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Parlor Talk

By Jeffrey Lott

02a_jeff_lott_new.jpgAs Swarthmore moves forward with an 18-month strategic planning process, I find that it’s all too easy to be cynical about long-range planning. You ask a lot of earnest questions and gather guarded, self-interested answers that range from the sublime to the ridiculous. You write it all up in a study that’s out of date the moment it’s completed. In many organizations, planning is an expected exercise before the decision makers do what they do anyway. But in some organizations, self-study is sincere, genuine, and intended to effect change. Swarthmore is one of those organizations.

As a Swarthmore history buff, I suspect that I’m among the few contemporary staff members who have recently read “The Red Book.” The 461-page Critique of a College published in November 1967 is a quintessentially Swarthmore document—a genuine attempt to understand where the College was in 1966–1967 and where it should go in the future.

The 1960s were a crossroads for Swarthmore as they were for most of American higher education. In his preface to Critique, President Courtney Smith showed how well he understood skepticism about such self-studies. He quoted Washington columnist Art Buchwald—one of the great satirists of his day—whose “source,” Professor Heinrich Applebaum, said, “The main purpose of a study is not to solve a problem but to postpone the solution of it in hopes that it will go away… [or] at least people will have forgotten about it by the time the report comes out.”

From the vantage point of 2011, Critique of a College is both quaint and prescient. The section on libraries notes, “There are record players, radios, tapes, and records for the reproduction of sound, including vinyl records, whose cost is very low.” But it also includes a recommendation that the library staff include a “specialist on technology affecting teaching methods.”

A report on student life—the most controversial part of the report in the immediate aftermath of its publication—is tin-eared and pragmatic. Discussion of the College’s “sex rule” cites an “institutional responsibility” to neither “condone nor permit the use of college facilities to engage in sexual intercourse.” Yet in the next sentence, situational morality (and perhaps student reality) prompts the recommendation that punishment for sexual intercourse not be automatic suspension or expulsion. The unstated implication is that the College would henceforth look the other way, which it did.

Moral judgment and academic policy are judiciously separated in The Red Book, with the latter commanding three quarters of the report. The Commission on Educational Policy, chaired by Professor (and later Provost) Charles Gilbert, studied every nook and cranny of the academic program, making 165 separate recommendations. More than 40 years later, there’s no reason to parse them individually. Many were implemented; some were not.

The point is that Swarthmore has a tradition of honest self-assessment. Like Swarthmore itself, the tone of Critique of a College is high-minded but remarkably pragmatic and straightforward. President Smith, whose voice is heard only in the modest two-page preface, follows his mention of Buchwald with this: “Does this volume fall under Professor Applebaum’s consolation? I have a feeling it does not, indeed a conviction that it must not.”

Critique of a College is an example of how Swarthmore as an institution best models its own intellectual bent, which is to analyze things as they are and envision how they might be, to understand today’s reality and dream of a future that takes education to a new level, not just for its own sake but for the sake of the world.

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