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A Tradition of Innovation

By Larry Breitborde
Vice President for Academic Affairs and Dean of the College

"The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew, and act anew."

With those words, Abraham Lincoln signed into law the Morrill Act in 1862, beginning the process that created large land-grant universities across the United States. Today, these schools have come to dominate American higher education, serving the largest number of students in the United States. It's not clear the extent to which the nation's liberal arts colleges may have inspired President Lincoln to expand American higher education, but he must have been aware of the fact that by 1862 virtually all American higher education was occurring at small colleges. Many of these schools—like Knox—were "frontier" colleges, founded in conjunction with new settlements as the American population moved westward. And the call to "think anew, and act anew" clearly resonated with the young histories of those liberal arts colleges, as well as their futures, which would be shaped by innovation and experimentation. This allowed the best of the liberal arts colleges to thrive alongside America's large universities.

The founding of Knox itself was evidence of "thinking and acting anew." George Washington Gale, Knox's founder, was a pioneer for a new educational concept—combining academics with manual labor. His 1827 Oneida Manual Labor Institute in upstate New York would generate several successful offshoots, including the Lane Seminary of Cincinnati and Oberlin College, and, eventually, was anchored in Gale's "Circular and Plan of 1836" for Knox College and Galesburg. Gale was committed to access, opposed slavery, and envisioned a college that educated graduates who would serve their communities. These founding principles helped guide Knox in a way that embedded in its institutional culture a habit of self-examination through which the College would periodically examine its circumstances and, in Lincoln's words, "rise with the occasion." For 168 years, the College has regularly assessed its circumstances, the needs of wider society, and its programs—and responded in innovative ways.

Through its first two decades, a Knox education was taught by faculty generalists that provided a common education, a single "course of study," to all students. In the last quarter of the nineteenth century, specialized academic departments (and faculty appointments) emerged. By the early 1900s, three degree programs ("scientific," "classical," and "literary") were offered, each following a set list of courses. By 1904, senior year "electives" were introduced, and by 1913 students were required to take 20 credits in "some one department." (The term "major" would not be introduced until the 1917-1918 catalog.) In 1931, distribution requirements were introduced as a basis for general education. Through these events, Knox adopted innovations in its curriculum that reflected national trends in higher education, expanding its fields of knowledge and reorganizing its programs of study around its historic mission of social activism and improving humankind.

Recognition of the value of students shaping their broader educational experience was another innovation that Knox adopted. In 1851, Knox students resisted the scheduling of classes on Christmas Day by demanding a two-day holiday; they attempted to have classes cancelled by stealing the College bell and keys to classrooms. By 1859, the faculty agreed to the two-day recess. At roughly the same time, Knox's two student-initiated literary societies—Adelphi and Gnothautii—proposed challenging each other with a three-game football tournament. In the words of Knox College Historian Hermann R. Muelder '27, this "unprecedented extension of their literary and forensic competitions" was promptly denied by the faculty, who were more supportive of student-initiated intercollegiate debate that thrived throughout the Midwest in the late 1800s. But these two student initiatives—the first unsuccessful, the second well-received—set the stage for the development of regional intercollegiate athletics, as well as a broader vision for "student life" on campus.

Thus, from its earliest times, Knox invited faculty and students to join a community united by common values and a common mission, and guided by a sense of independence, creativity, and innovation. In recent decades, Knox's spirit of innovation has continued to thrive. The curriculum has been adjusted, most recently in 2001, in an effort to carry forward the historic liberal education mission of the College in ways most effective for the changing circumstances and futures faced by students.

Special opportunities, including off-campus study, internships, student research, and creative projects, have been developed to support new ways of learning. New programs that require Knox students to pursue professional internships, such as journalism and business and management, offer students the opportunity to connect in-class learning with off-campus realities. Self-designed "independent" majors reflect the creativity of students in making connections across the curriculum. Some independent major topics have even led the faculty to create new teaching positions and formal programs of study, including environmental studies and Japanese studies. The faculty's ingenuity has also nourished a sense of "newness" and innovation in Knox courses, from the Farm Term of the 1970s to the Green Oaks Term of the present, from Repertory Theatre Term to the psychology department's Clinical Term.

Most important, the habits of problem-solving, of thinking outside the box, of what Lincoln termed "thinking anew and acting anew," have become part of the fabric of the Knox experience from the circumstances of the College's founding, to the vitality of the curriculum, to the creativity of current students, to the life work of Knox graduates. As the following stories show, the innovative spirit of Knox students—past, current, and future—lead them to shape their educational programs in fascinating ways. Further, these stories show that Knox graduates continue to bring this same creativity and innovation to their local, national, and global communities, to their businesses, and to the public good. These stories, then, embody one of Knox's oldest and venerable traditions—the tradition of innovation.

An Innovative Founding
In the 1830s, George Washington Gale (1789-1861), a Presbyterian minister from upstate New York, pioneered a plan to bring a "thorough system of mental, moral, and physical education" to the frontier. Gale inspired a band of colonists and religious missionaries to set out for the prairies of Illinois to establish an educational institution that would be known as Knox Manual Labor College. Read more on George Washington Gale and the founding of Knox College ?

Student Innovation
Students founded two literary societies at Knox during the 1840s?Adelphi and Gnothautii. During their long histories, the two societies not only promoted forensic and literary activities, but also built up large and useful libraries, conducted courses for the general public, and published Knox's first student magazines. More information on the Adelphi and Gnothautii literary societies can be found in Missionaries and Muckrakers: The First Hundred Years of Knox College by Hermann R. Muelder '27.

Curricular Innovation
One of Knox's most successful curricular innovations is the Repertory Theatre Term. Launched in 1970, "Rep Term" is the nation's only undergraduate repertory theatre program and has become a mainstay of the Knox theatre department. It is an exhilarating and exhausting experience, allowing students from all academic disciplines to immerse themselves in theatre. Read more about Rep Term.