As dean of the Hamilton Holt School, one of the first things I did upon assuming the position was investigate the life and times of our school's namesake to glean some inspiration for the direction of the Rollins Evening program. Who was Holt and why has he had such a profound influence on Rollins College? Given that much of our teaching at Rollins is inspired by Holt and his contemporaries, how might we harness that tradition to guide us well into the future?
Not surprisingly, a little history is in order (trust me, it won't be stale). Hamilton Holt (1872-1951) was the eighth president of Rollins College and established the Spanish-Mediterranean arichitectural style of the campus. His presidency was substantial, lasting from 1925 to 1949, and arguably remains one of the most significant presidencies in the history of the college.
Prior to his tenure as president, he was the editor of The Independent, a progressive news magazine devoted to a pacifist political perspective. He was an avid supporter of the League of Nations and, later, the United Nations. He also aligned himself with John Dewey, the famous educational reformer, who argued for a uniquely American form of the liberal arts that had, at its core, a pragmatic and hands-on component. In contrast to the historic European model, which emphasized a narrowly defined classical tradition, the competing American version of the early 20th century was promisingly experimental – a tribute to the industrious nature of our country as an emerging world player. The liberal arts, according to Dewey and Holt, should not look backward to the Greeks and ancient Europe, but forward to an unbridled American future. As such, the classic instructional format of a teacher "lecturing" to a group of weary students was considered by Holt to be "probably the worst pedgagogical method ever devised for imparting knowledge." In an essay one can find in the Rollins online archives, Holt continued that "...the assumption that one man's knowledge may be poured into another and assimilated without that other going through something of the same process of preparation and study is perhaps the greatest fallacy in modern pedagogical psychology."
So, just prior to the Great Depression, we have a new, emerging model of the liberal arts championed not by an educator, but a former newsman, firmly embedding itself into Rollins College. What Holt nurtured was a model of education in which the professor was not a revered "expert," but a "guide, philosopher, and friend." There should be a "free exchange of thought between pupil and teacher in personal conference" and the professor's role was to give an "illustration of the scholarly attitude toward knowledge..."
To fulfill this goal, Holt started "The Two-Hour Conference Plan." In short, the Conference emphasized a hands-on approach in which students were recognized as learning in different ways and at different rates. Inspired by Holt, the Rollins faculty abolished lectures to create a more practical approach to education. That approach involved students engaging in studies for two hours in the morning followed by field studies in the community (i.e., internships) in the afternoon. In the evening, students would be left to recreate. Obviously, this was well before the formation of our evening school and the model applied to the residential day program.
What can we take from Holt's ideas? First of all, Holt was a firm believer in context-dependent learning. The best learning took place in the same environment where the learning could be applied. Said Holt: "I was profoundly impressed when I left my duties and entered my professional career as a magazine editor to find that my colleagues in the editorial room, who never thought of teaching me any thing, taught me everything, while my professors in Yale and Columbia, who were paid to teach me, taught me virtually nothing."
For Holt, learning is doing and doing is learning. There is no meaningful distinction. This applied and practical version of the liberal arts contrasted greatly with the prevailing classical model, making Rollins an upstart in a uniquely American higher education venture.
Today, we confront a rapidly changing higher educational environment characterized by a digital world and the disruptive effects of technology. Many of you are well aware that higher education is increasingly outsourced to massive online systems ranging from free-standing for-profit schools (e.g., University of Phoenix) to online certification systems that are joint ventures of highly recognizable universities (e.g., the joint venture EdX between Harvard and MIT). Where does that leave a school like Rollins and what should we do about it?
In the Holt School, the direction we are taking is to reaffirm the very principles Hamilton Holt espoused nearly a century ago and to do so in a way that takes advantage of our unique strengths and traditions. I'll touch on each initiative briefly and expand more on these in future blogs:
What we've learned from Hamilton Holt is that a pragmatic, liberal arts education is best realized when students and professors closely interact in a hands-on and practical fashion. Our esteemed faculty members have always fostered caring relationships with our students and the 21st century will see us build upon that tradition while also incorporating technological innovations. Most of our classes in the future will remain 100 percent face-to-face, but the convenience and superior learning outcomes afforded by blended learning suggest that at least part of our curriculum should be offered in this format.
All of these initiatives will take time to develop. However, it is important for our community to know where the Holt School is headed and why. And, even more importantly, we want to hear your ideas! Feel free to send me an e-mail with your thoughts. As a member of the Rollins network, your input is always valued.