One Course At A Time turns 30

By Blake Rasmussen '05

Thirty years ago, a little company called Apple was born. Spain was just discovering Democracy in 1978, while America was discovering Diff’rent Strokes and Gary Coleman. Three decades ago, Garfield debuted in the funny pages, the Blues Brothers showed up on Saturday Night Live for the first time, Annie Hall won best picture, John Paul II was a freshman Pope, and Jimmy Carter held that other job he had before becoming ambassador extraordinaire.

And it was way back in 1978—back when Pete Rose was a national hero and the U.S.S.R was a force to be reckoned with—that Cornell College adopted One Course At A Time. Put another way, One Course At A Time falls between “Begin, Reagan, Palestine, terror on the airline” and “Ayatollah’s in Iran, Russians in Afghanistan” on the Billy Joel timeline of world history.

Suffice to say, things have changed a bit since then.

And while the outside world was busy changing, One Course At A Time was busy adapting to that world. One simple idea—take one class, every day, for a month and then move on to the next one—has transformed into a culture, a way of life and education, and a community-wide way of approaching liberal arts education.

This is the story of 30 years of One Course At A Time.

History of One Course At A Time

The Rev. Richard Thomas is an impeccably effortless storyteller, on this day or any other. He relaxes in the Cornell library, coffee in hand, and pulls facts from decades ago as if it were yesterday. Thomas arrived at Cornell in 1967 and officially retired in 1996, but has continued to teach every year since.

The mood in 1977, as he tells it, was anxious. Enrollment projections forced administrators to consider a sustained enrollment of about 650, a low not seen since World War II. Money was tight. Push had come to pull. Either changes needed to be made, or the college had to accept a new reality.

Into that environment stepped Robert Lewis, who had become dean of the college in 1975. Lewis was familiar with the block plan employed by Colorado College and sent several faculty to study it. The response was immediately positive.

“The idea arose when people were quite pessimistic about the college,” said Craig Allin. Students were being lost to community colleges, especially incoming 18-year-olds.

The idea gained traction and, during the fall of 1977, became the focal point of campus debate. Everyone had an opinion.

From a marketing standpoint, the move to One Course At A Time gave the college a “point of difference.” The college performed some market research and found that this one point of difference could mean a world of improvement.

“We found that, of the students interested in Cornell as it was, one-third were indifferent, one-third preferred [One Course At A Time], and one-third didn’t like it,” said James Day, who was the director of public relations starting in January of 1977.

“But now,” added the founder of higher education consulting firm Hardwick Day, “we were only one of two schools who had this plan.”

To administrators, this meant a leg up on students who were in the one-third of recruits who found the calendar advantageous, leading to, theoretically, greater enrollment.

To faculty, however, concerns were pedagogical.

“It wasn’t simply a philosophically driven idea, because no one had been able to prove it was better than the quarter or semester system,” said Thomas.

“The interesting thing about this was that a lot of the curricular discussions got caught up in what was the true nature of the liberal arts,” said Day. “What was transformative about this discussion was what was true liberal arts to what was most effective pedagogy.”

The faculty split into two camps. Music, math, and the sciences generally lined up against the program, worried they couldn’t adequately cover their subjects in only a month. The social sciences and the humanities, on the other hand, generally found the depth of the system enticing.

In the end, the faculty voted nearly two-to-one to adopt One Course At A Time, splitting largely down generational lines rather than departmental.

“One Course At A Time was adopted by associate and assistant professors over the objections of full professors,” said Allin.

Eventually, of course, those associates and assistants, like Allin himself—who now heads the politics department—came to be full professors in their own right. Only now they had a new system to work with.

The Brown Bomber

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