Alexander Meiklejohn

Credentials: 1872-1924

Position title: 1872-1924

Alexander Meiklejohn portrait

Alexander Meiklejohn directed the Experimental College from 1927-1932, where he tested, reworked, and improved his ideas for the ideal liberal college. Meiklejohn’s goal was to help students develop into thinking, caring, involved citizens. He carried out these ideas by creating a framework which included developing a curriculum which ran for two consecutive years, lectures and readings by experts in those fields, students studying the same topics at the same time, and shared residence hall living space between students and faculty. The Curriculum, which came to be known as the “Athens-America Curriculum,” guided students through an in-depth, interdisciplinary comparison between Greek civilization and current American culture and social issues. The concept behind Meiklejohn’s choice of readings was that a thorough grounding in the classics, with an emphasis on “The Great Books” and the development of political democracy, would prepare students to cope with the social issues of their day and to strive for intellectual excellence. Meiklejohn was a visionary, but he was somewhat autocratic in his ways and had a tendency to make enemies. As a contemporary remarked, “He did magnificently with students and failed lamentably with grown-ups.” Meiklejohn came to Madison on the heels of his firing as the president of Amherst, where he antagonized conservative elements among the faculty and trustees. Almost immediately, he ran afoul of Madison’s Dean Sellery of Letters and Science, who viewed the Experimental College as a rival entity. Their quarrel undermined Meiklejohn’s support on campus, notwithstanding the loyal enthusiasm of his students. Although of enduring influence, the Experimental College was a rather short-lived experiment, ending in 1932 after graduating 327 sophomores. Student performance varied, but everyone touched by the experiment came away witha critical awareness of what a society is and how it works; and how its arts and sciences, its economics and politics, influence each other. At the same time, this short-lived program became a model for many residence hall programs around the country. Nowhere has the influence of the Experimental College been stronger than here at the UW-Madison. Its curriculum had a direct influence on the Integrated Liberal Studies program, which began in 1948 and is now celebrating its 50th anniversary. Even more powerful has been its model of combining academic and residential life, which influenced the formation of the Bradley Learning Community and the Chadbourne Residential College. ILS is one of the major sponsors of the Bradley Learning Community. Alumni of the Experimental College continue to follow developments in both of these programs and return annually to Madison to discuss educational reform and to meet with students and faculty. Several alumni of the Experimental College hailed the opening of the Bradley Learning Community at its inaugural convocation in August, 1995. Meiklejohn’s philosophy continues to inspire new generations of students on the Madison campus, as evidenced by the motto of the Bradley Learning Community, adapted from one of Meiklejohn’s famous essays: “Understanding is Integration.”