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Alexander Meiklejohn (1872–1964)

The youngest of eight sons, Alexander Meiklejohn (1872–1964) was born in Rochdale, England, of Scottish parents. His family moved to Rhode Island when he was eight, and he later attended nearby Brown University where he earned his baccalaureate and master's degrees in philosophy. He followed his graduate adviser and close friend James Seth to Cornell University to pursue his doctorate. A few years later, Meiklejohn married his first wife, Nannine, and they began a family.

Upon receiving his doctorate, Meiklejohn returned to Brown as an assistant professor of logic and metaphysics. He attained the rank of professor after nine years, having earned the respect of his colleagues and the admiration of his students. In 1901 Meiklejohn was named dean at Brown (his title was later changed to dean of undergraduates). His most distinctive act as dean was to disqualify Brown's championship baseball team over questions of sportsmanship and honesty. Brown's trustees supported this action and the students accepted it, but the alumni were outraged.

Even as he was establishing himself at his alma mater, Amherst College sought Meiklejohn as a new president who could bring energy and innovation to a college facing declining admissions and sagging academic standards. Inaugurated as president of Amherst in October 1912, Meiklejohn quickly set to work to institute his educational ideals. Almost as quickly, his policies created enemies among the faculty, trustees, and alumni. He opposed the newly popular elective system, believing that students could better understand human culture and the natural world if they were not educated in narrowly specialized classes. He proposed a variety of options for a required curriculum, none of which the faculty accepted.

Turning his attention to other passions, Meiklejohn set up college extension classes in local mills and factories where students taught and interacted with laborers. He hired many new faculty members, terminated many older professors, and chose to ignore those whose tenure was beyond challenge. He irritated additional alumni by refusing to emphasize athletics and by maintaining the tradition of part-time basketball and football coaches. Even within the local community, Meiklejohn was unpopular: Neither he nor his wife were active in the predominant Congregationalist church, and she wrote children's books, traveled to Europe alone, and smoked cigarettes. Meiklejohn himself was known as a socialist, although he never affiliated himself with the Socialist Party. His outspoken opposition to the World War I eroded further the base of supporters of his presidency at Amherst. Nevertheless, he persevered.

By 1923 Meiklejohn was accused by his enemies of financial mismanagement, and the board of trustees asked for his resignation. In protest, twelve graduating seniors refused their diplomas, and eight faculty members resigned their positions. Though he resigned from Amherst, Meiklejohn capitalized on the media controversy surrounding his departure. He toured the country and delivered speeches to promote his first two books: The Liberal College, published in 1920, and Freedom and the College released in 1923.

President Glenn Frank offered Meiklejohn a professorship at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, but struggling with the death of his wife Nannine, he refused the appointment. The next year, however, Frank asked Meiklejohn to create an experimental college within the university, for which he would be given free reign to institute many of the reforms that he had advocated at Amherst and in his books and speeches. Meiklejohn took the post in March, 1926.

The Experimental College at the University of Wisconsin opened in 1927 with an incoming class of 119 men, who signed up for the two-year prescribed program of study. During the first year, students studied Athens in the fifth century B.C.E.; in their second year they traced the history of America through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Between academic years, students were expected to write an anthropological report on the region where they grew up. Faculty members (called advisers to defuse traditional expectations) met with students throughout each week in full-class meetings, but also held regular sessions with subgroups of twelve and engaged in many personal discussions with students.

External opposition to the program mounted quickly. University faculty criticized its independent governance and eclectic curriculum, and newspaper editorials and press reports lambasted its egalitarian pedagogy and Meiklejohn's arrogant style. Responding to these threats and to the economic problems of the Great Depression, the university administration proposed significant changes in the Experimental College in the 1930–1931 academic year. Standardized testing was to be introduced, and curriculum modifications made. Meiklejohn and the faculty refused to comply, and the university senate and administration closed the program in the spring of 1932. The short-lived experiment, however, gave birth to a long-lived legacy: Over the next half-century, the Experimental College inspired scores of innovative undergraduate programs across the United States.

Following the closure of his college, Meiklejohn and his second wife, Helen, moved to Berkeley, California, where they helped found the San Francisco School for Social Studies. The school was open and free to all applicants–from traditional students to housewives, laborers, and retired persons. Beginning with the first class of 300 students in 1934, readings and discussions centered on classical social thinkers and contemporary social problems. By 1942, when the school closed due to economic pressures from World War II, more than 1,700 students were enrolling each year. Meiklejohn pursued his interests in constitutional rights to free speech, protesting against the permanent installation of the House Un-American Affairs Committee and loyalty oaths. He published Free Speech and its Relation to Self Government in 1948, and received honors from the American Civil Liberties Union and the Socialist League for Industrial Democracy. He served as vice president of the league for almost forty years. Alexander Meiklejohn died at the age of ninety-two.

Alexander Meiklejohn's influence is still felt in higher education. Scott Buchanan and Stringfellow Barr rebuilt St. John's College based on Meiklejohn's Experimental College in Wisconsin and Robert M. Hutchins' reforms at the University of Chicago. In Meiklejohn's later years, he was a "sympathetic observer" and senior guide for Joseph Tussman and others who founded the Experimental College at the University of California, Berkeley. Tussman described himself in those years as a "direct spiritual descendent" of Alexander Meiklejohn.


BROWN, CYNTHIA STOKES. 1981. Alexander Meiklejohn: Teacher of Freedom. Berkeley, CA: Meiklejohn Civil Liberties Institute.

TUSSMAN, JOSEPH. 1969. Experiment at Berkeley. New York: Oxford University Press.



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