It was already 70° when I started my morning walk today at 7 AM so instead of wearing my usual longsleeved turtleneck shirt, I put on a tatty old black T-shirt that I have had for 30 years and more. On the front is emblazoned a red star around which are inscribed the words SOCIAL THOUGHT AND POLITICAL ECONOMY. The shirt commemorates an undergraduate interdisciplinary program that I created at the University of Massachusetts when I joined the faculty there in 1971. UMass, which is big on acronyms, dubbed the program for purposes of its computer records as STPEC, which almost immediately came to be pronounced “stepick.”
STPEC was intended by me as a left-wing version of SOCIAL STUDIES, the Harvard undergraduate interdisciplinary major of which I was the first head tutor in 1960 – 61. It was launched on a shoestring in 1973. It grew and flourished, most especially after I turned it over to Sara Lennox in 1980 when I moved to Boston so that my first wife could take up a professorship at MIT. In two years, if my Parkinson’s will permit, I will travel to Amherst to take part in the 50th anniversary celebration. Should theweather be mild enough, I may wear that old T-shirt
I have told the story of the creation of STPEC at some length in my autobiography and will not undertake to repeat myself here but there is one feature of the program of which I am especially proud and I thought I would take just a moment to talk about it.
As originally conceived, students in the program were to take a combination of courses drawn from the social sciences and humanities capped by a senior year two-semester seminar taught jointly by two faculty members drawn from different departments (thus guaranteeing that it would be “interdisciplinary.”) The first Senior Seminar was taught by myself and my friend and colleague William Connolly from Political Science. Excited by the opportunity, Bill and I went a little bit over the top and it was a very demanding seminar. Word got back to the juniors in the program who came to me rather nervously to say that they did not feel they were prepared for a seminar of this sort and wondered whether there was something I could arrange that would give them the background they needed. I responded by creating a junior year seminar. Several years later, that junior seminar was taught by Tracy Strong, whom I had recruited for the purpose from Mount Holyoke College. Tracy taught a rather demanding junior seminar and the sophomores in the program, hearing about it, came to me and said they did not think they were ready for such an experience. Once again I responded, this time by creating and teaching a new philosophy department course called Introduction to Social Philosophy.
Thus was born a tradition carried on by Sara Lennox, a tradition that I think may be unique in American higher education, of developing a major not by consulting the wishes and wisdom of professors but by responding to the needs and demands of students. It has been a long time since I have been in touch with the STPEC program, but I very much hope that it has, all these years later, retained this character.