Tuesday, September 22, 2009

The Gates Unbarred: A History of University Extension at Harvard 1910-2009. Michael Shinagel

The Gates Unbarred: A History of University Extension at Harvard 1910-2009. Michael Shinagel (Harvard University Press)

Review by Doug Holder

" At the stroke of eight every lecture evening notebooks were spread and until nine o’clock not a glance wandered to the clock nor was there any sign of wavering interest. The students were all voluntary seekers of knowledge who elected philosophy as an aid in constructive thinking. Young and old, black and white, artisans and teachers, men and women--who had questioned the meaning of life, and the universe, were eager to compare their thoughts with the questioners of all time. It was an audience to challenge any professor's attention and respect...” (Quote taken from “The Gates Unbarred…” Boston Evening Transcript June 15, 1910)

Although this quote is almost 100 years old, it could still apply today. I remember studying for my Master's degree at the Extension School during the mid 90's. I was in my late 30's, working 40 hours a week at McLean Hospital while attending classes several nights a week. Was it a difficult course of study? Yes. But I loved it. The teachers were first rate, I feel in love with the winding, tome- filled stacks at the Widener Library, but most importantly I gained more confidence as a writer-- and I would like to think I graduated as a better, more complete person.

Michael Shinagel, the present Dean of the Extension School has written a thorough and scholarly, (but not inaccessible) history of the said school titled: "The Gates Unbarred: A History of University Extension at Harvard 1910-2009." I took a course on the novel with Dr. Shinagel. I remember coming into his office with a convoluted proposal for a paper on Defoe’s "Robinson Crusoe" In his tactful, avuncular manner, he advised me (in so many words) to trash it and start fresh. He told me that it would be a rewarding challenge for me, this nascent scholar. I was doubtful, but in the end the man was right on the money. And this could be said about the development of the school itself, a rewarding challenge.

The University Extension was created in 1910 by A. Lawrence Lowell, with the idea to provide the community access to Harvard, and give them the opportunity to earn degrees. The Extension started small with courses mainly offered to teachers. But over the years,
and many battles, it expanded, offering TV courses to the Navy's Polaris submarine fleet, and by the 21st Century it offered advanced degrees to the general public. Because of the quality of the Harvard faculty, and the faculties of Boston University, Tufts and other area institutions, Harvard Extension has raised the status of "Evening Schools" nationwide; schools that were often afterthoughts of the Academy.

On a personal note I was fascinated to read that a Professor Bertocci, my old undergraduate philosophy teacher from Boston University, offered the first Extension radio course on WBMS FM titled: “Introductory Psychology.” He was one of the more popular professors at the Extension, and had a loyal and large following.

Throughout this century under Shinagel, the Extension offers a number of advanced degrees in management, journalism, creative writing, biotechnology, and other disciplines. The Master's in Journalism is of interest to this community journalist. Shinagel writes:

" upon completion of several courses, candidates put their skills to the test by completing internships at newspaper or magazine offices. In many cases the students work has been rewarded by appearing in print in local newspapers."

These days the Extension degree is a sought after sheepskin. And buyer beware, this is no diploma mill, it is a rigorous course of study, as Shinagel puts it:

" ... the high academic standards...were never compromised for earning a degree. Even though many more degrees are awarded now, it is important to bear in mind that the nearly 12,500 graduates to date represent a minute percentage of the 500,000 students who have taken classes...."many are called, but few are chosen."

This book is a fairly exhaustive study. It will definitely be of interest to folks who have been involved with the Extension School. But I think the casual reader can glean a great deal about the evolution of education in general, as well as the “Evening School." And hey, after reading the book, they may make haste to matriculate.

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