Robert Steele: Where Have All the Preceptors Gone?

04 Education
Robert David STEELE Vivas

With thanks for the vibrant response of the “eight tribes” as a foundation for reconstructing education to be relevant to the real world, I would add that on the basis of that discussion I have been inspired to conceptualize Preceptors of Practice, much as the  more enlightened universities now have Professors of Practice.

What our students are missing is the real-world real-time perspectives of everyone that lives in the real-world.  If innovation is our objective, then students must be both representative of the full diversity that humanity offers, and also exposed to the full diversity of condition and perception that humanity offers.

Princeton got it right, because a great university, and was then shut down by the dark forces of a conventional faculty, risk-averse and devoid of imagination.  A similar story can be told about the University of Chicago.  When a university suffers both a stale faculty and a timid leadership, all is lost.

In the face of a recalcitrant faculty, but given a strong leadership, Preceptors of Practice and a School of Future-Oriented Hybrid Governance can show the way and over time, “bring along” the rest of the university — the spike theory of change.

Preceptorial method (traditional)

Preceptorial method,introduced in 1905 under Woodrow Wilson’s leadership, is a method of study whereby a small group of students meets in regular conferences with a faculty member. Wilson first described his proposal as a modified form of the Oxford tutorial that would “import into the great university the methods and personal contact between teacher and pupil which are characteristic of the small college, and so gain the advantages of both.” Disclaiming novelty in the concept, Wilson stated that the preceptorial would not only supersede the old-fashioned recitation but also “give the undergraduates their proper release from being school boys.” The subject matter was not to be “the lectures of their professors or the handful of text books . . . but the reading which they should do for themselves.”

The use of the term “preceptor” seems to have been proposed by Wilson himself; and the title was established by the trustees in June of 1905, when forty-five men were appointed preceptors with the rank of assistant professors.* Twelve were already members of the faculty; the thirty-three others came from many other campuses across the country. Two more were added in October, and others were appointed in subsequent years, but Wilson’s initial goal of fifty is recorded in the students’ Faculty Song:

“Here’s to those preceptor guys,
Fifty stiffs to make us wise.”

The new appointments were made in the humanities and social sciences, and also in mathematics; none was made in the “laboratory departments” where, Wilson noted, “direct personal contact between teacher and pupil has long been a matter-of-course method of instruction.”

Wilson interviewed each candidate he did not know, and the extraordinary group of teachers he enlisted in a three-month period is one of the remarkable feats in American higher education. His instinct was to place teaching ability ahead of scholarly qualifications, yet many of the preceptors gained distinction as scholars, some as administrators, among them Edward S. Corwin, Luther P. Eisenhart, Christian Gauss, Charles H. McIlwain, Charles G. Osgood, Robert K. Root, and Oswald Veblen.

The original concept was that of a group tutorial. In his junior year each undergraduate was assigned a preceptor to “be his guide in all the reading and work of the Department.” As far as possible students continued with the same preceptors for all courses. Lectures were to be complementary to the reading. Students were to be grouped by “aptitudes, training, tastes, and acquirements, ” abler students being “excused from the ordinary weekly conferences” and encouraged to read independently. Thus Wilson had already envisioned something like the “four-course plan” of independent study established twenty years later.

The new plan brought immediate and far-reaching results. Reporting to the Trustees in December 1905, Wilson asserted that the method “has affected the habits of the University almost as much as if it were an ancient institution.” The Nassau Literary Magazine declared that it was “generally, even universally, popular.” Comments in the press were favorable, and the American educational world watched with interest.

Despite its success the new method brought problems. Wilson had proceeded without the funds required for a greatly enlarged faculty, and the resulting deficit soon came to about $100,000 a year. Preceptors were burdened with reading for too many courses; they lacked tenure, and some resigned. Independent study did not develop as had been expected. Neverthe]ess the new preceptors quickened the intellectual life of the University, and the preceptorial idea took root. In 1914 a faculty report established procedures for the conduct of preceptorials, but in the years following modifications were gradually made. Preceptors were assigned to fewer courses and allowed to concentrate their interests; the title itself was ultimately abandoned, although later adopted honorifically for Bicentennial Preceptorships. A major change came with the “four-course” plan in 1925, when departmental supervisors took over the preceptors’ tutorial function — guiding the student through independent study to a senior thesis and comprehensive examination — thus realizing Wilson’s original plan of a coherent program of study systematically pursued. Preceptorial instruction came to be more closely attached to courses, including some at the freshman and sophomore levels, and to engage all ranks of the faculty.

Over the years the preceptorial system has continued to be subject to reexamination, with surveys and articles, both critical and supportive, appearing from time to time. A 1933 faculty report found shortcomings, but noted “unanimous and generally enthusiastic approval”; and a student survey and forum in 1938 reflected favorable undergraduate opinion. In 1949, however, a special committee noted scepticism by new faculty members. The faculty were given, in 1953, copies of Points for Preceptors, a booklet prepared by the present writer containing helpful suggestions by experienced preceptors. In 1956 the Alumni Day program was devoted to preceptorials on liberal education.

Mounting costs have subsequently led to larger preceptorial groups and, in subjects where knowledge has become increasingly specialized, to more structured seminars and classes. Patterns of education are always changing, but the preceptorial ideal of a close relation between teacher and student continues to be honored at Princeton, in keeping with Wilson’s belief that “it is not the whip that makes men but the lure of things worthy to be loved.”

Jeremiah S. Finch

*The term “preceptor” appears in An Account of the College of New Jersey (1764): “In the instruction of the youth, care is taken to . . . encourage their right of private judgment, without . . . demanding an implicit assent to the decisions of the preceptor.”


From Alexander Leitch, A Princeton Companion, copyright Princeton University Press (1978). Go to Search A Princeton Companion