Apr 2, 2021 | LIFE | By Benedict Wright | Illustration by Xixi Qin and photo courtesy of Colorado College

A lot can happen in 50 years.

Looking to recent history, consider the 45 years between the passage of the Social Security Act in 1935 — the height of New Deal reform — and the inauguration of the Reagan Revolution in 1980. Or consider that 50 years after the invention of nitrogen fixation (beginning the era of synthetic fertilizer) in 1910, the world’s population had nearly doubled from 1.8 billion to over 3 billion in 1960.

Or as a final example, take the 56 years from Russia’s October Revolution of 1917 to the 1973 publication of “The Gulag Archipelago,” Aleksander Solzhenitsyn’s searing exposition of the Soviet system and a book just as notable for its content as the fact that its publication was actually permitted in Soviet Russia at the time.

A half-century can be all it takes for regimes to rise and fall, cultural values to shift, new ideas and technologies to take hold, or revolutionary zeal to be tempered by time and experience.

Although certainly less world-historical than the previous examples, academic institutions can nevertheless experience analogous changes over a period of 50 years. A case study of this fact is found in Professor Susan Ashley’s “The Block Plan: An Unrehearsed Educational Venture” published by Colorado College to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the Block Plan’s implementation.

Far from a mere marketing ploy, Ashley’s book offers a remarkably rigorous and detailed (at times perhaps overly detailed) account of CC’s one-class-at-a-time Block Plan from its scrappy beginnings in a conversation among a few young faculty members at a local bar to its contested approval to the pronouncement of its permanence to its unquestionable status today.

I had the pleasure of working with Professor Ashley as a student research assistant on her book over the summer and fall of 2019. I clearly recall some of the simple yet far-reaching questions that drove her thinking then and permeate her finished work: How could such a radical and rapid change occur, and why then in the late ’60s? What did the Block Plan initially look and feel like? How has the Block Plan changed? How has the Block Plan changed the college? Could (and should) such a transformation happen again?

The first two questions dominate the first half of the book. In terms of historical context, CC was not immune to the revolutionary fervor of the ’60s. Taking to the quads in protest of both national issues like the Vietnam War and internal practices like letter grades, curfews, and single-sex dorms, CC students were demanding change.

At the same time, faculty and administrators felt inclined to ride a wave of curricular experimentation in higher education. This appetite for change also providentially coincided with the approach of the college’s centennial celebration in 1974, which Ashley asserts was a key factor in initiating the bold and distinctive reimagining of how the college operated.

However, while there was a desire for changes, according to Ashley, there was also a common understanding that the college should remain dedicated to the tradition of the liberal arts.  

In terms of the actors involved, Ashley emphasizes several key individuals who acted with vision and prowess. Particularly, Professor Glenn Brooks and President Lloyd E. Worner both played key roles. Brooks, with his charisma and knack for listening to the concerns of others, deftly led the charge developing, refining, and proposing what was eventually called the Colorado College Plan.

Brooks was largely responsible for developing the idea of “unified learning,” which undergirded the original plan — a vision of liberal education combining residential life, creative leisure, and academic rigor. Worner, who was liked by the faculty and enjoyed an especially amicable relationship with the board of trustees, gave Brooks the support and leeway needed to get the job done. The decisiveness of these individuals combined with the relative lack of a sprawling bureaucracy surely contributed to the passage of the Plan.

As Ashley tells it, the stars were uniquely aligned in the waning years of the 1960s to produce the Plan, which the faculty voted to approve in the fall of 1969 and which commenced in the fall of 1970.

The story then shifts to the initial refinements and self-studies that the college undertook during the 1970s. Some notable developments of this time included the early abandonment of “half-courses” which were two-block and three-block length courses meant to be taken in tandem with another course — a holdover from the semester era.

A related change was the proliferation of specific one-block topics courses at the expense of broader survey classes. At the same time, early notions about the central position of directed leisure to the plan proved difficult (and to some extent, impossible) to implement. Nevertheless, the Block Plan persisted with the faculty voting to keep the Plan indefinitely in 1974.

According to Ashley, beginning in the 1980s, the informality and dynamism that originally made the Block Plan possible slowly dissipated. Like many other examples of revolutionary change or radical heresy, the Block Plan eventually became orthodoxy — normalized and routinized.

More and more, academic material was fit to accommodate the Block Plan rather than the other way around. And as the academic schedule rigidified, the college’s approach to change became more systematized. “Strategic planning” was becoming the norm in higher education, and CC soon followed suit under the presidential leadership of Gresham Riley.

“Beginning with Riley,” Ashley writes, “the cycle of fact finding, goal setting, and fundraising became the script for presidents, and structured, data-based planning became the norm.” Change now occurred within defined parameters and through an established procedure. And ultimately, one of those parameters would remain the one-class-at-a-time Block Plan which was pronounced untouchable during the 1990s.

With regard to the present and future of CC and its Block Plan, Ashley leaves her readers with a sense of ambivalence. On the one hand, the book contains a degree of nostalgia. One can detect a note of melancholy when Ashley describes the exploratory era of the Plan’s founding: “A sense of common purpose made it possible to address the future by taking the college as a committee of the whole. That initial collaborative push lasted through the process. To participants, it seemed natural rather than orchestrated from the top or contrived for strategic reasons.”

While CC is surely still capable of modification, Ashley writes, it seems unlikely it could replicate the changes of the ’60s. And in contrast to the wave of priority-setting starting in the 1980s, “no one had thought to identify priorities in 1968, they knew them already.” That implicit priority, at least according to Glenn Brooks, was a shared commitment to the liberal arts. If that was the case then, the question arises: What about the liberal arts today?

Ashley leaves us to ponder whether an education now delivered almost exclusively in three-and-a-half week chunks can claim to educate and edify the whole person. Or, I wonder, can the tradition of the liberal arts continue to sit uneasily with a college intent on removing any appearance of reverence for the so-called western tradition? It seems only time will tell.

On the other hand, Ashley concludes her book with a sense of optimism. In an epilogue, she reflects on the Block Plan’s unique advantages in adapting to the sudden demands of challenges like the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Plan allowed for quick mobilization and gave professors the ability to schedule synchronous or asynchronous classes, morning or afternoon, without concern for other classes. These mirror the advantages the founders had in mind when they proposed eliminating the semester system 50 years prior.

More than a flexible scheduling structure, Ashley observes, the Plan cultivates the habits of mind needed to encounter something new, to dive headlong into a novel experience. Ashley cites the recollections of students and faculty, past and present, who have felt invigorated by the Plan and who have been captivated by the depth that it offers.

The book ends with hope that the students and faculty of the future will find ways to embrace and to improve the Block Plan they have inherited.

“The Block Plan: An Unrehearsed Educational Venture” comes at an opportune time in two ways. First, it appears at a moment when the living memories of the events it details are beginning to fade. It captures a story worth remembering.

And second, the book arrives in a period of national and global crisis and rebuilding. In a spirit of possibility, “The Block Plan” invites readers (at least readers at CC) to consider their unexamined practices and ask the probing questions that spurred innovation not so long ago.

As with many institutions, CC has ebbed and flowed with periods of dynamism and periods of sclerosis. And as with all institutions, no amount of innovation can achieve perfection and no amount of conservation total stasis. At 50 years old, the Block Plan finds itself in a solid position with little chance of disappearing, but nevertheless its next chapter is yet unwritten.

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