colleges train their students for an individual-centered career, not for a community-centered or family-centered career,” he wrote. “Whether they be progressive or reactionary, the colleges are concerned usually with some concept of individual attainment, individual salvation [and] individual success.”
Imagine this: Frank Lloyd Wright, teaching a class on architecture. Bertrand Russell, on philosophy. W.E.B. DuBois, on racial politics. These were just some of the most impressive lecturers included over the course’s history, which was also comprised of former U.S. Vice President Harry Wallace and poet Carl Sandberg. By drawing on his personal ties to the leading figures of the day, Brownell brought together an intellectually heavyhitting lineup of thinkers, an opportunity rarely seen in a single college class.
“From an intellectual history perspective, it’s shocking,” says History professor Daniel Immerwahr, who researched Brownell for his Ph.D. dissertation. “He’s pulling from all over, and he’s trying to fashion his sense of what a university can do.”
As part of an effort to enrich the whole of the human community, the series was unique in its inclusion of Chicago-area residents. For several years, the lectures were broadcast on Chicago radio stations WMAQ and WIBO, and in the later years of the course, area residents were welcome to attend the lectures freely. In Brownell’s estimation, this resulted in attendance of 1,500 to 2,500 students and residents.
Despite Brownell’s best efforts, the lectures were shut down after two decades. Other professors in the University chafed at the interdisciplinary nature of the class, as he wrote about in “The College and the Community.” Nevertheless, his efforts to create an idealistic model for educating students in a well-rounded way provides an interesting hypothetical as we continue to reconsider what the purpose of the University should be. And while it is no longer a class, the revival of the Contemporary Thought Speaker Series in 2012, bringing notable speakers, such as activist Angela Davis, astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson and journalist Ezra Klein, suggests students are still eager to learn from today’s brightest thinkers.
“In some ways, Brownell was trying to actualize what was a utopian demand of a few decades before,” Immerwahr says. “And that’s one of the ways in which he was very for-wardthinking.”