Trouble Ahead? Despite Critics, UMass Class on Grateful Dead Keeps Truckin' On

October 19, 2007

The University of Massachusetts historian Robert Weir sees his new course as a means to bring alive the social and political history of the United States since World War II.

Stephen Balch, president of the National Association of Scholars, sees Mr. Weir’s class as the latest example of modern higher education pandering to consumers.

Regardless, Mr. Weir’s creation — listed in the UMass course catalogue as History 297D, “How Does the Song Go? The Grateful Dead as a Window Into American Culture” — is popular. It has 110 students, according to The Boston Globe, with many eagerly defending it as a serious treatment of a musical group that, for better or worse, played a central role in a critical period of the nation’s history.

Mr. Balch, according to the Globe, disagrees, seeing an undergraduate class on the Grateful Dead as evidence of a dumbing-down of academics by American colleges that in the past have offered courses on musical stars such as Bob Dylan, the Beatles, Bruce Springsteen, and Madonna.

Although Amherst, Mass., is far from the Grateful Dead’s home base, in San Francisco, UMass this semester is the site of two courses and an academic symposium on the band, in large part because its longtime publicist, Dennis McNally, is a graduate of the university.

Larry Owens, a UMass history professor and past director of the graduate program in history, told the Globe that many colleagues appear willing to accept Mr. Weir’s class. Some professors, however, are withholding judgment until after next month’s symposium, he said. —Paul Basken