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Memories of SSU

Warren Olson

Chairman of Philosophy Department, 1962-1968
Provost, Hutchins School of Liberal Studies, 1969-1974
Professor, Hutchins School, 1974-1991

The Origin of the Hutchins School of Liberal Studies

            Reminiscing about the conception and parturition of a 23-year-old innovative program in higher education is a privilege few academics have enjoyed. Even fewer had the temerity to commit those reminiscences to the printed page. However, telling this story may contribute to the reader’s understanding of what had gone awry in undergraduate education by the 1960s and exemplify the clash of competing remedies current at that time. The tale may also clarify the assumptions, values, and goals, which brought the Hutchins School into being, and be of utility for those idealistic academics who secretly pant to discover how undergraduate education might be rescued from its present malaise.

            I joined the faculty of Sonoma State University in 1962 as its first teacher of philosophy and humanities. I hoped that this vital integrative general education program could be developed at this collegiate tabula rasa. Also, that my experience in interdisciplinary studies and as the initiator of an honors program at Chico State College would be of some use in building a model General Education program.

            In 1967 through 1968, I was elected Chair of the Faculty for the year and as a consequence of the WASC critique we were not embracing innovation. I was charged with organizing a faculty conference for fall 1967 devoted to innovation and experimentation. Three of my colleagues (from Political Science, History, and English) and I settled on proposing a tutorial program similar to the one at San Jose State. The conferees were most interested in our proposal to be presented to the Academic Senate.

            In Fall 1968, it was proposed that Sonoma State grow smaller as it grew larger by reorganizing as a “cluster” of semi-autonomous schools, none of which would exceed 750 students and 50 faculty. Included was a proposal to establish Cluster School #2 as a four year program which would grant a BA in Liberal Studies and whose “primary aim will be that of affording students an educational experience which is liberalizing and liberating; it will mark a significant departure from traditional liberal arts degrees, for this college will be experimental in both subject matter and educational methods.” The new program was to start in 1969.

            We wanted a new name for the institution we were about to fabricate. I suggested we call the school the Robert Maynard Hutchins School of Liberal Studies. I had heard Hutchins give a speech in 1942 at my high school that made a major impact on my thinking about education. His current writing on the need for educational innovation was congruent with our intentions. In addition, Hutchins represented that intellectual tradition associated with Socrates, which we sought to embody in our school.

            Slightly more than 200 daring souls applied for admission to the Hutchins School, but only the first 100 hundred, on a first-come-served basis, could be accommodated. They were invited to the campus for an orientation meeting in early May of 1969. It was difficult to discern whether the soon-to-be freshmen were as excited as we were. Here, at last, was the first concrete result of our efforts.

            There was considerable controversy during the first year. It began during the first meeting of the Hutchins school faculty. Some didn’t want to use the decided upon book list for class discussion because they wished to embrace “freedom” rather than “structure” and to take seriously our proclamation that faculty should be “co-learners.” They would allow their seminars to decide which books should be read, if any!

            The others argued that their conception of the lower-division seminars was a far cry from the “unstructured” model in which faculty and students had complete latitude to “do their own thing.” The seminars could not function without a center, something studied in common, for they were to be cooperative. To no avail we argued that unless we tried the approved plan, we could never determine whether our “experiment” was successful. The division between them lasted throughout the year. At the end of the school year, the two faculty members who could not embrace the structure were not renewed. One other faculty member decided to return to his own department: so with the hiring of five new faculty members a total of eight had to be hired.

            The natal year of Hutchins School of Liberal Studies ended on notes of hope, celebration, relief, and exhaustion. Not everyone, of course, had experienced the spirit of community: however, its promise must have affected those who were not severely disaffected for 55 our of the original 100 students returned for the sophomore year, a statistic which compares favorably with traditional rates of return. Ultimately, 25 of the pioneers graduated with degrees in Liberal Studies.

            In its years of experience the Hutchins School has become a valued part of Sonoma State University. The road has often been rocky, but always negotiable. Our school has institutional rigidities of its own which deserve scrutiny. Yet the inclination to innovate remains alive and well. Perhaps the principle reason to bring forth these memories is to let future faculty and students know what vision inspired the school’s founders and what the founding faculty and students experienced during the trauma of birth. Perhaps they will conclude that Nietzsche’s aphorism applies to institutions as well as to persons:

One must still have chaos in oneself to be able To give birth to a dancing star.