n-centennial

Professor Ali Moeller poses for a portrait in front of Robert E. Knoll Residential Center on Wednesday, Oct. 9, 2019, in Lincoln, Nebraska.

In conjunction with the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s 150th anniversary, the Nebraska Alumni Association is hosting a lecture and panel discussion regarding the former Centennial College.

As part of the Nebraska Lectures: Chancellor’s Distinguished Speaker Series, Ali Moeller, an Edith S. Greer professor of foreign language education and former professor of Centennial, will facilitate the panel on Saturday, Oct. 12, at 1:30 p.m. in the Love Library South Auditorium. The panel, she said, will be livestreamed and include former Centennial faculty Paul Olson, Barbara Smith and Ned Hedges

The panel, Moeller said, will cover creativity and other aspects that gave Centennial College its legacy, as well as how the college’s history can inform modern teaching practices at UNL.

Located in Love and Heppner halls, Centennial College was operational from 1969 to 1981. Moeller said the idea of the college was to personalize education to be more interactive and to create a cooperative space for students to learn from one another. She said she taught German at the college from 1972 to 1976 and described Centennial as an innovation in public universities.

Moeller said the program was originally thought of by Robert Knoll, a Nebraska author and UNL professor for 40 years. The Robert E. Knoll Residential Center is also named after him.

“He really wanted to create what he called an intellectually enriching environment in which it really enhanced student academic responsibility and that integrated living and learning,” she said.

Moeller said the roles of professors in Centennial were different from the typical university setting, as professors worked alongside students instead of relaying knowledge in a lecture format. In this way, she said, students were allowed to experiment and learn from their failures in a constructive manner. She also said professors were held to two-year terms within the college, so the idea of this freeform type of teaching could spread to other faculty members.

Olson, a faculty member in the Centennial College from 1977 to 1979, retired from UNL in 2006. He said there are lessons to be learned from the college that he feels can fix the shortcomings of 21st century education.

“The failure of 21st century education is students no longer have a role in forming that education,” he said. “Now [students] learn to pick up information to pass the test, and the preset syllabi have little room for deviation.”

Both Olson and Moeller said they enjoyed the commitment of students and the style of teaching in Centennial College. Moeller said she taught about existentialism in 20th century novels. Olson said he once had local rabbi come into his class to discuss different interpretations of the Book of Genesis.

“We should view students not as passive recipients but as constructors or explorers,” she said. “I like to call them cultural anthropologists myself — people that discover knowledge for themselves — because then it sticks.”

Moeller said Centennial College met its end in 1981 primarily due to budget cuts, but also because the attitudes of students changed.

“There was a whole shift, which happened earlier in history as well — the shift from moving into being intellectually curious and getting that liberal arts education to job skills,” she said. “But the main death blow was the budget cut.”

Though only 200 students were part of Centennial College at any given time, Moeller said she cherished her time teaching in the space.

“It was really a mixture of students … It brought in those kids who were more oriented toward a non-traditional approach to learning,” she said. “And it wasn’t just social learning, it was really the intellectual stimulation they got from one another.”

Olson and Moeller said Centennial College’s teachings created an interactive space for creative education, which will be central to the discussion on Saturday.

“The panel is full of icons from the Centennial College,” Moeller said. “It will be exciting for them to be able to relive this.”

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