Freshman Seminars

The Freshman Seminars have “enlivened” the Freshman year. But it has always been clear that close contact between Faculty members and students would enliven anybody’s year, and this nominal success does not have very much meaning. It is, in fact, difficult not to feel disappointed both by the lack of imagination that has characterized the Freshman experiment and by the familiar patterns the seminars have assumed.

It is easy to recognize the familiar bogeys of professionalism and departmentalism, particularly visible in the advanced and specialized format of many seminars and in the pressure exerted to ensure departmental representation. Little more perception is needed to sense that much of what has been called research is scarcely more than glorified bottle-washing, with original thinking done almost entirely by the leaders.

In avoiding these dangers, a few professors have taken a path closely parallel to General Education. Without doubt, this is better than specialization, but one must question whether it is even close to the best use of the opportunity seminars present. General Education and advanced study are not the only possible patterns of learning.

The only seminar to make a sharp break with conventional College subject matter is David Riesman’s. Alone among seminar leaders, Riesman has rejected the Faculty’s near-pathological fear of “undisciplined thinking” and has created a program which makes the context of every fact studied as important as the fact itself. Riesman’s program has startling breadth of material, but the variety of subjects represents far more than varied interests. The seminar makes the abilities of the members the most important part of the program. And to most of the Faculty, this has an ominous appearance of progressive education.


The seminar program’s virtual lack of format, the result of a vague Faculty ruling and of administration by the Advanced Standing Committee, has permitted individual leaders almost complete freedom. The result has been pursuit of special interests, appropriately scaled down to Freshman proportions but scarcely adjusted to the real potentials and limitations of a Freshman program.

The essential first step in avoiding continued departmental and professional orientation would be to place the program under the General Education Committee. As the only dynamically non-departmental institution in the College, the Committee is the programs’ lone refuge from departmental pressure. But the General Education philosophy must also be avoided, not because it is evil any more than departments are evil, but because seminars achieve more outside of Gen Ed.

The second step must be a conscious policy on the part of the Committee that seminars shall not be offered if they seem directed toward concentrators or if they appear departmentally inspired. If the seminars are to realize their potential, they must stop trying to teach course material, and concentrate on the far broader objective of combining fields of endeavor, using the Freshman’s previous knowledge as well as his new learning.

This combination of subjects indicates a solution to one of the harassing problems of this year’s program—admissions. Although it would be absurd to take the actual decisions away from the seminar leader, it is clear that if students are to contribute to understanding of more than a single field, they should have a strong background in related disciplines. The contact between these fields and a central subject can serve both to relate an individual’s own studies to other areas and to give him a sense of the deep interrelation which will be separated by departmental boundaries during the rest of his career.

Seminars should not be a quick route to 200 level courses, nor should they simply put students in the same room with someone doing original research. The aim of the program should not be teaching facts, but rather placing facts in a broader context of knowledge. The Freshman Seminars are potentially the most valuable educational venture since General Education, but if they are to mean more than advanced study for unadvanced students, they must be more than a duplication of other material offered in the College.

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