Former president fostered critical thinking in launching Freshman Studies

The following article appeared in the Fall 1995 issue of Lawrence Today.

Ten years before Nathan Pusey became president of Lawrence, he was appointed to a three-year term as sophomore tutor by President Henry Wriston. It was then that Pusey assigned Aristotle's Poetics, jolting many students out of their complacent attitudes toward education. That assignment, which inspired students to read and reread a classic text and to become critical thinkers, would later be seen as a precursor to the Freshman Studies program Pusey launched in 1945 during the first year of his presidency.

Known for his strong teaching skills, Pusey served as Lawrence's tenth president from 1944 to 1953. In 1987, the Nathan M. Pusey Chair in East Asian Studies was established in honor of the former president, in part because of the legacy he left behind in Freshman Studies and in part to reflect his keen interest and involvement with the countries and peoples of that part of the world.

Pusey, who left Lawrence in 1953 to become president of Harvard University, said he created the program to provide students with an overview of the liberal arts curriculum, to emphasize the discussion of ideas and scholarly conversation, and to encourage faculty to step out of their areas of specialization to lead discussions on art, philosophy, science, and religion.

In the fall of 1945, Pusey stood before the Board of Trustees and reported that a third of the faculty had agreed to teach Freshman Studies. "They are reading the same important books, most of which lie outside the fields of their special interest and training, and they have to exert themselves to know them well enough to interpret them to others," Pusey told the trustees. "This means they are spending a lot of time reading and arguing among themselves. And the entire freshman class is involved in reading and discussing the same books with them. There has been much discussion this fall about Thoreau and Plato, about the nature and history of language, and about 'how to think straight.'"

Nearly forty years later, Pusey returned to Lawrence to give the 1987 Honors Day Convocation speech on Freshman Studies and found the art of discussion alive and well. Remembering back to the days he created the course, Pusey told the student body, "I wanted students to read whole texts, and not just textbooks like they did in high school. I also wanted to tell them when you come to a text, ask questions, interrogate it. See that it's full of problems. There is something there for you to wrestle with."

Now retired and living in New York City, Pusey said that although the world has changed substantially in the past fifty years, he believes Freshman Studies is as relevant today as it was in 1945.

"The world is much different that it was in the '40s and all sorts of changes are called for in that situation," he said. "I still think it's important for Americans to know the Wetern tradition as their tradition, but it is also important now that they move to become familiar with not just Europe, but other cultures as well."