RIT: Its Future - Its Past by Dane R. Gordon Professor Emeritus of Philosophy

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1 RIT: Its Future - Its Past by Dane R. Gordon Professor Emeritus of Philosophy Every ten years the Institute publishes its Strategic Plan. Preparing for it is a lengthy process involving students, faculty, staff, administrators and trustees. But it's worth the effort as a Strategic Plan is of great importance. Lack of planning in the 1920s created a major crisis for the Institute. It almost went under. As we know, it survived, but not easily. The school then wrote the 1931 Objectives. The Strategic Plan is a direct descendent of that. Planning, of course, is about the future. The Institute is being called upon to look ahead, to imagine the future. But I want us to think for a while about the past because the RIT we know is dependent, more than we may realize, on its past. We can learn from it. It can be an incentive as we plan. We can be proud of it, but we have to know what that past is. It pains me when I hear people declare confidently, as if they knew, that whatever the Institute is now, in the past it was just or only or no more than a trade school. The time when it was "a trade school" varies with the speaker: the 1880s or 1890s, the early nineteen hundreds, the 1930s and, surprisingly, the 1960s. Only since then, the speakers explain, has the Institute become a major school. This is widely believed and repeated, and it is not true. In some ways the Institute s history is improbable. When so many nineteenth century educational institutions began with high hopes, and failed, why did the Institute survive? Not by being a trade school. At one crucial point in the early twentieth century an influential Rochesterian declared that the Institute had no future, that it should close. He tried to persuade the Institute s president, John Randall. Randall was not persuaded. The Institute did not close. The Athenaeum, the beginning of what became RIT, was founded in 1829 by a group of men (one of them, Nathaniel Rochester, after whom the city was named). They wanted to 4/26/2014 Dane R. Gordon 1

2 learn about scientific and technological developments in Europe and other parts of this country. The range of the Athenaeum s interests broadened after it was founded. Throughout much of the nineteenth century it became something like National Public Radio or Public TV. In 1858 Martin B. Anderson, president of the then recently established University of Rochester, described the Athenaeum as one of the most important among those intended for educating the public. The Mechanics Institute, which we might call the second stage of what became RIT, was founded in 1885 for the pragmatic purpose of training skilled workers to meet the needs of Rochester s growing industry. It was a success. One thousand and sixty five students attended that first year. The emphasis was upon technical instruction and training, but it also taught drawing which in was expanded to include oil and water color painting. That year, 1891, the Athenaeum and the Mechanic s Institute merged and the school became the Athenaeum and Mechanics Institute, RAMI, although it was still generally referred to as the Mechanics Institute, or just Mechanics. Year- end speeches at the time reflected not only what the Institute had done, but what it thought of itself; what it felt to be its special educational mission, a commitment taken with great seriousness by administration and faculty for many years. Ezra Andrews, retiring as president of the Board in 1891, reiterated that education must not be only technical. The Institute had to be concerned with the moral and aesthetic development of its students as well. In 1901 the Institute published a small booklet to advertise a new class in the teaching of English. The aim of the work in English, the booklet explained, is to teach pupils not only to have an idea but to be able to express that idea in correct, clear, forcible English,.. not only to understand and appreciate language, but to lead the pupil to be able to use it. And yet there were still those who did not understand what kind of education the Institute provided. That year a correspondent of The Shoe and Leather Reporter of New York expressed surprise that the Mechanics Institute did not teach the art of shoemaking. John A. 4/26/2014 Dane R. Gordon 2

3 Stewart, the Institute s financial officer, explained that what the school attempted to do was educate students so they could apply their knowledge beyond the restricted limits of a trade. We teach no trades at the Institute. It is not a trade school. The school became widely known for its educational innovations. One of these was the Anecdotal Behavior Journals which for some years replaced letter grades. Another was the Job Charts. Employers were asked what they expected graduates to know. This led to many new courses. When text books were not available, Institute faculty had to write them. Largely because of that the school was reluctant to grant degrees. It did not want to lose its freedom to experiment. Yet in 1943 the policy committee discussed what would be required to grant degrees. A consensus was that more liberal education should be offered to supplement the school's technical training. Yet liberal studies had not been neglected. Before and after the First World War there was an active liberal arts program. Calvin Thomason is mostly forgotten in the annals of the Institute, but for twenty six years, from , he was supervisor of the liberal studies program. When the State University of New York was founded and offered two year associates degrees based on RIT s own two year curriculum, and validated by RIT (its name since 1944) the school had to award degrees or go out of business. The Institute granted its first AAS in 1950, its first Bachelor of Sciences degree in 1954, its first Masters degree in Through World War II most college age men and women did not consider going to college or university. They did not even try. Since then, with the initial incentive of the GI Bill, it has become a normal progression from high school. This year, 2014, approximately 18 million students are enrolled in some form of higher education. The reasons are often, if not mostly, pragmatic. Those with a college degree will earn significantly more in their working life than those without. Those who graduate in the STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) will be most highly paid. Graduates from professional programs, such as nursing, computer technology, dental associate and radiology are most likely to find employment. As a result, an increasing number of colleges are discounting the importance of soft subjects: English, history, philosophy, and so on in 4/26/2014 Dane R. Gordon 3

4 favor of practical subjects which will attract students and ensure employment. Martha Nussbaum in her Not For Profit provides numerous examples. RIT is distinctive in going against this trend. One of its largest colleges is the College of Liberal Arts, created in Its faculty teach a wide range of humanities subjects. But, as I have tried to show, the Institute has never regarded education as only technical, scientific, and professional. It has always been concerned with the wholeness of education, with the students careers and with the larger context of their personal lives. I ll conclude these remarks with an excerpt from my own history of RIT: In 1959 the British scientist and novelist C.P. Snow gave a lecture at Cambridge University. He argued that intellectual life in western society is split into two polar groups, on the one side the literary, artistic, humanistic, and the other scientific and technological My view now is that we should think of ourselves as living in one culture with a kaleidoscope of interacting facets. Education is a process of helping a student to become aware of that, and to learn as much about the different facets and their interactions as possible. Can RIT provide this kind of education? I believe it can if it takes a series of steps: first, equip its students with professional expertise; second and concurrently, help them become familiar with the broader humanistic context of their lives; and third, encourage a habit of reflection, of thinking and asking questions about what might seem too obvious, or too puzzling, or too sacrosanct to examine. Young people generally require guidance and instruction to bring them to an understanding of what this means. The undergraduate years at college are a time of exceptional opportunity. It is not, however, as if young people are reluctant and have to be dragged as it were, to these ideas. They are at an age of idealism and openness, an age when the variety of educational 4/26/2014 Dane R. Gordon 4

5 opportunities provided, the skill and commitment of faculty, and the deliberate policies of an administration can yield extraordinarily impressive, intellectual, and creative student responses. That is what I hope RIT will recognize and act upon as it moves toward the anniversary of its second century. When sharing these pages with some of my colleagues in Liberal Arts I was asked whether the Institute s favorable attitude to the humanities had been reactive or pro- active. Had it simply reacted to educational trends or had it really believed that the broader humanities context of a student s education was of such importance it should not be neglected? My answer to the question is in my History, not in one place but all the way through. The men who founded the Athenaeum did not have to do so. Their primary concern was the new community where they lived with the many problems of its newness. The early leaders of the Mechanics Institute, created to train skilled workers in Rochester s industry, did not have to introduce courses in oil and watercolor painting and domestic science, and later courses in English, psychology, economics and philosophy, to name just a few. They did not have to be involved with their students life plans which included more than technical instruction. What I learned from writing the Institute s history is that those concerns are rooted deeply. On no occasion have I discovered an Institute leader who declared that too much attention is given to the humanities, that more attention should be given to technical, scientific, and professional subjects. In fact the strong growth of the College of Liberal Arts in recent years could not have been possible unless the Institute believed it was in the best long term interest of its students. RIT is distinctive in providing high quality scientific, technological and professional education which includes, as an important part of it, a level of humanities studies equal to that which would be provided by a specifically liberal arts school. 4/26/2014 Dane R. Gordon 5

6 When I was first at RIT I occasionally met a faculty member who, learning that I taught philosophy, reacted with polite but obvious disdain. I would like to meet such faculty again. In the half century since then the world is far more technological then it was, and the dangers of the misuse of technology are greater and, with that, the growing need to set technology within a larger context. But perhaps the greatest danger is not technological. It is attitudinal, an unwillingness to accept facts when they contradict personal convictions. People s attitudes are formed by family, society and, importantly, by education. That process begins with childhood, but college is a powerful influence on behalf of broader understanding and of the ability to reason and to make judgments not determined by bias or propaganda. Dane R. Gordon Emeritus Professor of Philosophy The College of Liberal Arts, RIT 4/26/2014 Dane R. Gordon 6

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