A nonprofit publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Our Rich History: Why did Thomas More College’s progressive curriculum not work in the ’70s?

Part 9 of our series, “Retrospect and Vista II”: Thomas More College/University, 1971-2021.

By Dr. Raymond Hebert
Special to NKyTribune

In 1972-1973 Thomas More College initiated the Venture Program, following a set of recommendations from its comprehensive Education Policies Task Force established in 1971. (See this NKyTribune Our Rich History column.) From the beginning, there was faculty opposition. On the positive side, initially, the new Task Force Chairman, faculty member Donald Ostasiewski of the Department of Business Administration, had proudly announced that “Venture is the first program for which faculty and students can be viewed primarily as members of a social organization” and one for which “the personalities and specialties of the faculty members are key stems around which the student can choose courses of study.” A press release, issued by public relations director James Ott, had concluded that: led by Associate Dean Thomas Maher initially and Don Ostasiewski at the time of implementation in 1972-1973, “the Task Force investigated programs across the nation, visiting campuses elsewhere, and prepared themselves by reading 15 books and over 100 articles on the subject of learning today. The proposal, now accepted by the faculty and students, is unique to Thomas More” (Thomas More College Press Release, November 12, 1971, pp. 2-3, TMU Archives).

Don Ostasiewski. (Courtesy of Thomas More University Archives. )

On the other side, two senior faculty members led the opposition, one boldly and unremittingly — Dr. George Blair of the Philosophy Department — and the other in a more subtle way — Dr. Fred Humphreys of the Biology Department. Dr. Blair’s initial proposal requested “at least a year of debate.” In a document called: The Task Force Report: A Dissent and an Alternative (13 pp), he shared several concerns:

1. “I do not think that a student should be allowed (in the freshman year) to choose a curriculum that will ill-prepare him for his life after college…” (p. 2).

2. In response to the cluster concept’s patterned sequence of courses, he added: that only “a small number of students would be likely (or able to) do their own integrating. It seems to us, however, that many simply retain vignettes of limited areas of knowledge” (p. 2).

3. The “cluster concept” is not designed carefully enough “for forcing the student to integrate various disciplines.” He added: “I think the cluster, in integrating by abstracting, is the very opposite of a broad education” (p. 2).

4. With the cluster concept the student’s only requirement in Theology would be a single course. “How do we justify our own existence, if not as Catholic. And are we really to maintain that a passing glimpse at the vast and complex area of Catholic Theology implied in only one course is maintaining the Catholic Dimension in our curriculum?” (p. 4).

5. “Students weak in a given area will hardly be moved to select a cluster that involves that area” (p. 4).

6. “The cluster does not encourage integration of the disciplines, but rather specialization, which is opposite of what an effective set of general requirements (core curriculum) should provide” (p.5).

George Blair (Courtesy of Thomas More University Archives.)

7. “Even if the cluster concept was educationally valuable, could we make it work?” (p. 6). The emphasis here was on expense: particularly for the additional faculty (over $200,000), the increase of administrators, etc.… As Dr. Blair perceived it, the faculty are going to be drowned in administrators.” (pp. 7-8).

8. Finally, “let this program be put in, and it will last one year before the college goes bankrupt. But even if it didn’t, the educational value of the system, which looks good on paper, strikes me as being rather slight when you get down to thinking about its implications” (p. 8).

In an additional document written later in the debate, called “Items for Reflection,” while reiterating some of his earlier points, Dr. Blair dug deeper and drove to the crux of the concerns among other faculty: “to me, the Task Force proposal does the very opposite of what a liberal education ought to be doing. This is the main reason for my opposition to it…it is an experiment with people’s lives (and) remember, if we introduce this program and it flops, we can’t pick up the students and try again” (p. 4, Follow-Up “Items for Reflection,” TMU Archives).

Dr. Wallace (Fred) Humphreys had some similar observations and concerns, but as the first lay faculty member hired in the history of Villa Madonna/Thomas More College, his focused observations showed the wisdom of his experience. Among my favorite comments:

1. “It is (primarily) an expansive program of exploratory counseling” (Wallace Humphreys’ “One More Critique of Task Force Proposal,” p.1).

2. “What the proposal calls ‘flexibility’ is in fact only vagueness” (p. 2).

3. “It is rigid and it is specialized; and not a curricular revision at all” (pp. 1-2).

Humphreys concluded, after a nod to the expense of such a program, with the simple yet profound observation that “change in itself is not necessarily productive of progress. Change in matters complementary to educational policy is no effective substitute for major development of curricular elements” (p. 2).

Since the Venture program (initiated in 1972-1973) did not survive for even a full four-year period of that year’s entering class, very clearly Dr. Blair and Dr. Humphreys were prophetic in their observations. A former student, who was one of Fred Humphrey’s Biology students in those years, stated that she “lived” the Venture program, but added that: “While it gave me a challenge in fully exploring my chosen area resulting in my senior ‘thesis,’ I missed the more traditional survey courses, particularly in history and literature. My major was Biology, so I had limited access to the humanities. I’ve tried to make up for it in my reading over the years” (Jean Roth Caudill, email to Raymond G. Hebert, August 9, 2021).

Fred Humphreys (Courtesy of Thomas More University Archives)

In adding a personal dimension to this part of Thomas More’s second 50 years, I was one of ten new faculty hired between 1973-1974 and 1974-1975 to staff what would be the unique freshman year requirements of the Venture Program. While interviewing for the position, I was told about the concerns that had arisen with the addition of a public university to the area (NKU) but was assured that our unique niche — Catholic liberal arts with a progressive core curriculum — would help us blossom in the decades to follow. While I personally enjoyed teaching in the “Skills of Inquiry” Freshman Seminar and found the ideal of the “cluster” aspect fascinating, it soon became clear that, particularly in the financial realm, Professors Blair and Humphreys were correct. The reality of smaller classes in the junior and senior classes for majors could not be sustained if there were also smaller classes in the freshman components of the program, “Skills of Inquiry” and “Exploration of Thought.”

At the same time, there was a leadership struggle between President DeGraff and Thomas More’s full-time faculty that became intertwined with the Venture Program. In the final year of DeGraff’s presidency, of the ten new faculty that had entered in the two-year period of 1974-1976, I was the only one remaining. Others with a longer stay had also left because several majors were dropped temporarily, including Art and Modern Languages. Much of my survival may have been linked to a rare opportunity that I had been given. After delivering the Commencement Address in May 1971 as the Outstanding Full-Time Faculty Member of the Year, I was asked to coordinate a week-long Quincentennial Conference in February 1978 honoring St. Thomas More on his 500th birthday.

The 1970s brought innovations to college curricula nationwide. While some of the ideas proved interesting, the financial realities of smaller classes and more individualized programming were simply unsustainable. This was certainly true of Thomas More College’s Venture Program.

Dr. Raymond G. Hebert is a Professor of History and Executive Director of the William T. Robinson III Institute for Religious Liberty at Thomas More University. He has just completed his 46th year at Thomas More and, with that background, will now serve as the General Editor of the official history of Thomas More College/University from 1971-2021. With a projected title of RETROSPECT AND VISTA II, it will serve as the sequel to Sr. Irmina Saelinger’s RETROSPECT AND VISTA, the history of the first 50 years of Thomas More College (formerly Villa Madonna College). He can be contacted at hebertr@thomasmore.edu.

We want to learn more about the history of your business, church, school, or organization in our region (Cincinnati, Northern Kentucky, and along the Ohio River). If you would like to share your rich history with others, please contact the editor of “Our Rich History,” Paul A. Tenkotte, at tenkottep@nku.edu. Paul A. Tenkotte, PhD is Professor of History at Northern Kentucky University (NKU) and the author of many books and articles.

Related Posts

Leave a Comment