It Became Cambridge College

John Bremer

Elizabeth J. McCormack Professor of Humanities emeritus,
Cambridge College

Beneath its proudly displayed initials of CC, the logo of Cambridge College carries the date 1971. Thus, in 2007, the College claims to be in its thirty-sixth or thirty-seventh year—a time for a celebration of learning.

Knowing that I originated what is now Cambridge College, several colleagues, alumni and staff have asked me to tell its early history, and this brief essay presents the facts that I witnessed—and often initiated—and some of the changes that took place. Others must report what took place after I left.

Pembroke College, Cambridge


This, then, is an account of the beginnings of Cambridge College. First, it must be said that the original name was not Cambridge College but the Institute of Open Education. Is it legitimate to claim a thirty-seven year pedigree? Undoubtedly it is.

My own College at the other Cambridge in England was founded in 1347 by Maria de St. Pol, the widow of an Earl of Pembroke, Aylmer de Valence. It was originally called (and supposedly “for ever”) “the hall or house of Valence-Marie,” but even during her life-time it was popularly (vulgariter) known as Pembroke Hall. By the time of Henry VI, around 1435, it was named in legal documents by this name:

. . . let Pembroke Hall be compared with any foundation in Europe, not exceeding it in bigness, time, and number of Members, and it will acquit itself not conquered in all learned and liberal capacities.

Queen Elizabeth in 1564 referred to it as 0 Domus antiqua et religiosa and so it became a “House,” and even to this day one of the College toasts is Floreat domus, may the House flourish or prosper. Around 1850, the old name of Collegium de Valence Marie was restored, after which it was commonly known as Pembroke College. This became its official name.

It has never been suggested that these variations in name or title in any way invalidated the claim to continuity, and indeed, when I went up as an undergraduate it was the 600th anniversary of the College’s founding. I report this with some diffidence because a few years ago I received a notice of the 650th anniversary. Was I a student that long ago?

In short, the fact that Cambridge College began as the Institute of Open Education in no way affects its claim to be in its 37th year. But how did it begin?  The answer to that question is tied up with my own professional and intellectual history and so I must report some autobiographical facts.


In 1951 I had come to the United States as a Fulbright Fellow to study the higher educational system and, particularly, the provisions for adult education. Without going into details of what I did for eleven years, let me just say that in 1962 I went back to England for one year (or so I thought) as a visiting professor at the University of Leicester. I did this because I was thinking of applying for US citizenship and wanted to be sure that I really wanted to be here and not in England. (As it turned out, I knew before a single day had passed that I did not want to return to England to live, but that is another story. In any case, I was committed to the University of Leicester for a year.)

In April 1963 I met Anne Martin at a conference in Cambridge University. She was a lecturer in geography and geology at a college in Portsmouth; we were married in August, and the following year our daughter, Anne Elizabeth, was born. This made staying in England more probable, especially because I had been given tenure. So we stayed.

I devised a graduate program in the professional education of teachers, based on the traditional liberal arts (a theme to which I constantly return) and the classics, both ancient and modern. Known as “Section C,” the students found it a very worthwhile experience, as I did, and it looked as if we might be able to bring some new ideas and vitality into English education. It sadly needed them. (For a brief description of Section C, and some student responses forty years later, see Note 1 and “The Arts of Learning and Teaching, University of Leicester, May 2002.”)

But then came an episode involving professional discrimination against my wife, Anne, which prompted me to suggest to her that we should try to move to the U.S. Of course, I had lived here for more than ten years, but she had only spent a few days in the U.S. and was not sure whether she would like it. I was enthusiastic—I was sure she would enjoy the freedom here—and so we came to the U.S. in 1965. I had decided in my mind that if I understood anything about education—primarily public education—I should not talk about it but be involved in it, not as a university professor but as a hands-on practitioner.


So, soon after our return, I became superintendent of one of the three so-called decentralization demonstration districts in New York City. It was a multi-ethnic district on the lower East Side and hopes were high that decentralization (or “local control”) would make public education more responsive to children and their various ways of learning, or just generally improve it.

As the first year wore on, it became evident that the local board and myself were delegated, as it were, the responsibility for what happened, but had absolutely no power to change anything. All power was vested in Livingstone Street, the headquarters of the educational bureaucracy, The NY City Board of Education. So I resigned, with a public statement (reported in the New York Times) which began:

If we wish to improve the education of children in New York City public schools, it is my opinion that this can only be done if we can change the relationship between child and teacher, between child and child, and between child and material. To change these relationships involves the total re-structuring of the New York City public school system.

This is still my opinion, but if anybody is interested in the whole of that 1968 statement, it is referenced in Note 2.

Another opportunity then presented itself. Philadelphia thought that decentralization (a very fashionable word at that time) would solve its educational problems. They had a conference on this topic, and since I was one of only threeprofessional people in the country who had had any experience of attempted decentralization, somebody invited me to Philadelphia. I went, found the superintendent unfriendly and unimaginative, but met other people who were grappling with the problem of over-crowded schools. It had been suggested that city buildings, both public and private, could be used to house a high school. That was as far as the suggestion had gone.

I saw immediately that once the confines of classroom and school were removed, it would be possible to re-define, to re-structure, the whole educational process. The freedom and responsibility of the student could become paramount. In short, I went to Philadelphia and devised what came to be called the Parkway Program or The-School-without-Walls. A full account of this may be found in a book written by Michael von Moschzisker and myself, under the title of The School without Walls; a brief description may be found in an appendix of A Matrix for Modern Education (1984); see Notes 3 and 4. The Program involved both elementary and high school students, although the elementary component was so successful that the superintendent closed it under pressure from envious principals who were threatened by its success.


The idea of a school without walls fired the country’s imagination and I enjoyed my fifteen minutes of fame and was invited to speak at countless conferences, and to write numerous articles for journals and :magazines. I even got a page to myself in Time magazine (see Note 5). Partially as a result of all this publicity, I was invited to teach Summer School at Harvard in 1970. I taught two graduate courses in education. One was “Interpersonal Relations in Small Groups,” based on work I had done with the Tavistock Institute in London. The other was a recounting of the history and philosophy of the Parkway Program (the book—which appeared later incidentally—was translated into Spanish, German, Portugese, and—I believe—Japanese and French.)

In the latter course there were some Sisters of the Sacred Heart, one of whom, Maureen Joy, decided that I would be a good candidate for the position (then vacant) of Academic Dean at Newton College of the Sacred Heart and she took it upon herself not only to befriend me but also to introduce me to the College. I was also encouraged by another sister, Anne Justine Lyons.


I took up the appointment in the fall of 1970 and soon realized that the College was in very poor shape. While the Order of the Sacred Heart, an order which took education very seriously, supported it, in part, financially, the all-women enrolment had declined and the academic programs available were not remarkable for their modernity and excitement.

The College was exclusively for undergraduates—though it had the right to grant graduate degrees—and, reflecting on my experiences detailed above, I thought that an attractive and useful graduate program could be developed in education. Such a program would increase enrolment, it might stimulate the faculty, utilize facilities more fully, and it could be extended beyond the teaching profession, and so on. And, in addition, it would satisfy some of the professional ambitions I had had for education generally.

Over the New Year period of 1970-71 I wrote a description of what I thought a good and possible professional training for teachers would be, and since I have always thought that teaching and learning are essentially human—and not primarily professional—activities, it was easy to see how, once started, the program could expand into other areas. A full account of the Plan, as I devised it, was printed by Newton College of the Sacred Heart as part of its promotional material and an abbreviated account written by myself, as designer and chief academic officer of the College, was published in Phi Delta Kappan in March 1971 (Vol.LIII, No.7). See Notes 6 and 7. A fuller description may be found in an appendix of A Matrix for Modern Education, see Note 8. More will be said of the Matrix book later.

The graduate program was open to both men and women (a new departure for the College) and it was conducted for seven weeks in the summer (when the expensive capital plant was usually unused and unprofitable). Influenced by the fashionable terminology of the day, it was called the Institute of Open Education and although I had some doubts about this as a title, I thought that if it ever became restrictive it could be changed (as it was ten years later). In any case, it appealed to our immediate audience.


To my title of Academic Dean was added Director of the Institute of Open Education. All this time I had been conversing with Maureen Joy, who had first introduced me to the College, and although she reluctantly agreed to be listed as: Associate Director, in fact she played no role in either the design or the implementation, except to encourage me. Her interests took her away from Newton and the Order of the Sacred Heart and she became an administrator in a public school system on Long Island, N.Y. I believe that several years later she became a member of the Board of the Institute for a time.

Once the Institute’s program was adopted by the College, it was my task to recruit both faculty and students. To this end, we advertised and I gave lectures and seminars, including several at Harvard, and it was there that I was given some leads, names of possible faculty. One of these names was that of Joan Goldsmith who (as I recall) was finishing up graduate work at the Harvard Graduate School of Education in Cambridge. I phoned her and (rather to her surprise I think) went down to Harvard to interview her some time in May. I described the program to her and gave her a written statement; a few days later we met again and I decided to appoint her. She agreed and so became the second faculty member after myself.


Joan Goldsmith had been in Cambridge some time (I do not know how long) and she had a network of friends and people she had worked with, and I was given a long list of names. This was quite helpful but I sensed that they constituted a group that felt and thought very much alike and the program needed diversity. One of the names recommended by Joan Goldsmith was that of Eileen Brown and I recall interviewing her; she told me that she had been working in Philadelphia when I had been at Parkway. I did not meet her at that time, but think she said that she had been teaching at West Philadelphia High School. And one thing we did share was an unfavorable opinion of the superintendent. She was just completing an M.Ed. at Harvard.

So I appointed Eileen Brown as Assistant Professor of Education along with several other people, including Jeremy Levin, Norman Kolb, Jim Bottomley, Adria Reich, Ray Shepard, Frances Heaney, and Sister Elizabeth White. By the time the program began in early July there were close to 100 students, including several Sisters from the teaching orders. I think the exact number was 97 in all, although I have record of only 88 of them.


The intellectual structure of the program, its educational and administrative organization, and the functions of its parts, were all laid down in my original design, and the faculty members were recruited to carry out that design; of course, students were informed of the kind of program they were entering and were under no obligation to enroll if it did not suit them. The design was not merely a timetable and a list of topics, but included philosophical statements giving some of the reasons for the design, and. conveying, as best I could, the spirit of freedom and creativity that belong to all genuine learning.


I left Newton College and the Institute the following academic year and took a senior and purely academic research and teaching position in Canada—I was tired of administration—but eventually was back trying to do something about education as a Commissioner of Education in Canada.

The following year Joan Goldsmith was listed as Chairman and Eileen Brown as Assistant Chairman, and shortly thereafter (I do not know when) Joan Goldsmith and Eileen Brown were listed as co-chairmen. It was not easy sailing for them because Newton College of the Sacred Heart closed its doors, and Joan Goldsmith who had close contacts with Antioch College, negotiated a connection with it. The continuation was due exclsuively to her. In 1973-4 the title of the Institute became “Institute of Open Education, Antioch Graduate Center” and Eileen Brown and Joan Goldsmith were listed as Co-Directors. The brochure of that year reproduced many of the original words that I had written in 1970-71 and also continued, with slight modifications, the organizational structure that I had laid down.

Since Newton College had been closed and the buildings sold to Boston College, the Institute had a new address at 133 Mt. Auburn Street, Cambridge. Many of these remarks are based on documents in my possession, but I must make it clear that I was not present and can say nothing about the actual process of these latter events. What is clear is that, as I had anticipated, the programs of the Institute had expanded and included degree opportunities for human services professionals, and a number of specialized courses in administration, curriculum development, and media.


In 1977, both Joan Goldsmith and Eileen Brown were listed as Executive Directors, so presumably they shared responsibilities. By 1981 the Institute had moved to 15 Mifflin Place in Cambridge and had also opened a center in Northampton, MA. It boasted 1800 alumni and offered courses in administration and management, counseling, and education. Eileen Moran Brown was listed as President, and Joan Goldsmith (who, it seems, had been eased out) was no longer an active member but had assumed a seat on the Board. Nearly thirty years later, Eileen Brown expanded her title, on what grounds is unclear, to “Founder”.

But truly momentous changes had taken place, although I have no knowledge of how they had taken place. I must make clear that I believe that if you leave an institution you really leave it. If you are wanted, you can be asked to return, but basically when you are gone you are gone. Over the years I had had occasional contacts with the Institute. I was invited back to give a Commencement address (I do not recall which year, but before 1980), and I was contacted for permission to reprint some of the Matrix book (which had gone out of print) in 1975, but beyond that I did not know what was happening. Much earlier, I am not sure when, I had been invited to give a lecture and was described as “Designer and First Director, Institute of Open Education”. Which was true.

I became aware of the momentous change when I received a letter dated September 28, 1981 from the Chairman of the  Board. It read, in part:

It gives me great pleasure to let you know that the Executive Committee of the New England Association of Schools and Colleges has granted Cambridge College/Institute of Open Education full accreditation as a freestanding institution of higher learning in Massachusetts. This award is a testimonial to the entire College Community and to the many people who through the years have supported the College in reaching this goal.
I invite you to celebrate with the College community at a special party on Friday, October 23, 1981.
I want to acknowledge your vision and insight as founder of the Institute of Open Education. Now Cambridge College, it is still a very special place . .

Of course, I was delighted and although I was in Australia at the time, I made sure that I got to that celebration. (See Note 9).

I do not know who was involved in seeking accreditation, but whoever they were, it is clear that Eileen Brown was President and some of the credit must go to her. The change of name from Institute to College was highly desirable (the old name being limiting and dated) but I would never have thought of Cambridge College as a new title. I was already a member, as it were, of another Cambridge and it might have seemed irreverent on my part. I believe that the new name was suggested by John Grassi. There were some difficulties about the availability of the name and some neighboring people objected, but, again, the College met all legal objections and gained the right to use Cambridge College.


In 1994 I published a book Plato and the Founding of the Academy and in it I gave an email address, asking for criticisms and comments (see Note 10). Much to my surprise, I got an email from John Grassi (then VP for the Alumni College), asking me if I was the John Bremer who . . . and, of course, I was. He had seen my Plato book with its email address. I knew John Grassi because he had been one of the original students in the Institute in 1971; we had communicated a little over the years—maybe three times—but that was all. I was delighted to hear from him and to learn that another first-intake student was also on the faculty of Cambridge College, namely, Chandler Steiner. What a pleasure to be in touch with them!

At the invitation of John Grassi and Chandler Steiner, I visited the College in June 2003 and gave a lecture at the NITE summer program (which John Grassi had originated) on the teacher as Prometheus. Afterwards there was a dinner for me—a great honor and pleasure, I might say—and I met a number of the faculty who (much to my embarrassment) had “heard of me”. Another first-intake student was there, Felicity Forbes, and I began to feel more at home. But it was very important to me to meet Mahesh Sharma, shortly to become president, for the first time. (Eileen Brown was not present).

In September 2003, I attended the ceremony installing him as President and Eileen Brown as Chancellor, and was very pleased when they both referred to me as “the philosophical and educational founder of the College”. I was invited to stand and be recognized, which I did, although somewhat blushingly (fortunately my doctoral robes are faced in bright red and I don’t think anyone noticed.)


These occasions led to a suggestion that I might devise a Humanities Program for the College. This had always been a great ambition for Chandler Steiner especially, and at his urging and with the support of John Grassi, President Sharma invited me to act as consultant in the fall of 2004; this was made possible by generous benefactors.

Following on this, I was appointed Professor of Humanities on 1 January 2005. It is sad to report that just as his ambition was about to be realized, Chandler Steiner died in September 2004. He was widely recognized as a fine teacher and a good friend. With the approval of the Board, President Sharma appointed me to the Elizabeth J. McCormack Chair of the Humanities in January 2006, the first endowed chair in the College’s history. It is a great honor for me to carry in the title the name of such a generous and wise supporter of the College.

The Humanities Program—called Humanities and Freedom—was designed and in June (2005) the first group of students began their graduate work at Cambridge College. I mention it now because the forty page description of it includes a great deal about the philosophy and educational principles that were in my mind when I set up the Institute of Open Education thirty-seven years ago (see Note 11). I recommend that description to anyone interested in the educational and philosophical foundations of the College, at least as I conceive them. Obviously, others may have other opinions.


It is now necessary to return to the very first year of the Institute which became Cambridge College. Most of the studying was done on the basis of seminars, discussion groups, and individual learning, but there were two weekly lectures—and only two—for each of six weeks. I gave all these lectures which attempted to set forth an overview of education, some mostly-neglected topics, and some desirable thoughts and attitudes.

These lectures were recorded, transcribed, and eventually appeared as a book, published in 1975, A Matrix for Modern Education. The explanation of the title is that a matrix, being a flexible, gentle and supportive structure, was contrasted with what we have all too often in education, namely, a system of incredibly detailed controls, regimentation and of great rigidity. Again, those interested can read the book, for it was decided that it would be the required reading for the NITE Program in the summer of 2005. Since it is out of print, the College printed a new edition—maybe 700 copies—and it was used as the basis for the professional seminar component of the program. Some copies are still available. I was very flattered and pleased that the content was not dated, although the fact that it is not, is an implicit criticism of what we are still doing, what we still have, namely, the nineteenth century factory model of schooling. I wrote a new preface for the edition; and in a little more than a page, gave a potted history of the Institute-Cambridge College. It is referenced here in Note 12.


Following the recommendation of President Sharma—to whom I am deeply grateful—the Board awarded me the College Medal at the 2005 Commencement (see Note 13). The citation referred to me as “the architect of the Cambridge College teaching and learning model.” I know of no greater compliment.

At that time I said:

Three hundred years ago a great architect designed a splendid Renaissance cathedral in London. It took thirty-five years to build, and, twelve years later, the architect himself was the first to be buried in its crypt. But there is no magnificent tomb or stately statue celebrating him and his achievement; just a simple stone with a few Latin words carved in it … si monumentum requiris, circumspice –‘if you seek a memorial, look around you.’

Thirty-five years ago I designed not a cathedral but a Greek temple sacred to the Nine Muses, the goddesses who preside over learning. I designed it and laid its foundations, butthe larger work of building was done by others.  That simple temple has now become a glorious cathedral of learning; it has become Cambridge College. I am grateful to the Trustees and to the President for this honorable recognition. In Mahesh Sharma the College has a new architect, a new master builder, and I am proud that he has welcomed me back to the College . . . But if you seek a monument, a memorial, I ask you to look around; look lovingly at one another, and see the true and enduring award, for it shines in our souls, in the souls of those who have learned together and are still learning together. If you seek a monument do as I do, look around.

These words, in my mind, refer me back to my own College at Cambridge, where these reflections began. The nameless architect referred to was Sir Christopher Wren, whose first professional commission was a chapel for my college, Pembroke College, a chapel that still stands. Thus, education, our learning cannot be separated from those who have preceded us. It is often said that we stand on the shoulders of giants, and that may well be true, but we also stand on the shoulders of other people, no bigger or better than ourselves, and it is morally right to recognize that fact.

The last paragraph of what I said at Commencement suggests that, even if we recognize giants, we should also recognize each other for whatever contribution, no matter how large or small, we have made to our own learning and to that of others.


Finally, this account of the early days of the Institute of Open Education has been, for the most part, an historical one. But the Institute has also a philosophical origin, an origin that I, at least, attempted to bring into being in the world of change and becoming that we all inhabit, and one that is essentially moral. But as I look back on my own history, that is, on the history of my own intellectual development, I can see that I have always been striving for a greater understanding of one very simple truth. It is only now, late in life, that I can see it most clearly. I have designed and started many institutions and programs, but they have always had at their heart—not always knowingly on my part—one simple but often totally obscured principle. It is contained in the following statement, written a few years ago for some colleagues:

Given my understanding of teaching and learning, I think it impossible to teach, to be taught, or to learn “creativity”. Indeed, it is only the prior existence of creative power in the soul that makes learning and teaching possible. Or, to put it in a slightly different way, the necessary pre-condition of education—of teaching and learning—is the soul’s power to create. Other things, called “education”, can be done, but they all involve some aspect of TELLING, of IMPOSING ON others what and how to think, do, and be, giving the soul a form, informing it from without, which is always a malforming, instead of allowing it to transform itself according to its own nature.

This commitment to the soul is the mostly implicit pre-supposition of the Humanities and Freedom Program and all  the other programs for which I have been responsible. I think that that program’s description says as much as can be said in all truth and humility.

Of course, the recognition of the soul’s pre-existence does not mean that we are powerless to educate; it merely defines anew the starting-point. It is often said the word “educate” is derived from the two Latin words “ex” (or “e”), meaning “from” or “out of”, and “ duco”, meaning “I lead”. Thus, it is conventionally said that education is “a leading out of” the learner. There may be some truth in that, but the etymology is highly questionable (ducere being 3rd conjugation and educare being 1st). “Educare” meant to bring up or to raise or rear—it is what is done to promote the growth of, for example, a plant, so that it reaches its natural end or fulfillment—to develop fully according to its nature. We do not give the seed of the plant its power—its potential—to become a flower, but the gardener’s activity—tilling soil, removing weeds, ensuring sunlight, propping up, protecting from weather and any predators, and so forth—all have their counterpart in human education. The counterparts of the gardener’s activities are widely acknowledged, if not so widely practiced.

We can, as true educators, do much to assist the creativity of the soul as long as we recognize that we do not provide that creativity. We can feed it with healthy nutrients—the classics, for example—we can diminish the weeds—false and unworthy opinions and attitudes, for example; we can let the soul be bathed in light as it begins to realize its own likeness to the sun (i.e., its creative and energizing power), we can, on occasions, give a supportive opinion or interpretation, making sure that it is tentative —we can make provisions for studying simpler (in the sense of more fundamental) things before proceeding or rushing to  conclusions and possible fanaticism. Above all, perhaps, we can show in ourselves, in our own lives, what a more mature soul might be like, at least in certain respects.

Having written this, it reads like a defense of my own intellectual and professional life, and if it is I shall be well-satisfied, for it speaks to the origins of Cambridge College both in time, its history, and in the light of all time, its philosophy.

Note 1: The Arts of Teaching and Learning, University of Leicester, 2002 Note 2: The New York Times, March 1968
Note 3: The School without Walls: Philadelphia’s Parkway Program, by John Bremer and Michael von Moschzisker, Holt, New York 1971
Note 4: A Matrix for Modern Education, McClelland and Stewart, Toronto, 1975, especially pp.154-173
Note 5: TIME magazine, March 22, 1970
Note 6: Newton College of the Sacred Heart Bulletin, Institute of Open Education, May 1970
Note 7: Phi Delta Kappan,  A Proposed Graduate Program in Education, March 1971, pp432-3
Note 8: A Matrix for Modern Education, pp.174-184
Note 9: Personal Letter dated September 28, 1981
Note 10: Plato and the Founding of the Academy, University Press of America, 2002
Note 11: Humanities and Freedom, Cambridge College, 2006
Note 12: A Matrix for Modern Education, preface new edition, Cambridge College, 2005
Note 13: Cambridge College Commencement Exercises program, Sunday, June 5, 2005

A Further Note, added by John Bremer in June 2011:

It is sad to report that Cambridge College is dying. Enrolment is down by 20% over three years from 7044 in 2009 to 5646 in 2011, no new money has been raised from foundations, many of the faculty who understood the original “soul” of the College have left, some voluntarily and some not.  The student numbers given above are the number of actual students (however many credits they were taking) NOT FTE. A comparison in terms of FTE indicate 2810 in Spring 2010 and 2490 in Sprin 2011, a decline of 11%.
          From the time that Eileen Brown became ‘Chancellor’ and publicized her mistaken fantasy that she was ‘founder’ of the College (‘flounder’ would be a more accurate term) her maladminisration has become increasingly apparent. It had been obscured because the original “soul” that it had had commanded respect and admiration among both potential students and potential donors. But essentially, the purpose of her administration was to support a highly expensive lfe-style and little or no attention was paid to what needed to be done to support the educational mission of the College. Much of this was revealed in an underground publication  which called itself ‘The Cambridge College Chronicle’; published anonymously and containing information about the College  and its  administration–hitherto private–from a Dean’s falsified credentials to the President’s  month long west-coast vacation costing the College $60,000, and it contributed to the replacement of the Board’s Chair. But the Board itself seemed unable to grasp any of the realities of the incompetence and immorality of the administration and so the College has had four presidents in the space of eight years.
For myself, the last straw was that all the monies that had been collected to endow the chair that I held, the Elizabeth J. McCormack Professorship in the Humanities, had been absorbed into the College’s operating  budget, as debt relief,  and the fund waas virtually empty. This, of course, was illegal as well as immoral.
It is only a question of time before it will be forced to close, and, under the circumstances, the sooner the better.