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The view from Carleton College's physics department

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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.

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5 Responses to “What I wouldn’t have learned if all my physics classes were from MITx”

  1. Bitsy said

    The question I am left with when I read statements like this is: for whom are we advocating?

    I value my liberal arts education, it was interesting, engaging, and I hope that it made me a better person. (I’m still left undecided about how much of its value came from actually making me a batter worker, how much came from signalling, and how much of it was just consumption value—I learned awesome things!) But, how many people are educated in a liberal arts environment? How does that number compare to students who are put in schools that pump out educated students in big lecture hall with very little interpersonal interaction? What are student getting out of the latter situation? Which of these situations do you expect MITx to threaten? And then, how on balance is the average college goer (who is not going to Carleton or Smith) effected by such programs?

  2. […] debate, see not only The Sophian, but also Jezebel, TheJaneDough, NeverYetMelted, Smith’d, ConfusedAtAHigherLevel, CoyoteMuse, and a new site by some Smith students, celebrating their diversity: […]

  3. Or what about students who try to find time on nights and weekends to fit in a class or two? What about students that do their homework in the lunchroom at their day job? Friday afternoon isn’t for tea, it’s rushing through the last of the work for the week so you can stop at the library before heading home and spending the weekend cramming for Monday night’s exam.

    Resources for anything we (as individuals and as a society) undertake are limited. If the goal is to educate as many people as best as possible, then things like MITx are not just a good idea, they’re completely necessary. As a society, we do not have the resources (or maybe we do and we’ve just decided to use them in other ways) to say to everyone “hey, you want a college degree? no problem, don’t worry, the first four years are on us.” Is that because when society looks at the resources necessary to give everyone that educational opportunity that the sticker shock makes us collectively wonder “hmmm, well, what do we get out of all of this?” Bitsy speaks directly to this issue when he/she questions the value of his/her liberal arts education.

    The letter that Anne Spurzem closed with “I can tell you that the days of white, wealthy, upper-class students from prep schools in cashmere coats and pearls who marry Amherst men are over. This is unfortunate because it is this demographic that puts their name on buildings, donates great art and subsidizes scholarships.”

    This speaks volumes of what college means to those who can easily afford and those who cannot; those who see college as an experience and those who work hard on their own to get their degree and see it as a key to a better life through demonstration of knowledge in a field learned.

  4. Melissa said

    Bitsy, I wrote this more as a reflective piece than as an advocacy piece, but if I had to say who or what I’d advocate for, it would be that colleges like Carleton and Smith continue to make their residential educational experience accessible to those from a wide variety of backgrounds, including those from diverse socioeconomic and ethnic backgrounds. Spurzem’s letter seemed to advocate that colleges should be concerned about students who can’t pay full tuition now or who won’t be able to contribute big money to the alumnae fund later, but the educational benefits of a residential experience should not be reserved for those who can afford to pay the full cost. There’s a reason why these colleges should, and do, offer significant financial aid to those who demonstrate need.

    Brian, I certainly recognize that residential liberal arts colleges do not have the capacity to educate large numbers (they are something like 3% of the higher education sector), and on-line programs have a role to play in higher education. I’m not bashing MITx; it and other programs like it provide opportunities that would not otherwise be available to some people. However, I’ve heard people argue that there is no value added in the education that happens by being part of a diverse educational community; the only thing that matters is the content knowledge one gains in the course of earning a degree. I disagree with that assertion. Your comment highlights the fact that most students in higher education today aren’t traditional aged. One of the things I appreciated most about Smith was the Ada Comstock program which provided a way for women who had interrupted their education (often started at community colleges) to work, raise a family, etc to finish their degrees at Smith. Adas contributed much to the diversity of the Smith community while I was there, and interacting with them certainly enriched my education as much as interacting with other traditional aged students.

  5. […] Melissa ’99, blogging at Confused at a Higher Level, responds to the letter: On a personal level, I owe much to the Smith College community, and I owe […]

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