Training the Mind

“A liberal education is at the heart of a civil society, and at the heart of a liberal education is the act of teaching.”
~ A. Bartlett Giamatti 
I am a BIG believer in Liberal Arts education.   I majored in English at Georgetown University, and rather obviously I did not choose that major with the thought of future employment in mind!  Later I was a Graduate Assistant at what was then the College of Liberal Arts at the University of Tennessee, and I grew very frustrated by kids who just wanted to know how to graduate as fast as possible with their only goal a job waiting at the end, kids who just couldn’t get the point of having to take English or Philosophy classes because that wouldn’t help them make money.  Me, I’ve always thought of KNOWLEDGE as the pot of gold at the end of that college rainbow.
Leslie's Graduation
And in my opinion, a good college or university shouldn’t just offer a smorgasbord of classes for kids to dive into without direction.  Perhaps they will gorge themselves on their favorites, while ignoring delicacies that they might fall in love with if they had to taste them.  No, a good school will guide its students and help form their minds.
So I was astonished and disappointed to discover that this very important role of a good school has been abandoned by some of the most prestigious institutions of higher learning in this country.  Although student guides at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton gave lip service to the ideal of breadth as well of depth in education, they also said things like: “We don’t want anyone having to take classes they don’t want to,” “We don’t have a lot of core requirements like other schools,” “You might not be taking any of the same classes as the other freshmen.”
What these schools espouse is the concept of core AREAS, and I won’t go into the details of each curriculum except to say they are similar at the Big Three.  Every student has to take one course from each of the areas.  Given the only four courses per semester a Harvard student takes, that means the average student spends a year on these courses.  The areas are so broad that at Princeton, for example, a Pottery course comes from the same area as a Literature course, so that you might graduate from what is supposed to be one of the best schools in the country without ever taking a college-level English class.
Many of the offerings the kids mentioned sounded fascinating as electives, but inappropriate as core courses:  Medieval Navigation as a science course, for example.  (I believe that was at Harvard).  My son thinks it’s great to be able to take whatever you want, and I’m sure most eighteen-year-olds feel the same.  After twelve years of being told exactly what classes to take and when, such freedom is intoxicating.
But most freshmen in college don’t have a clue about what classes they should take.  How could they?  How many of them have ever taken a class in Philosophy or Theology?  How would they know whether they would enjoy these classes?  How many of them equate boring experiences in a class in high school with the same subject in college which may be very different?  A good college should be making sure that its students are exposed to all these subjects so that they can make an educated decision about what they pursue on an upperclass level.  A good college should be trying to turn out well-rounded kids who DO take some of the same classes as their peers, both for collegiality and in the interest of turning out adults who share a common foundation of knowledge.
I am happy to report that Jesuit institutions apparently still value the concept of a core curriculum.  Although Georgetown’s curriculum has loosened up a bit since I attended there, apparently in the interests of multi-culturalism, students there will still find themselves taking core classes for two full years, and many of them are specific classes that everyone will take.  English, Philosophy, Theology, History, Science, Math, Languages, and Social Sciences are all covered.  Additionally, Georgetown still has what we called the Sophomore Rule, stating that you cannot take two classes in the same discipline in the same semester until your junior year, a clever way of preventing people from trying to get a jump start on a major at the expense of exploration.
I had two friends in college who switched from Foreign Service to English majors because of their experience in their required English courses.  After my required Theology courses, I chose to minor in Theology.   Because I took the Liberal Arts Seminar my freshman year I got out of a lot of the required classes (although not the subjects) and as much as I enjoyed the Seminar I have always been a little regretful that I did not share the experiences of the majority of my classmates and that I did not get the same basic grounding that they did.
“It is not so very important for a person to learn facts. For that he does not really need a college. He can learn them from books. The value of an education in a liberal arts college is not the learning of many facts but the training of the mind to think something that cannot be learned from textbooks.”
~Albert Einstein (a Princeton Professor, by the way, 1921, on Thomas Edison’s opinion that a college education is useless; quoted in Frank, Einstein: His Life and Times, p. 185.)
What do you think?  Am I over-reacting?  Did any of you end up liking a subject you never would have explored if you hadn’t had to?  Talk to me in the comments!

College Search 2012

Twenty-eight summers ago, my family took me on a college-shopping trip.  Much of our recent vacation was a re-enactment of that journey, with the college-shopper this time around being my 17-year-old son Teddy.   The memories of that long-ago journey overlaid this one, giving it a faintly surreal feel.
We started with Georgetown University, which is only an hour from Baltimore, where we were lodged.  This was a highly-anticipated moment for John and me, since it’s our alma mater and we had not been back in several years.   When we drove across the Key Bridge we more or less spontaneously broke into song, starting with the Alma Mater and segueing seamlessly into the fight song, which is the most awesome fight song EVER.
Once we parked, Jake and Emily struck off on their own while the rest of us went to the Admissions Office for the information session. (That’s how college visits mostly work–an info session led by officials, followed by a campus tour led by a student.)  The session was overcrowded so the little people and I waited in the lobby, where I enjoyed talking to the student at the desk about how things have changed and some of our past escapades.
Georgetown is a noisy place, with airplanes flying overhead regularly, lots of people, and delivery vehicles chirping as they try to back up (The only roads are access roads–it’s not a driving campus.)  So although the tour was by far the most comprehensive in terms of the buildings we saw, it wasn’t the best because we had a really hard time hearing our guide.  Things that struck me:  Georgetown has the world’s largest student-owned and operated business; it encourages internships and has many available all over the country; it places emphasis on studying abroad.  Getting an opinion out of Teddy is like drawing blood from a stone, but I know that he approves of its awesome location in our nation’s capital.  If I were going to pick, I’d send him there.  But I’m not going to pick because I am not a helicopter mom.
What do I remember from my own visit to Georgetown was my father sweating through his shirt and therefore having to keep his jacket on in the intense heat (we were luckier with our weather this time and missed the Knoxville heat wave too!); being told that there were Masses offered every 45 minutes all day long (this time around we also heard about the rabbis and imams on campus); and that it was my favorite from the moment I set foot there.

Georgetown’s founder Bishop John Carroll in front of the Healy Buiding.

One of many student-run shops on campus, its name a play on “Hoya Saxa,” the phrase whence Georgetown’s athletic teams get their name.

Jake posing where many presidents have given speeches on campus, most famously Lincoln, in front of Old North.

From the wall of the Intercultural Building, where the School of Foreign Service is housed

A favorite professor, now resting in the Jesuit graveyard on campus

Our next stop was Princeton University in Princeton, New Jersey.  We drove up from Baltimore for their afternoon session and tour.  Teddy and I went to Nassau Hall for the info session while everyone else went in search of snacks.   It was a grand location for an information session with a lot of history–it was briefly our nation’s Capitol.  Emily and Jake joined us for the tour (and brought the snacks!) while John rested and let the little kids play behind the Frist Student Center (yes, it is the Frist you think!).
It was a really good tour and I think all of us were impressed with the beauty of the campus.  Also notable are the residential college system (think Hogwarts) and the upper-class eating clubs.  From my first visit I remember thinking that the campus was beautiful but the town was too small, and my opinion remains the same (30,000 people in the town).  They told us back then that New York and Philadelphia were close and accessible by train, and they said that again this time, only they admitted what I suspected from the first, that people mostly don’t do that.
The main library from a distance

Some of that famous ivy


The chapel at Princeton

Teddy with a Princeton tiger

We drove straight from Princeton to New Haven, in preparation for our appointment at Yale University first thing in the morning.  That visit started out extremely well, with our finding two parking places right on the street in front of our destination.  Emily and Jake took Lorelei and John, William, and I accompanied Teddy to the information session, which was held in a lecture hall to accommodate the crowd.  For the tour, we were divided up into smaller groups so that we were able to hear our guide very well.
Me, I don’t like campuses with actual city roads crossing through them, but Teddy didn’t seem to mind.  Yale’s architecture is the prettiest–which I remember thinking when I saw it last.  It’s modeled on Oxford so there is lots of stone.  A highlight of the tour was one library which houses the rare book collection, including a Gutenberg Bible.  The main library is styled like a cathedral, with a large collection of secular stained glass (Yale was determinedly secular, which naturally turned me off.  No mention was made of religious opportunities on campus, although there is a large Catholic church on the street where the tour began–the only non-Yale building on the street.).
Teddy liked the “shopping period,” a two-week time during which you can attend any courses you want before you commit, even coming late and leaving early.  Yale also does the residential college bit.  I like the sound of that better these days–it didn’t appeal to me when I was applying to colleges.  New Haven was downright scary back then, which was a major downer.  I can see that it’s been revitalized quite a bit, but I understand that it’s still considered a high-crime city.   But, hey, D.C. was the murder capital of the country when I attended Georgetown.
Rare books cube

Gutenberg Bible

Interior of the main library, a “cathedral to knowledge”

Library exterior

So, finally, we headed for Harvard University.  It wasn’t one of Teddy’s favorites to begin with, and the tour didn’t change that.  He and I went to the information session while everyone else went to find parking ($27!).  The session was held in a theatre also used as a lecture hall, and was unique on the trip for having student commentators along with the admission official–a good tactic, I thought.  The rest of the family were wiped out and thoroughly tired of colleges by this time, so they did not come on the tour with us either.
Our guide was fine, but the tour covered the least territory of any that we went on.  At some colleges, there is a definite sense that they are trying to “sell” themselves.  At Harvard, you feel that they know they’ve already made the sale, because they are, you know, HARVARD, so they don’t try as hard.  The points that stood out to me about Harvard were negative points.  They are so secular that they don’t mention religion and so “diverse” that they don’t officially sanction any single sex organizations.  Cambridge is great and lots of fun I’m sure, but you are constantly crossing streets and I just don’t like that.  The architecture leans brickward which just isn’t as pretty as the stone on other campuses.  They de-emphasize studying abroad or doing internships during the school year, because who would want to miss a semester at Harvard?  And you only take 32 classes to graduate!
Memorial Hall, where our tour began

Interior of Memorial Hall

In Harvard Yard

Interesting building sighted on the way to Harvard Square

So where will Teddy go to school?  I suspect he will narrow it down by 1) Where he gets in and 2) Where he gets the best deal financially.  We shall see.  After my college tour, I made exhaustive pro/con lists (Georgetown won!) but still ended up applying to all of them (plus Brown, which Teddy did not want included on his tour–he is also considering Vanderbilt and Notre Dame).  I got into Georgetown early, was wait-listed at Brown and Princeton and outright rejected by Harvard and Yale.  Which was a blow to my ego but for which I am forever grateful, because I feel like you just don’t say no if you get into Harvard and I am so, so glad that I went to Georgetown.
When Emily looked at colleges, she loved Spring Hill right away and knew it was the place for her, just like John and I knew about Georgetown.  So I asked Teddy, “Did you get a special feeling about any of them?  Did any one place make your soul sing?” He responded, “Mom, I’m not a girl.”