Story 02: Education of a Dropout

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Cambridge: Harvard

Written by Mike Spock

I had begun to wonder, beyond the telltale smudges on the glass at the Dayton Museum of Natural History, if there were other ways to get inside visitors' heads to get a handle on what museum exhibits were actually doing.

Over the Thanksgiving holidays I had an intriguing conversation with a returning Antioch friend about the problem of making sense out of the black box of self-directed museum learning. Shim Goldberg talked about his first year at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and suggested that it might be a fertile place for me to get some grounding in the behavioral sciences, research methodologies and learning processes that could be applied to museums. He encouraged me to think about joining him there since the School of Ed seemed interested in non-traditional students and offered to craft programs that would match their off-center interests and needs. In spite of my uneven record the Program in Research and Instruction was intrigued by me as a non-scholastic outlander and offered me a place in the fall 1961 class.

We packed up our family, now including our second son, Peter, our things and an old upright player piano with rolls, and headed for Cambridge and an apartment above the landlord of a "triple-decker." The intellectual rigor of graduate work was less daunting than I expected and I went off the top of the scale on the GRE aptitude and biology exams. I was introduced to educational psychology through a survey course taught by a team including a together-seeming Richard Alpert before he became Ram Das (he was very good), dozed off regularly in a hot, stuffy, late afternoon philosophy of education course and was unexpectedly thrilled, of all things, to learn about the power and implications of inferential statistics from Fredrick Mosteller, one of the giants of the field. In two back-to-back methods courses I devoured and reported on the slender literature on museum visitor behavior and the related audiovisual instructional research of that time; and I got to design, observe and write up my own first research, an interesting study of problems visitors were having with the early technology of recorded gallery tours as illustrated in two halls at the American Museum of Natural History, one of my childhood haunts.

True to form, I was enjoying the work but only getting some of the assignments done. Long pieces of writing were just as hard to complete as before. I was looking for a graceful way to withdraw from the scene without admitting to my family and professors that I had failed again.

Next: Jamaica Plain: The Children's Museum