Curricular Transformation at SU's Physics Department in the 1960s

by Nicholas Shanning

The Southwestern experience is one that encourages students to explore. We have many courses throughout our time here that are specifically engineered to include multiple ideas from many disciplines, sometimes it even helps us do better in our classes. During my time at SU, my experience with science has been in a class about chocolate, where we explored the chemical properties of chocolate, and a neuroscience class that was extremely open ended. I ended up writing an essay on cognitive processes while someone watched a suspense film and how scene composition can affect us. It has been wildly different from most of the other experiences I have had in science classes and I believe this is pretty unique to Southwestern. Until this class I have had no experience with any physics topics or classes, but a visiting professor’s comments on the science department at Southwestern changed that, and those comments, according to what I have found, helped shape not only the physics department, but the whole of SU into what it is today. The Cold War and a worldwide paranoia helped shape Dr. Seeger’s suggestions into how the department could prepare their students for a uniquely uncertain future. This uncertainty prompted the physics department to become more crystallized, and this report probably encouraged the administration to change other curriculums to be more paideia focused, so the history of physics at SU is much more interesting than many would think. War, paranoia and its proliferation of physics changed SU in the late 60s into what I know it as today.

During the Sputnik era, President During Fleming announced a program to expand the schools endowment to 15 million from 8 million and increase staff and student enrollment[1]. The University wanted to bring on more specialized staff members for more different classes and disciplines, as well as give students better opportunities for more doctorate degrees[2]. Also there is a very clear dichotomy between the science and mathematics department and the fine arts department. All of the suggestions for the sciences suggest a need for students gaining knowledge at an accelerated rate. It says that science students should take an accelerated math course in the beginning of their studies[3]. However it is specified in the address that more science classes will be available for non science majors and more arts courses available for science majors. This is common today at many colleges. The plan for expansion also talks a little about a flight school for southwestern, which will not only teach classes about the discipline, but actually have them fly planes[4]. This too feels extremely reactionary and is probably the most indicative that the Cold War is what brought these changes about. In the fine arts, the same suggestions for increased classes and faculties are made, but they also state a move towards more interdepartmental learning[5]. Interdepartmental learning is one of the tenants of paideia curriculum today. Southwestern University was clearly not immune to the fears during the Cold War and it even created some fairly reactionary ideas that changed the University into what it is today. Science, no matter how crystallized it can get, will never operate in a vacuum.

            Dr. Raymond J. Seeger’s report to the President of the University was not much different from the universities later plans but it has a key difference, he suggests that the introductory science courses should be brought more into the realm of science majors so they would not have non science majors filling that class[6]. This can also show us how faculty and students interacted in the physics department at that time. The students and faculty were meeting frequently, possibly discussing more about material and getting a more holistic view of the class and an all around better education. However this means that those teachers would have been spending less time engaging with and researching for their respective national organizations, like the American Physical Society. Dr. Seeger suggests that each full time staff member should be attending a convention at least once per year, which he believes will not not benefit them and their research, but the student as well[7]. This would be common for a small school, where almost the entire student body could fit into a physics lecture in a UT auditorium. Dr. Seeger’s comments suggest a need for students and teachers to spend less time outside of the classroom so the teachers can go do independent research on whatever is needed[8]. During the Cold War, most of that research would have been in some way connected to maintaining a stable nation and keeping it adequately prepared for any threat that might arise[9]. The timing by which these changes were announced suggests that they are a bit reactionary in nature so therefore I believe they might not have happened at all or they would have happened at the next time of crisis, probably 9/11 which would have seen the proliferation of computer sciences more than physics.

            Teachers are supposed to prepare their students for and rely information to them about the world outside of the education institutions. By the end of an education track, the student should be well off enough with ideas and skills to be properly prepared for work in a desired field. The Cold War made it very difficult for teachers to prepare their students for the world because no one knew what was going to happen. However the teacher reacts to an event and works through it is going to have a big effect on a student who is trying to learn that discipline. Throughout elementary school, I was taught a very rudimentary form of history that included memorizing dates and knowing very clean little narratives about different events. Good historical analysis was not a part of my curriculum because it was not important to them at that time. In middle school and high school I began to get a more in depth look into history and by way of some very passionate teachers who encouraged me to do my own reading into history, I came to major in history in college. During the Cold War, in a physics education, in Dr. Seeger’s ideal university, the teacher would have spent time at a conference with whatever information and those teachers would have brought back that information to teach to their students[10]. The students now have this information and the slight jingoism that probably would have come along with it would have encouraged them to pursue that field.

The government was also sponsoring a number of different grants for physics graduates to work in labs across the country and teachers would have pushed them to pursue that[11]. Paranoia tends to make people freeze up, not a lot of time would have been spent on theory in the physics department during this time, and so a clear demarcation of information from the government, to science spheres that interpret it into their work, to students who then study to enter that work, and then the public who can hear about the latest military advancement or invention on the news.

            Physics has such a unique history because it accelerated so fast in the 20th century with both world wars and really seems to lack a strong connection between the elite and the public sphere. I believe that SU has adjusted well. The Cold War prompted a lot of drastic changes and is probably what led to a series of plans that turned the university into what it is today. Physics is vital to understanding our world and creating things that can be used. The need for physics and other applied sciences outside of Southwestern is at least partly responsible for Southwestern University in its current form. The timing by which these changes were announced suggests that they are a bit reactionary in nature so therefore i believe they might not have happened at all or the would have happened at the next time of crisis, probably 9/11

            The stereotypical view of physics is one that looks like a massive auditorium filled with students bored to tears as a professor writes endless symbols and numbers down on a board. Even worse than a bored student is a scared student, who would not dare ask a question for fear of a number of things that any shy student can imagine.  When there is a disconnect between scientific spheres and the public spheres, images like this arise and create no path for communication between the two. The history of physics at Southwestern creates a much nicer and more open picture of science. One in which most of the time students and teachers move separate spheres of knowledge instead of locked into concentric circles of knowledge. If war had not dominated the 20th century, what would physics be like, would southwestern have changed as well? I do not have the slightest idea but I’m sure the changes would be drastic. War, paranoia and its proliferation of physics changed SU in the late 60s into what I know it as today.

[1] The Megaphone, Vol. 59, No. 15, Ed. 1 Tuesday, February 1, newspaper, Georgetown, Texas, (1966) pg. 1.

[2] The Megaphone, (1966). 1.

[3] The Megaphone, 5

[4] The Megaphone, 5

[5] The Megaphone, 5

[6]  Raymond J. Seeger, Report to President Durwood Fleming Southwestern University on the Science and Mathematics Program.(1966) 1.

[7] Raymond J. Seeger, Report. 1966:  2.

[8] Raymond J. Seeger, Report. 1966:  2.

[9]  Kaiser, David. "Cold War Requisitions.” (2002): 136

[10] Raymond J. Seeger, Report. 1966:  2.

[11] Kaiser, David. "Cold War Requisitions.” (2002): 137


Curricular Transformation at SU's Physics Department in the 1960s