What I wouldn’t have learned if all my physics classes were from MITx
Posted by Melissa on February 26, 2012
This past week there was a bit of a brouhaha at my alma mater, Smith College. Carol Christ announced that she would be stepping down as president. When asked about her greatest accomplishment, Christ said, “Smith has become much more diverse. 13% of the class of 2015 are international students and a third are U.S. women of color. A decade ago 8% of our students were international, and 21% were U.S. women of color.” I’m excited to see Smith taking steps to diversify the student body. Not all alums share my opinion, however, and one, Anne Spurzem ’84, wrote a letter to the editor of the Sophian (the college newspaper) to share her thoughts. You can read the letter yourself — there are no words to describe the piece of work that it is. What has buoyed me about this letter is how strong and unified the response of the community (both current students and alums) has been, and how unapologetically the community has affirmed the value it places on diversity, as well as providing a chance for Smithies to reflect on how Smith has shaped them. (Christ herself responded to the letter, and there have been many on-line responses, one of my favorite being this tumblr site.)
On a personal level, I owe much to the Smith College community, and I owe Smith for much more than the knowledge I acquired in my classes. I could have gained that education at many different colleges. Rather, what I gained as a result of my time at Smith was an open-mindedness, a confidence (combined with a relentless call to do things that push the limits of that confidence), and a sense of responsibility to past and future generations of women and a sense of possibility for the present generation. Smith provided me a time and a place to discover who my best self could be, within a community that was simultaneously supportive and challenging. I learned from difficult discussions with classmates and faculty and from casual conversation at Friday afternoon tea, from informal interactions with professors who taught me what expectations and responsibilities come with being part of an academic or scientific community, and from listening to and talking with alums at Rally Day and Ivy Day.
In higher education today, with the introduction of courses like those offered by MITx and the move towards badges to certify skills and knowledge, there is a push to allow people to selectively consume the educational content they want, to pick and choose skills and knowledge that they think will prepare them for careers. What I fear is lost in this focused consumption of educational experiences is the individual growth and metamorphosis that results from being part of a community that challenges your beliefs, that pushes you to rethink what you know and how you occupy the larger world, that encourages you to engage respectfully with difference, and that holds you accountable for the responsibilities that come with being a liberally educated citizen. Those things can’t be taught in badge-worthy snippets, and yet they are the portions of my education that I value most. That’s not to say that the knowledge and skills I learned in math methods or quantum mechanics aren’t important, but the sum of that knowledge doesn’t add up to the whole of my education. While I see a place and possibilities for some of the new focused approaches in higher ed, I would miss the more abstract lessons that I learned in my four years immersed in the Smith community. Of course, as Ms Spurzem’s letter clearly illustrates, just belonging to the community does not guarantee educational outcomes of, for example, open-mindedness, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t benefits to a residential educational community.