Carol T. Christ, Smith Alumnae Quarterly, Spring 2004
Throughout my career, I have thought intensely about what constitutes an excellent college education. Since coming to Smith, I have had occasion to ask that question specifically about women's education. How can we best prepare young women for their lives? What capacities should we seek to develop? What learning will prove most critical? What college experiences will have the most profound impact?
I have been asking these questions at alumnae gatherings, trying to discover what women, many years after graduation, attribute to their education at Smith. Three main themes have emerged from these conversations. One is confidence—confidence both in one's own abilities and in one's capacity to meet difficult challenges, to handle change. A second has been the effect of individual teachers—intellectual inspiration due not just to a subject matter but to a way of being in relationship to a subject. And the third theme has been friendship—enduring relationships that have continued for decades.
These conversations with alumnae have led me to reflect on my own college education and what had the profoundest impact. Four experiences come vividly to mind. The first was freshman English. That was where I learned, above all, how to construct an argument that provided as powerful a skeleton for a paper as a plot provides a novel. Everything I subsequently learned about writing was built upon that foundation.
Because I so admired the professor—a woman named Janet Buck—I took a second class from her as a junior, in Victorian literature. The class enraptured me. It was not only that I loved the poems and essays that we read. Dr. Buck's connection to the material—her way of living in it—made me understand the philosophical and human issues at stake for the writers in ways that still shape my understanding of the nineteenth century. Like most great teachers, she showed how the material she taught could enlarge our own human capacities. When I went on to graduate school in English, I chose to specialize in Victorian literature; it has been the center of my scholarship ever since.
The third experience happened in a philosophy seminar on Plato, taught by Amelie Rorty. I no longer remember which dialogue she had assigned for the day. When we walked in, she asked for our questions. When no one raised a hand, she said, "If no one has any questions, class is dismissed." We trailed out of the classroom, astonished and sheepish. It was the last class to which we came unprepared with questions.
The final experience did not take place in the classroom. Throughout my years at Douglass College, I sang with the Rutgers University Choir, which performed each year with the Philadelphia Orchestra. When John F. Kennedy was assassinated in November of 1963, we had just performed the Brahms Requiem. An additional performance, broadcast on television from Carnegie Hall, was quickly arranged. Through Brahms' music, we felt we could give voice to our country's grief.
These four experiences seem to me emblematic of what makes a college education valuable. A student should leave college with well-developed intellectual skills. She should write well; she should know how to locate relevant information; she should be able to evaluate argumentation and evidence.
A student should also take from college a sense of intellectual excitement. In the structure of curricular requirements, the major often serves as shorthand for such an experience. However, my own experience shows how integral individual teachers are to creating that intellectual interest. We learn not just from the content of a course but from the vividness of commitment a professor brings to her material. We learn from passion as well as discipline.
The third experience I described—being told to leave the classroom if you were not prepared to participate actively—relates to taking responsibility for your own education. And the fourth—singing in a great musical performance—reminds us that some of the most powerful college experiences do not happen in the classroom.
In the next decade at Smith, we anticipate the retirement of half the faculty. It is therefore particularly appropriate that we return to the question what constitutes an excellent college education. In seeking answers, we who work and teach at colleges can learn a great deal from thinking about the college experiences that had the greatest impact on our lives. What alumnae take with them is an important measure of the college's value. I invite your responses to help us in this conversation.
Contact President Christ at email@example.com.