Column: GW’s last experiment with trimesters

On the National Archives building, there reads a famous verse: “the past is prologue; study the past.” The issue of trimesters, recently the subject of an Alternative Academic Calendar Report released in June, demands a look into the annals of GW history, revealing a temporary experiment with trimesters from 1941 to 1945.

Had the Committee investigated the past, it would have found a University strained to the limit under the trimester calendar. Medical students studied twelve months of the year to complete their courses in three years instead of four; the engineering school hired dozens of new part-time lecturers to teach war-related curricula in the summer.

The trimester system was in place for the entire University during World War II so that more students could be accommodated. President Cloyd Heck Marvin cautioned against making the system permanent, saying, “We must not forget … the laws of nature which deal with adjustment and recuperation in a fallow period.”

Unfortunately, we have indeed forgotten the strain and expense the intensive trimester calendar forced on GW during the wartime years. The committee appointed to research the alternative calendar last spring, while making no direct recommendations, did not consider Marvin’s failed experiment.

I attended GW this past summer and was dismayed by the lack of course choices, especially among those required for graduation.

I would support a trimester system only if it meant smaller class sizes, more academic choices during the summer and the ability to graduate a year early. If federal financial aid were guaranteed for the summer term and if that term were open to all students, I support trimesters. However, the committee issued no such assurances.

The present two-session summer term that permits a student to take one class for six weeks and another for the following six weeks is a much better system. Students are able to focus on one or two intensive classes that meet every day, crucial for classes that teach a skill such as language.

It also permits students more academic freedom because they can enroll for only half the summer and go home or abroad for the other half, a benefit to long-distance students. Since students only take one course during each of the two summer sessions, they can hold down a full-time job as well.

The proposal to force rising juniors to go to school over the summer and then take a semester off to compensate for the change restricts academic freedom.

Summer courses have been taught at GW since 1895, when President Benaiah Whitman felt he could make a few extra dollars by keeping the University open all summer. It is hard to believe this is not Trachtenberg’s motive, also. The committee was less concerned with smaller class sizes, for example, than it was with the financial implications of the new system.

I am no defender of Dr. Marvin’s style, but in this case, he was right. It is hard to predict the strain and cost of a trimester system but, looking to the past, one can get a good idea. One historian has rightly said, “the past is more than prologue; the past is prediction.”

-The writer, a sophomore majoring in history, is Hatchet research editor.

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