What Justin Morrill College Did for Me
Randall (Randy) Whitaker
Why I Attended JMC
Why, then, did I zero in on Michigan State and eventually attend it?
More important than the pragmatics of affording higher education was the issue of pursuing a program suited to my broad outlook, eccentric proclivities, creative capacities, and intellectual interests. In early '69, I had tentatively declared no fewer than 10 different majors during my application efforts. I realized that premature compartmenalization was a risk and spent weeks agonizing over what to do.
That's what led me to return repeatedly to one catalog from my stack of two dozen (MSU's) and to one specific section therein (the description of Justin Morrill College). Here was a place dedicated to broad liberal education, emphasizing multi-/interdisciplinary studies and the flexibility to tailor my baccalaureate program to fit my interests rather than any conventional topical topography. JMC was also clearly a program recognizing and prioritizing the experience of college with its living / learning format, distinct curricular structure, resident faculty, etc.
Still too timid to commit, I attended freshman orientation at MSU with 4 other universities as open options and appointments to sit in on 'meet-the-department' sessions with representatives from History, James Madison College, and Journalism. All 3 bored me to tears, and I walked out of the last to go looking for the Justin Morrill people. Within minutes of arrival, I knew JMC was the place for me. The faculty and upperclassmen present exhibited an enthusiasm for their college and a commitment to the ideals of the catalog description which stood out in contrast to the dry promotions of the others. Unlike the representatives from the other programs, the JMC folks welcomed my eclecticism and aversion to compartmentalization as an advantage rather than a deficiency. I formally declared for JMC on the spot, and withdrew from the other schools immediately upon returning home (though 3 of the 4 would have been cheaper, with one of these essentially 'all expenses paid').
The bottom line is that were it not for JMC I would not have attended MSU.
The remainder of this testimonial will attempt to outline why I continue to believe this was the best decision I ever made.
What I Got Out of My JMC Experience
Living / Learning
The 'living / learning' concept was not unique to JMC. Indeed it was promoted by MSU in the early 1960's before JMC was ever established. However, I am certain that in JMC the living / learning phenomenon was more intense than anywhere else on campus. The sense and the quality of community engendered at JMC is a large part of the reason that JMC alumni re-gathered at the 1999 reunion immediately 'connected' with each other after a lapse of at least two decades. Were it not for the dissolution and forgetting of JMC at the end of the 1970's, I suspect JMC veterans would have proven among the most tightly integrated and enthusiastic of all MSU alumni groups.
An Observation on Living / Learning and JMC:
I'm certain JMC is not fondly remembered in some quarters (particularly MSU administrators of the time), and I'd like to step up and comment on that. During my tenure at MSU, JMC was popularly caricatured as a haven for countercultural types, fringe lifestyles, and radical politics. I'll discreetly label these attributions 'understandable'. In retrospect, I don't believe JMC was as unavoidable a magnet for people viewed as problematical as outsiders may have imagined. For one thing, JMC students were not a monolithic bloc of rowdies. Snyder-Phillips was inhabited by preppies as well as hippies, the apathetic as well as the activist.
The features accorded the JMC population were features of turbulence, and those were very turbulent times. All of MSU was affected by this turbulence, with JMC simply being the most widely-acknowledged showcase for its effects. Why? I've come to believe that the intensely close-knit JMC living / learning community served as a sort of 'lens' which magnified the impacts of those times on the attitudes and behaviors of JMC students. The fact that JMC students were widely caricatured (or even capable of caricature) is not properly viewed as evidence of uniformity in their persons or proclivities. Instead, I would claim it was a testament to an effectively integrated community unlike any otherwise available in the late 60's 'mega-versity' that was MSU.
Interdisciplinary / Multidisciplinary Emphasis
An interdisciplinary character has not only pervaded my subsequent career, but also directly provided the value I'm seen as bringing to my job assignments. My JMC-era background in psychology and anthropology, coupled with later studies in computer science, set the stage for my work (and doctoral fellowship) in knowledge acquisition. My background in both social welfare claims processing and artificial intelligence prompted the Swedish government to recruit me in 1988 to help design an automated aid that case workers could and would actually use. A combination of knowledge and experience in anthropology, psychology and information technology (IT) qualified me to lead a national program on collaborative applications of IT. This, plus experience in ecological psychology, ethnographic methods, cognitive science and group decision making, uniquely recommended me for a research opening with the Air Force Research Laboratory in 1993. My path from that point to my current position as Senior Scientist (colloquially "Resident Mad Scientist") has been driven by the ability to address these and other topics (intelligent agents, cognitive systems engineering, activity theory, semiotics, and even postmodern philosophy) so as to deal with the interrelationships among them with regard to the subject at hand.
I am often the default person assigned to analyze emerging issues, based on my multidisciplinary capabilities. Customers, colleagues, and students commonly ask me how I manage to do this. As I always preach to them, studying the interaction among humans, social activities and technology requires the ability to 'bridge' among the compartmentalized disciplines focused on each.
A variety of academic, personal, and employment experiences equipped me with a collection of knowledge assets. However, my perceived value is not attributable to qualifications in one or another relevant discipline. Instead, my 'value-added' is wholly derivative from my ability to 'bridge'. There was one, and only one, experience which explicitly trained me to 'bridge', and that was Justin Morrill College.
An Observation on Disciplinary Categorization and JMC:
JMC's nature should properly be viewed as having not simply cut across department boundaries, but across the boundaries of colleges themselves. It was never accurate to simply consider JMC the arts and humanities analogue to Lyman Briggs or James Madison. Those two later residential programs were explicitly focused on particular topical domains (natural science and policy science). By default, the third college (JMC) was presumed to be for arts and letters. There was and is a tendency to interpret the labels 'liberal education' and 'liberal arts' as meaning specifically 'liberal arts and humanities'. Furthermore, JMC's prominent foreign language programs added to the appearance of a humanities focus.
The casual attribution of arts and letters to Justin Morrill may have seemed reasonable, but it failed to reflect the facts. JMC students were required to delve into all three of MSU's grand divisions: arts and humanities, natural science, and social science. There were no disciplinary omissions or exclusions in JMC coursework offerings or possible fields of concentration. Would a strictly arts and letters program have allowed me to do my spring 1970 independent study on gravitational collapse and black holes? For that matter, why would a purely arts and letters college be converted in 1979 into a program jointly administered by the Colleges of Arts & Letters, Natural Sciences, and Social Science?
If JMC were an arts and letters program, one would naturally assume most JMC graduates would have concentrated in arts and letters fields (either directly via majors or indirectly via fields of concentration). My experience suggests this was far from the case. My own course work was primarily in anthropology, psychology, and linguistics. The majors I can reliably cite for my JMC roommates and friends were economics, pre-law, psychology, education, social work, geology, and physics -- not one of which falls within the purview of the College of Arts and Letters. Though I'm sure many of my JMC compadres ended up certified in arts and letters fields, I honestly cannot cite one with certainty.
As such, JMC was not just another Briggs or Madison. Its goals were not bound by departmental disciplines, nor even college domains. Its graduates' specialties reflect an unconstrained disciplinary breadth. If arts and letters were not a defining characteristic of JMC, then what was? My own nomination for JMC's defining mission is the subject of the next section.
Learning to Learn
'Heuristic Learning' was the operant catchphrase at that time. It connoted a pedagogical approach in which the student, without any prerequisite 'kiddie pool' introductions, was thrown into the 'deep end' of topical discussions. The idea was that the student would learn the basics in the course of grappling with the advanced, and that the richness of the advanced would motivate the student to swim rather than sink.
JMC's topical courses, carrying upper-division / graduate credit for non-JMC enrollees, were our ordinary undergraduate fare. My first quarter as a freshman I wanted to take one philosophy and one political science class. I enrolled for one of each from the JMC course offerings. The JMC philosophy class was 'Existentialism versus Marxism', taught by Albert Cafagna from the MSU Philosophy Department. The political science class was 'American Social Movements of the 20th Century', taught by the chairman of the MSU Political Science Department.
This heuristic learning model was one means to achieve the end of teaching us how to learn. This was augmented by JMC features outside the college's own courses. One was our access to essentially unlimited independent study. Another was the requirement that one entire term be spent on a focused study or experience either locally, nationally, or internationally. Perhaps most important was the field of concentration, in which it was my responsbility to create and maintain a coherent baccalaureate focus woven together from independent studies and university coursework.
As far as I'm concerned, all these tactics worked admirably. This openness to exploration and adaptation, as well as the basic skills (or maybe just bravado) to undertake new tasks, represent the most important outcome(s) of my JMC education. In addition to the multidisciplinary foundations mentioned above, my perceived value to employers and customers has long been attributed to an ability to 'parachute' into new topical domains and start making constructive sense of things. My JMC multidisciplinary legacy allows me to 'bridge' among compartmentalized perspectives. It is my JMC heuristic 'learning by doing' legacy which permits me to figure out where the 'bridges' should be. It was my experience with independent self-directed studies which afforded me the confidence to do both.
In the last 20 years, I've been surrounded by younger colleagues who were self-evidently stifled by their disciplinary specializations and admittedly lost when novel initiative was required. Most of the mentoring I've done during the last two decades has not really been about facts or technicalities, but about how to act effectively. It was JMC that gave me this advantage. It is the lack of a JMC that has left my younger colleagues at a corresponding disadvantage.
Cross-Cultural / International Outlook
It is obvious I relished my JMC experience then and value it increasingly as time goes on. Over the past 20 years, I've been asked again and again about those capabilities of mine which others find valuable, though somewhat mysterious. At least 2 or 3 times a year I have sat down and told the story of JMC, its concept, and its operations. Listeners who are parents invariably say 'I wish there were something similar for my kids', and younger ones invariably ask where they can go to get such an educational experience. I regret each and every time that I must answer, 'JMC is dead, and there's nothing like it now'.
As a result, it is with some measure of cautious excitement that I offer this testimonial to Justin Morrill College. For me, at least, it was the most valuable educational experience of my life. For others, I'm certain, a resurrected JMC-type program would be equally valuable.