PHOTOGRAPH BY DAN DRY
|Richard Atkinson, PhB'48
Atkinson, PhB’48, winner of the 2003 Alumni Medal—the
highest honor given by the University’s alumni association—has
the perpetual tan of a longtime Californian. He also has the open
gaze of a straightforward thinker. His career in higher education
has included time as a Stanford psychology professor researching
memory, cognition, and learning; as the National Science Foundation
director who engineered the first exchange between U.S. scholars
and scientists and their counterparts in the People’s Republic
of China; as chancellor of the University of California, San Diego;
and as president of the University of California, where in 2001
he sparked a nationwide debate by calling for a test that assessed
high-school students’ learning in specific subjects rather
than ill-defined notions of aptitude.
How the native Chicagoan
found his way to the College: A friend and I had arranged
to spend Saturday playing basketball. When I arrived at his home
his mother greeted me at the front door and explained that he had
to cancel out on our plans since arrangements had been made for
him to take the College- entrance examination at the University
of Chicago. I was very disappointed, but then my friend called out
from a second-story window—much to his mother’s displeasure—that
I should go with him to the University and that we would be back
in time to salvage the rest of the day. I had nothing better to
do and agreed.
We arrived at Cobb Hall. The person in charge
had my friend sign in for the examination and then turned to me
and asked for my name. “Oh, no,” I said, “I’m
not on your list and I’m not here to take the exam.”
He said, “Well since you’re here, you might as well
take the exam.” So I did. A few weeks later my friend received
a letter of rejection and I was admitted.
I took Observation, Interpretation, and Integration in a special
section taught jointly by President Hutchins and Mortimer Adler.
Hutchins was at the peak of his fame, and Adler had played a key
role in developing the Great Books program (he was affectionately
referred to as “The Great Bookie” by students). We had
about a dozen students in the class, and the discussions were intense.
Even to this day I consider myself something of an expert on Plato’s
I took Biological Sciences from Anton Carlson,
one of the world’s great scientists, who was an equally brilliant
teacher. His textbook with Johnson, The Machinery of the Human
Body, is a classic. My introductory chemistry course was taught
by Harold Urey, a Nobel laureate, who later became a lifelong friend.
For approximately a year, I roomed in the home of Professor David
Riesman, who was famous at the time, but later became even more
famous when he wrote The Lonely Crowd. He often invited
me to parties at his home that included some of the great social
scientists of the era. And for some time I worked as a research
assistant for Professor Nicholas Rashevsky, who was involved in
formulating mathematical theories of biological and social processes.
I did endless computations for him on equations that were basic
to his theories. This predated digital computers and the work was
done on a hand-cranked calculator. We ran into real problems that
we never quite solved because the equations proved to be too disorderly.
Years later they were to become part of what is now called chaos
The roots of SAT reform: In
the 1940s there was an interesting debate among academics about
the nature of college entrance examinations. The principal focal
points of this debate were at Harvard University and the University
of Chicago. To oversimplify matters, President James Bryant Conant
of Harvard University and his colleagues advocated for a test designed
to measure aptitude, whereas the Chicago contingent argued for a
test designed to measure achievement. Conant’s perspective
won the day, and with it came the SAT. Conant later in life expressed
regrets about his role in promoting the SAT, but it was too late.
With the changes that go into effect in the fall of 2006, the SAT
will be reinvented in the form that the Chicago group advocated
many years ago.