Experimenting in the physiological and medical chemistry lab in 1903


Navy students taking finals at Abbott Hall during World War II


Chapel choir in 1898 outside Lunt Library


Course registration in 1930 in Old Patten Gym


Home economics class in the 1950s


At Medill, students were using manual typewriters in 1971.

Nine men gathered on May 31, 1850, to found Northwestern University, but it wasn't until Nov. 5, 1855, that the first building, eventually called Old College, was finally ready for classes to begin. So it was that eight students trudged across a swampy wilderness to start the academic school year. Wildflowers and strawberries had dotted the landscape during the warmer months, but in late fall the multitude of trees that grew in the area had already shed their leaves.

There was no brass band to welcome the newcomers, no ribbon-cutting ceremony, no crowds to cheer them on. Some reports say a prayer was said, which would be only fitting, since Northwestern was created under the patronage of the Methodist Episcopal Church.

The students may have said a prayer of their own as they climbed the steps and walked into one of the airy classrooms where two faculty members were poised to give them their placement exams. A dozen or so more students, all male, would join the first class as the year went on.

Students followed a classical course of study that included instruction in the Greek and Latin languages and literature. University co-founder John Evans explained that Northwestern would have an "... influence intellectually and morally ... upon the characters of our city and its youth, and upon the reputation of both abroad."

Evans' reference to morals and intellect in the same sentence is noteworthy, for it was neither his intention nor that of the other founders to equate high ethical standards with limitations on the range of academic inquiry. For 150 years Northwestern's compass has included everything under the sun as subjects worthy of pursuit. "A university should not be a mere college for young men presenting only one inflexible and limited course of study," declared President Erastus O. Haven in his inaugural address in 1869. "It should embrace all the highest departments of investigation, philosophy, and science and all investigations and studies required for the learned professions should be prosecuted in such an institution."

Haven's perspective was not shared by everyone. In an 1871 issue of the Tripod, the student newspaper, an author who signed his name only with the initial R wrote an essay asking "Why Do We Study the Classics?" He argued that, unlike the newfangled scientific inquiry, the ancient languages and texts helped students to understand their own civilization and to understand human nature. In addition the classics helped to develop a student's sense of discipline by requiring concentration, perception and analysis.

This point of view, however, was already losing ground. In 1873 the Course in Modern Languages, with classes in French and German, was offered for the first time. For that academic year the course catalog contained 180 pages of classes from the College of Literature and Science, the College of Technology, the College of Literature and Art, the Conservatory of Music and the Colleges of Theology, Law and Medicine. "The old culture courses hold the first place in order of time: but the courses for the appreciation of science are equally honorable," it stated.

As the curriculum began to expand (by 1890, 117 courses were being offered), Northwestern also decided in 1869 to open its doors to welcome female students (see related story). The impact of the recently ended Civil War was in part responsible: With men away at war, women on the home front had done the work their brothers, sons and husbands left behind and proved they were fully capable of taking on the responsibilities.

Some thought the idea of coeducation was "insane," with literature and history professor David Wheeler, head of the faculty committee, pointing out that "girls required looking after." They also worried that young women might distract the male students from the serious pursuit of their studies, while others feared that "too much mental exertion might defeminize them."

In spite of these qualms, Northwestern became coeducational. From the start, female students had no restrictions on the subjects they could study, although many of them chose classes in literature and the fine arts. By 1891 women made up 36 percent of the enrollment. When that figure increased to 50 percent in 1900, acting president Daniel Bonright expressed concerns that such a large number of female students would give the university a "feminine image" and discourage men from attending, but the trustees did not share his feelings.

One thing was clear for men and women alike: No matter what courses students took, they had no choice but to spend a great deal of time studying. A list of University regulations from 1866 proclaimed that study hours were from 9 a.m. to noon, 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. and all evening after 7 p.m.

Diligence may not have come naturally to student Lewis Sims, whose letters home between 1874 and 1877 reflected his consternation. "They have the most examinating here and they are most terrible hard," he complained. "Folks need not say that this is not a good school." At another point he wrote that "... a student is a slave, a slave to his studies."

A less cantankerous perspective is expressed in a poem entitled "An Echo from Last Class-Day," published in an 1871 issue of the Tripod. The student author described his educational experience in these terms:

Till in its dust the gold is found.
So from the mines of classic lore,
From German, Greek, and Latin store,
Ancient and modern where it lay,
Knowledge we brought to the light of day ...

Curricular Revolutions

At the turn of the century higher education increasingly mirrored an industrializing United States, and universities took on the more practical goal of preparing students for careers in fields such as engineering. Northwestern was no exception.

In spring 1909 the Swift Hall of Engineering, with space for classrooms and laboratories, was completed. In addition to general education courses, the four-year program for engineering students included classes in civil, mechanical and electrical engineering and a small amount of shop work. A fifth year was reserved for working on a specialty. "Such students as ours," said acting president Thomas Holgate, "having greater general training would look for their success not in manual skill but in more important and more highly paid positions calling for administrative and theoretical ability."

When the United States entered World War I, young men in the Students' Army Training Corps took courses at the University and received military instruction from the Army. Women students learned to prepare surgical dressings. They also studied food and fuel conservation and the principles of agriculture.

After the war enrollment for the College of Liberal Arts stood at almost 1,900 students, who had more choices than ever before. A Committee Report on the Function of the College of Liberal Arts, issued in 1924, proclaimed that although other universities were emphasizing technical and vocational training, "the purpose of the College of Liberal Arts was to produce men and women who, in thought, taste, and conduct, have become liberal-minded, tolerant, self-reliant, independent, who will find themselves at home in the world in which they live."

By 1920 the School of Music provided training not only for those who sought professional careers but also for those who wanted to become "cultural amateurs." The school's dean, Peter Christian Lutkin, believed that the development of the moral and artistic senses was "just as important a part of education as the abstract development of the intellectual." Courses for music teachers and a Department of Church and Choral Music were soon added.

Also in 1920 a Chicago Tribune reporter suggested that the newspaper publish a "little evening newspaper" that would provide apprenticeships for Northwestern students interested in careers in journalism. The modest project never got under way, but a more ambitious one did: The Tribune offered to fund a school of journalism. Northwestern accepted the offer and named the school after the newspaper's founder, Joseph Medill. The curriculum combined courses taught by Northwestern faculty members and working journalists. It also included an opportunity to get on-the-job training at Chicago newspapers.

In 1921 the School of Oratory, which charismatic elocution professor Robert Cumnock had founded in 1878, became the School of Speech. The school would go on to earn a national reputation for excellence. Winifred Ward, who joined the faculty in 1918, almost single-handedly invented the new field of creative dramatics and is considered the founder of modern children's theater. "She was the greatest teacher our field has ever known and a brilliant director who founded the Evanston Children's Theatre in which adults and children performed together," says Rives Collins, McCormick Professor of Teaching Excellence and director of Northwestern's Theatre for Youth/Creative Drama program.

Also at the School of Speech, the legendary Alvina Krause established the University Theatre, where for decades she directed productions with student actors. In 1929 professor Clarence Simon opened the Speech Re-education Clinic to treat and research speech defects such as stuttering, lisping and faulty articulation. By the 1940s the clinic, which later became the Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders, had become a leader in its field. Today it has clinics on the Evanston and Chicago campuses that provide assistance to individuals of all ages with speech, language, hearing, learning and swallowing problems.

The School of Education, formerly a part of the College of Liberal Arts, came into its own in 1930 with a full four-year curriculum. In response to a growing trend to require teachers to complete at least some graduate work, the school established a master's degree program in 1933 and expanded on the number of part-time evening and Saturday classes for employed teachers who had to fit courses into their work schedules.

This extraordinary expansion of Northwestern's curriculum, however, yielded to external circumstances. When the United States entered World War II, the University essentially became a military center offering numerous training programs, mainly for the Navy, as well as courses for civilians involved in the war effort. Just before the war, benefactor Walter P. Murphy gave $6.75 million to fund the Technological Institute, which paved the way for optional student internships in the workplace. (Today one-third of the engineering students participate, one of the highest cooperative education rates in the country.) As part of the agreement with Murphy, the administration accepted his stipulation that the University adopt the quarter system.

A war that involved countries around the world could not help but bring a more international perspective to Northwestern's curriculum. "There was what the geologists would call a 'fault line' that came somewhere at the end of the Second World War," says professor emeritus Richard Leopold, who joined the Department of History in 1948. "[President Franklin Bliss] Snyder saw the desirability of transforming Northwestern from a first-rate university into the sort of research institution that is the goal of the University today.

"So you had a tremendous expansion in the faculty after 1945 in fields that had never been touched before, and that was true as a national phenomenon as well," Leopold continues. "There was a transformation in the history curriculum during and after the war with a new emphasis on regional studies that included East Asia and Africa. Northwestern, which had been fairly parochial, really blossomed."

In spring 1948 University officials counted 3,639 veterans on the Evanston campus, many of whom had broadened their horizons thanks to their overseas experiences. Leopold is convinced that their presence also played a part in Northwestern's transformation in its world view.

A New Intellectual Activism

As time passed, the world also began to take a broader view of dealing with social, economic, political and scientific issues, and that perspective was reflected in curriculum changes.

Provost emeritus Raymond W. Mack, who joined the sociology faculty in 1953, played a part in the further development of the interdisciplinary approach at Northwestern, beginning with a program in urban studies that involved several professors. In 1968 the University received a Ford Foundation grant to add 12 new faculty positions in various departments, but instead funded 24 half-time positions. "We added faculty members with urban interests that we didn't have covered at the time," Mack recalls. New courses included such offerings as the Social Basis of Environmental Change and the Sociology of Law, School and Society.

Similar changes were also taking place in the world of science. "Interdisciplinary research and teaching ventures became prevalent," says professor emeritus Neena Schwartz, who came to Northwestern in 1974 as chair of the biology department. "I think they're good, because the real world is not compartmentalized. The state of the art is to put ideas from different disciplines together."

Major social changes, many of them generated by the civil rights and women's movements, made it obvious that contributions of large segments of society had been overlooked. Individual professors began transforming these subjects into academic courses. In the early 1950s Mack started a course called Social Inequality that soon included Race, Class and Power as a subtitle. "A sociologist living in the United States could not help but get involved in the topic," explains Mack. However, sociologists weren't the only ones interested in race relations -- Northwestern students also recognized what was at stake. Recalls Mack: "After the first couple of years, I started teaching the course in Fisk Auditorium, and the enrollment had to be limited to 350 because that's how many seats there were."

Mack, who was named provost in 1971, also played a role in establishing the Program on Women, which evolved into today's gender studies program. "People were not going to take no for an answer when it came to making additions to the curriculum," he says. "There was an enormous interest and demand on the part of both faculty and students."

A Department of African American Studies was established in 1972. The department's broad vision is partly a legacy of Leon Forrest, former departmental chair and one of the country's leading African American fiction writers, and partly an inheritance of Melville Herskovits, a trailblazing anthropologist who saw the links between the African continent and its fragment societies years before everyone else.

In 1957 undergraduates in the schools of engineering and journalism were given a number of new course options instead of first-year English and other classes that had been required until then. Students now could choose from four general areas: art, literature and music; social sciences; history, philosophy, and history and literature of religions; and science and mathematics. That same period saw a rise in the number of faculty members. To reflect the changes, the College of Liberal Arts became the College of Arts and Sciences in 1963.

While social changes influenced the curriculum, so did technological innovations. The School of Speech added offerings in the new media of mass communications: radio, television, film and video. At Medill computers replaced typewriters. Students could opt for academic tracks to prepare for careers in radio and TV broadcasting. Students in the Integrated Marketing Communications Program (formerly the advertising program) could gain experience in the real world with internships at Fortune 500 companies.

In 1989 the School of Engineering became the Robert R. McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science. Today it has 12 departments and programs of study, ranging from theoretical and applied mechanics to environmental engineering and computer science. In the last few years an initiative called Engineering First overhauled the freshman experience so that new students no longer must slog exclusively through abstract courses before getting to the more hands-on classes. Now one of the top engineering schools in the country, McCormick can make several other significant boasts: For the last several years, women have constituted one-third of the graduating class while about 10 percent of the faculty is female (both among the highest rates in the country). And the graduation rate for minority students is the highest of any U.S. engineering school.

In 1968 and 1969 the highly regarded Faculty Planning Committee issued a two-part report, formally titled A Community of Scholars, but almost universally known as the Hagstrum Report after Jean Hagstrum, a respected English professor who headed the effort. The work made a host of recommendations that essentially would reinvent the modern university. One idea resulted in the establishment of Northwestern's highly successful residential colleges, which house students with similar interests and match them with faculty members. Today there are 11 such colleges.

Throughout the years Northwestern nominally remained a Methodist institution and by tradition reserved seats on the Board of Trustees for members of the Methodist Church's hierarchy, but the church and the University increasingly came to the realization that the tie between them had grown weaker over the years. In November 1974 the church's senate voted to end the affiliation formally, making Northwestern a nonsectarian university.

Life-Changing Experiences

In 1987 the Task Force on the Undergraduate Experience at Northwestern was formed to take a "holistic" view of the life of Northwestern students, not in response to any crisis but simply to recommend improvements.

"The perception of a lot of people was that the presence at Northwestern of an outstanding faculty and outstanding students was not resulting in an outstanding educational experience for our undergraduates," explains history professor Thomas William Heyck, who chaired the task force. "We felt that the research thrust of the University ought to inform and help shape the undergraduate education, so we had to find ways to get the faculty and students together more effectively."

As a result, new courses, including ones in composition and public speaking, the natural sciences and quantitative analysis for nonspecialists, were introduced. "These compose the core of a modern, late 20th-century and early 21st-century liberal education for a broad understanding of the world," explains Heyck.

In addition, junior tutorials, consisting of just a few students and a senior faculty member, were implemented. "Many students enrolled in junior tutorials have had life-changing experiences because they were working in such small groups face-to-face with our outstanding faculty," says Heyck. Students were also given the opportunity to study abroad for a quarter rather than a whole year, which, he feels, "allows students to break out of a typically American provincial outlook."

These changes grew out of the well-defined Goals of Undergraduate Education, written by the task force, that is found at the beginning of Northwestern's Undergraduate Catalog (now more than 250 pages in length). It reads, in part, "Northwestern expects its graduates, by their experiences in the classroom and in their lives on campus, to have developed the attributes of an educated person: responsibility, both personal and social; critical ability; scientific, technological, and aesthetic awareness; reflectiveness; creativity; and commitment to learning as a lifelong process."

John Evans could not have put it better.

Nancy Maes (WCAS61) is a freelance writer based in Evanston. She recently wrote the "The Making of One Great School" on the centennial of New Trier High School, which appeared last October in a special section of the Chicago Tribune.