French

IV. The "New Curriculum" and the Post WWII Era

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Barrett Hall --
Amherst College Archives
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Ernest A. Johnson--
Amherst College Archives
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George B.Funnel--
Amherst College Archives
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Frederick King Turgeon--
Amherst College Archives
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Elmo Giordanetti--
Amherst College Archives
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Jeffrey James Carre--
Amherst College Archives

In the fall of 1947, the "New Curriculum," which was adapted from recommendations that had been put forward by a faculty committee chaired by Gail Kennedy, was introduced at the College and the post-war curriculum in Romance Languages began to take shape. In order to major in French, the class of 1951 would need to take eight advanced, semester-long courses, two of which could be "related courses" in other Departments (p. 63), requirements that closely resemble those of the French Department today. The course catalog maintained that all except "reading knowledge" courses, of which there was only one, were conducted in French (p. 63). The expanded curriculum included an impressive array of nineteen courses that year, which covered such topics as Romanticism, Realism and Naturalism, Lyric, the Eighteenth Century, Contemporary Literature, and the period of the Baroque. Two years later the catalog would feature twenty-four courses in French, many of which were so specialized that they focused on a single author.36 Within a few years courses on Gide and Proust would appear, as would the first course entitled "20th century French Literature."37

During the post-war period, Italian also offered a full slate of courses, including, at the advanced level, the study of Dante and the Renaissance authors. A major in Italian, however, was never on the books. By contrast, under the supervision of Ernest A. Johnson, a recently hired Harvard Ph.D., who was a 1939 graduate of the College, the curriculum in Spanish developed into a full major. Newly minted courses in the program included Spanish American Literature, Spanish Literature before 1600, Cervantes, the Drama of the Golden Age, and Spanish Literature of the 19th and 20th centuries.38 The language courses in French and Spanish were supervised by the Professors, but were taught with the help of numerous teaching assistants who appear to have been, by and large, native speakers.

Despite the curricular innovations of the time, the post-war period saw a radical drop in enrollment in foreign language courses at the College. According to President Cole, this was the unintended result of the "New Curriculum" that was adopted for the class of 1951.39The President's Report on the years 1946-1956 describes the foreign language requirement as "one which emphasized for the modern languages practice in training the student to hear the language as spoken and as read." It added, however, the qualification that "this language requirement was so designed that nearly all freshmen should be able to satisfy it by the end of their first year" (p. 13). The net effect of the "New Curriculum" seems indeed to have been to discourage the study of foreign languages at the advanced level. There were too many other requirements to fulfill. If a student did not prioritize language study by choosing it as a major—and at that time, students chose only one major—there was no room in his program to develop his language skills much further than the levels prescribed by the minimal requirements for a degree.40 President Cole laments further on in his report that "our advanced courses in Modern Languages have smaller and smaller registrations" (p. 17).

The enrollment figures included in President Cole's report are consistent with the conclusion that the "New Curriculum" contained impediments to the study of foreign languages at the advanced level. During the 1946-47 academic year, the French program still enrolled 39% of the student body. German registered about 16%.41By the end of the 10-year period described in President Cole's report, enrollment in French had dropped by 55%. Over the same period, enrollment in German dropped 43%. For Spanish, a program that had just started to take off in the fall of 1947, enrollment dropped 35% between 1947 and the spring of 1956.42The numbers in the report seem to suggest that freshmen tended to take only one semester of foreign language study upon their arrival and that they would not continue their chosen language in subsequent semesters. Between the fall and spring semesters of the 1946-47 academic year, for example, there was virtually no enrollment attrition in French and German. By contrast, over the next nine years covered by the report, French, Spanish and German averaged 27% enrollment attrition between the fall and spring semesters of each academic year. It is perhaps because of these disturbing numbers that the review of the "New Curriculum", which was conducted at the end of the 1950s, recommended the establishment of a "requirement of a foreign language course at the literature level."43 The Amherst College faculty did not take the review committee's advice. The recommended requirement was never adopted.44

The shift in enrollment brought on by the "New Curriculum" eventually took its toll on the Department, which saw its faculty withdraw from its traditional commitment to scholarly activity. At the advanced level, the older French faculty tended to cover the courses that corresponded to their area of research. Atkinson taught the eighteenth century, while Turgeon taught primarily drama and the seventeenth century. The exception to this tendency was George Funnell.

George Funnell, whose career at the College spanned forty years, declined to follow the general rule that Amherst professors of romance languages were contributing scholars to their respective fields of specialization. In a letter that responded to a request from the administrator in charge of Public Affairs, Funnell explained that it would be impossible to provide her with a list of his publications, since "I just don't publish." A 1924 graduate of the College, he began teaching the following year. He eventually received an M.A. from Harvard, but never pursued a Doctorate. Nevertheless, Funnell apparently commanded the respect of his colleagues, who elected him to nine two-year terms — almost half of his career — on the Committee of Six. His most notable contribution to the curriculum was his participation on the Kennedy Committee, which established the "New Curriculum." One element of this curriculum was the "Introduction to the Humanities" course, in which Funnell regularly participated. If his choice of advanced-level courses in the Department is any indication, he had a fondness for twentieth century French literature. But he apparently taught wherever he was needed, sometimes even offering courses on texts from the Medieval and Renaissance periods.

Funnell's colleague, Frederick King Turgeon, who was hired at about the same time and who also served in the Department for more than forty years, received his Ph.D. from Harvard in 1930. Turgeon's specialization was in the French theater. He published a scholarly edition of the comedies of Molière in 1935 and, four years later, a collection of contemporary French one-act plays. In 1947 he published a pedagogical text, the Cours pratique de français. His teaching consisted primarily of courses in theater throughout the French tradition, but most often focused on the classical theater of the seventeenth century: Corneille, Racine, and Molière.

There is some evidence that Turgeon and Funnell broke with the long-standing tradition of teaching courses entirely in French. The 1964-65 catalog, which was the first to designate in each course description the language in which the course was to be conducted, suggests these two were the only exceptions to this rule.45 It is possible that this choice was made to encourage students to continue the study of French beyond their first semester at the College. In an interview conducted after his retirement, Turgeon maintained that although, over the years, most matriculating students began French at the second or third-year levels, there had never been, to his recollection, a large number of majors.46 This memory seems consistent with the enrollment figures from the years following the establishment of the "New Curriculum."

In 1955, Elmo Giordanetti, a doctoral candidate from Princeton and a graduate of Bowdoin College, as Turgeon had been, was hired in anticipation of Atkinson's retirement. Giordanetti would complete his degree by the end of the decade and would eventually publish in 1967 a book that was co-authored with Henry Steele Commager.47Giordanetti's career at Amherst College spanned nearly thirty years and would be spent teaching French and occasionally Italian, especially towards the end of Reginald French's tenure on the faculty.48 By 1960 Giordanetti had taken over the teaching of the eighteenth century. But he also taught courses in the nineteenth century and in the twentieth century novel. Turgeon continued to teach drama. Funnell focused on poetry.

In 1962 Jeffrey James Carre, also a graduate of Bowdoin, was hired as an Associate Professor of French. Carre, who like his colleagues Giordanetti and Funnell, proved not to be very interested in publishing scholarly work, would teach French at Amherst College for twenty-two years, mostly offering courses on twentieth-century literature. One of Carre's accomplishments was to have negotiated in the early eighties the establishment of an annual exchange with the Ecole Normale Supérieure that still exists today. The program brings one French student from the ENS to Amherst College each year as a teaching assistant. In exchange, one graduating senior from the French Department spends a year in Paris doing coursework and conducting research as a fellow at the ENS. Carre also established a similar exchange with the Université de la Bourgogne in Dijon that continues to this day.

Turgeon, Funnell, Giordanetti, and Carre would form the core of the French program through the 1960s. A significant number of assistant professors rotated through the department during this decade, keeping the total number of professors of French at around seven. Reginald French continued to teach Italian, essentially on his own. During this same period, Ernest Johnson and William C. Cannon would maintain the Spanish curriculum with the support of an assistant professor or two. A large majority of the Spanish courses were listed as "conducted in Spanish." The advanced-level Spanish curriculum covered major authors from the last four centuries. These included courses on Spanish-American literature and Latin American Literature. Survey courses included material from as far back as the Middle Ages.

In 1966 the French curriculum listed courses that covered the literary tradition from the sixteenth through the twentieth centuries. By the early seventies, Turgeon and Funnell had retired and the curriculum began to evolve. This period saw innovations that arose primarily from the interests of the assistant professors, many of whom went on to have successful careers at other institutions or as independent scholars. Richard Pini, who would eventually leave the College to found the Pleasant Street Theater in Northampton, Massachusetts, offered the first course on French Film in 1970. Andre Ryerson developed courses that introduced Amherst students to recent developments in French literary theory. Courses in French Phonetics and Prosody appeared the following year. 1975 witnessed the first course in Francophone Literature and courses with a clear interdisciplinary focus. These tended to be defined in topical terms that were largely historical, generic or theoretical. During the seventies, almost all courses were listed as "conducted in French."

For the French major, the Department insisted that students distribute their course selection throughout the historical tradition, as it does today. Majors were required to select three of their eight courses from periods prior to the nineteenth century. This requirement lasted until 1986, at which time the number was reduced to two.49

In 1970, for the first time in the history of the College, students were allowed to count four courses taken in France through a certified study abroad program towards the eight courses that were required for the major. Early on relatively few Amherst College students took advantage of this opportunity. The catalog from 1969-70 lists only one student studying on such a program; the following year there were three; the year after that there were six. In no year were there more than six before the catalog stops listing such information in 1976. But it is clear that by the end of the decade, Amherst College had recognized the value of study abroad programs for the acquisition of a foreign language. The catalog from 1979-80 asserts that students in language departments were expected to spend one or two semesters enrolled at foreign institutions or in American-based study abroad programs (p. 6).

Despite the curricular innovations and the incentives established for study abroad, relatively few students chose to major in French during this period. Between 1968 and 1985 no more than eight students ever majored in French in any given year. The average number of French majors in each graduating class was only 5.7. The Spanish section graduated, on average, 4.9 per year.50

From 1962 until the mid seventies, no assistant professor in the Department of Romance Languages was awarded tenure at Amherst College, until James E. Maraniss, a Princeton Ph.D. in Spanish, who had published a book on Calderon, was promoted in 1978. Carre and Giordanetti, the only remaining senior members of French after Turgeon's retirement in 1969, encountered difficulties in obtaining promotion for assistant professors of French well into the early eighties. The threat that this would cause the integrity of the program would not become fully apparent until 1984, when both Carre and Giordanetti passed away unexpectedly within several months of each other, leaving the Romance Languages Department without any senior faculty in French.

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Footnotes:

36 See pp. 67-70 of the 1950-51 Amherst College catalog.

37 See pp. 73-74 of the 1952-53 Amherst College catalog.

38 See pp. 95 of the 1948-49 Amherst College catalog.

39 See p. 17 of Cole's President's Report 1946-56, where he confirms that "the figures on department registrations given below form an important record of changes caused by the introduction of the new curriculum."

40 All told, the "New Curriculum" requirements absorbed 24 of the total 32 courses required for the degree. Unless one wanted to pursue a major in a foreign language, there was little incentive to take advanced-level courses, particularly since they required the mastery of skills that were both difficult to begin with and required regular reinforcement to be retained. One could not easily drop a foreign language after the first year and return to it in the third or fourth year.

41 See Cole's President's Report 1946-56.

42 The program in Italian dropped only 15%, primarily because its enrollments were already very small in 1946.

43 See President's Report 1958-59, p. 8. Amherst College Archives. Peter Pouncey's 1987 report echoes the call made by the review committee. Pouncey maintained that, if such a language requirement were to be instituted, "a single literature course might suffice" (p. 13). But he added that the sufficiency of such a requirement was contingent upon the Admission Office's seriousness about the College's guidelines for the foreign language preparation of the applicants prior to matriculation.

44 During the fifties, students were required to pass the equivalent of third-semester College French (or an analogous course in another language) in order to satisfy the language requirement. By 1969 students were required to show proficiency in a foreign language by scoring at an advanced level on College Entrance Exams (CEEB). That is to say that they were required to be proficient upon arrival at the College. Those who failed to demonstrate proficiency were required to enroll in courses that ultimately would lead to passing French 5 or its equivalent in another language in order to qualify for a degree. By 1973 all mention of a language requirement at the College disappears from the catalogs.

45 See pp. 93-95 of the 1964-65 Amherst College catalog. Those designations do not change in the catalogs until their respective retirements.

46 A student conducted the interview on October 30, 1979 for the Amherst Oral History project. A transcript is kept in the Amherst College archives.

47 It carried the provocative title Was America a mistake? An eighteenth-century controversy.

48 After French's retirement in 1972 Italian disappears from the Amherst College curriculum never to return.

49 A significant number of majors, however, continue to elect to take more than the required minimum.

50 See graphs entitled "French Senior Majors 1968-2003" and "Spanish Senior Majors 1968-2003."
 

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