October 19, 2002
Members of the Board of Trustees, alumnae, faculty, staff, students, parents, colleagues from other universities, and friends from Northampton. It is humbling and inspiring to address you all this afternoon -- humbling because your visible presence conveys how many and various are the communities to whom Smith matters, inspiring because you embody the idea of an institution that I symbolically join today. Ever since I came to Smith a few short months ago, I have been meditating on what makes it a community, what bonds connect faculty, students, and staff across the many years of its existence. Talking with alumnae who graduated over the past 60 years, talking with faculty and staff, current and retired, reading the words of Smith’s past presidents, I have been struck by the conviction, repeated by succeeding generations, that those who have studied and worked here share a common experience. What explains this strongly felt sense of commonality, this conviction that Smith is a community, not just in the here and now, but over time?
In part, what defines Smith as a community is an intensely shared sense of place. Smith’s founders had a weighty sense, not only that they were creating a new college, but that they were choosing a place for it. President Seelye began his inaugural address -- an inaugural address, I might note, that lasted two hours (I promise you I won’t talk that long) -- by stating that as early as 1762, the citizens of Northampton had presented a petition to the General Court of Massachusetts asking for a college in the vicinity, to be called “Queen’s College.” However, the jealousy of Harvard, unwilling to contemplate another institution of higher education so near at hand, thwarted the undertaking. Although Amherst later claimed Queen’s College as its ancestor, President Seelye questioned the right of a men’s college to lay claim to a queen as its patron. He declared, “With that poetic justice for which history is celebrated, we, today...inaugurate an institution which is to be in a truer sense...a Queen’s College.”
For President Seelye, it was not only history that defined Smith’s distinctive sense of place but the landscape. The landscape, he argued, has lessons to teach: “Nature, as if foreseeing this region was to be a great educational center, has gathered into our immediate vicinity some of the best illustrations of her origins and forces. It would be difficult to find a locality which combines, not only so many elements of natural beauty but offers also as numerous and varied illustrations of the natural sciences.” He speaks of the mountains in terms that will warm the heart of any administrator. He calls them “unsalaried professors, whose lessons richly supplement the poverty of our human teaching.” President Seelye brought the idea of the landscape’s pedagogical design onto the campus itself by hiring Frederick Law Olmsted to design the landscape master plan for the college, the arboretum that extends throughout the campus, and the Botanic Garden.
Smith’s architecture added to its distinctive sense of place. John M. Greene urged Sophia Smith to house students not in one large building but in several small ones, or cottages, to bring them more into the social life of the town. Smith’s house system, as well as its integration with the city of Northampton, emerged from this vision. Smith alumnae share the special intimacy that we feel with those who have lived in the same house. However, it is not only a common physical place that builds college community but intense experience in that place. For many of us, college seems to mark the beginning of the process of becoming who we are. When we are living away from home for the first time, the choices we make, the intellectual passions we discover, and the friendships we form have a defining authority and intensity. When we have such experiences in the same place as others, different as those experiences may be, we feel a sense of community extending over time.
One of the great poems of the 19th century, William Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey,” concerns this very kind of connection, the bond we feel through identifying our past self with someone now in the same place. Wordsworth’s poem is occasioned by returning to a landscape that he had visited five years before. His return stimulates a complex meditation on the continuity and discontinuity of the self and its connection to the external world -- a world that is represented in the landscape that he once saw, has often remembered, and now sees again. He finds consolation for the distance he has traveled from his former self in his sister Dorothy, who stands beside him and in whom he can feel and imagine the language of his heart when he was young.
When I was describing the relationship I saw between Wordsworth’s great meditation on place and the continuity of the self to historic community in this landscape, my husband remarked, “Dorothy should have gone to Smith.” William Wordsworth’s younger sister had no formal education after the age of fifteen. (No Englishwoman of her time went to university.) She wrote almost no words for publication but devoted her considerable genius to recording the observations of nature and of people that provided much of the material for her brother’s poetry. Like the sister that Virginia Woolf imagines for Shakespeare in A Room of One’s Own, she died without ever fully realizing her own powers. The figure of Dorothy Wordsworth could represent the deprivation that inspired Sophia Smith to found a college for women “to furnish for my own sex means and facilities for education equal to those which are afforded now in our colleges to young men.”
Smith’s founding as a women’s college occurred at an interesting moment in the history of American higher education. In his history of the undergraduate curriculum in American colleges and universities, Frederick Rudolph identifies two conflicting goals: certifying an elite and facilitating the mobility of an emerging middle class. At the time that Smith was founded in the 1870s, institutions designed to promote the second goal were in more vigorous condition than those dedicated to the first. The Morrill Land-Grant Act of 1862 was encouraging the establishment of state colleges and universities, whereas private colleges were somewhat in disarray, as claims for traditional classical education weakened. Smith’s founders located the college in relationship both to elite colleges and universities and to the democratic ideals motivating the creation of land grant institutions. When Sophia Smith wrote in her will of her desire “to provide an education for women equal to those afforded in our colleges to young men,” she had in mind institutions like Harvard, Yale, and Amherst. However, when she wrote about increasing women’s “weight of influence in reforming the evils of society” and enlarging “their power for good,” she articulated a more democratic ideal, extending the benefits of higher education to a population often excluded from them. Through the course of its history, Smith has defined itself both through its relationship to the elite colleges of the east and to the ideal of recruiting populations of women who had less access to higher education. Writing in Scribner’s Magazine in 1932, President Neilson made an eloquent defense of the democratic benefits of higher education: “We believe that to reserve educational opportunity in general for a small class is to weaken the country and do injustice to the individual.” President Mendenhall created both the Ada Comstock Scholars Program and a set of programs designed to recruit more African-American students to Smith, including student and faculty exchanges with historically black colleges and universities, the Department of Afro-American Studies, and the Mwangi Center. Smith has built its distinctive sense of community through uniting the culture of the New England private college with a socially progressive vision. It is a private college with a public conscience.
Up to this point, I have been speaking about the commonality that defines the Smith community in terms that might seem separate from the core of its mission and activity -- teaching, learning, and the curriculum. I want now to shift my attention to that subject, for when I think of the years before me, and the goals I have for Smith, they concern what we teach and how we understand what we teach.
Smith is a liberal arts college for women. Both of these terms are important in its vision of the curriculum over the course of its history. The phrase liberal arts suggests to many of us a historical stability, extending back several centuries. Yet any history of the American college curriculum shows that the idea of a stable central core constituting the liberal arts is a myth. In 1754 a prospectus for the new King’s College, later to become Columbia University, announced that the course of study would include surveying, navigation, geography, history, husbandry, commerce, government, meteorology, natural history, and natural philosophy. When Thomas Jefferson reorganized the curriculum of the College of William and Mary in 1779, he abolished professorships of divinity and oriental languages and added professorships in public administration, modern languages, medical sciences, natural history, natural philosophy, national and international law, and fine arts. These lists show that the question in defining the curriculum was not whether to mix the academic, the practical, and the professional, but how to do so. They also show that disciplines that we now regard as essential components of a liberal arts education, like the modern languages, entered the curriculum in comparatively recent times as disruptive innovations. There has always been a debate about the curriculum, a debate that has been buffered by the elective system. Ezra Cornell and Charles William Eliot introduced the elective system as an innovation in the late 19th century, providing a strategy of diversification and choice that could act as a safety valve in conflicts about content. In a history of the Yale curriculum published in 1901 -- a century ago -- John C. Schwab described the result: “The history of the Yale curriculum is the story of a medieval workshop, with its limited range of simple tools, all of which the apprentice learned to master, developing into a modern factory, well equipped with a large stock of tools and machinery, no two of them alike in their construction or use, many of them delicate and complicated, and few of them fully understood or manipulated by all the employees of the shop.” Schwab’s metaphors are instructive; they suggest historical change, practical application, and the loss of commonality.
If the history of the curriculum demonstrates such fluidity and change, what explains the sense of imagined stability, against which battles for curricular change are so often fought? Frederick Rudolph puts it this way: “Assemble a cluster of professors in a country town, surround them with scenic grandeur, cut them off from the world beyond, and they will not have much trouble congratulating themselves into curricular torpor.” Although it might almost seem that Rudolph’s ironic scenario had Smith in mind, Smith’s founders recognized that the curriculum would change. When Sophia Smith specified the subjects to be taught in the college that her will established, she took care to add to the classic list a provision for new studies “as coming times may develop or demand for the education of women.” The stable point, in her formulation and in the words of Smith’s presidents, was education for women. However, Smith’s presidents had very different ideas of what was required by an education designed for women. Smith’s first president, Laurenus Clarke Seelye, was emphatic that the curriculum for women should not differ from that for men. In his inaugural address, he stressed the importance of mathematical training and scientific knowledge. “Our aim has been to so arrange the course in natural sciences that young ladies may become sufficiently well acquainted with their general principles and leading facts to feel an interest in the progress of science; to clearly comprehend its important discoveries; and to be prepared to make, afterward, in some chosen field, original investigations.” As an example of the latter, he cites “the charming essays of Mrs. Treat on carnivorous plants.” He also insisted on the importance of classical studies, which some male academics felt were too taxing for woman’s more delicate constitution. Seelye questioned “whether any greater expenditure of physical force is necessary to master Greek than to endure ordinary fashionable amusements.” President Neilson also spoke about the broad range of subjects essential for the college to teach, laying particular stress on the sciences and the arts. Like President Seelye, he was wary of concessions to women’s difference. He placed special emphasis on guarding against excessive docility. He argued that the college must “seek to raise doubt, objection, resistance, that the student may become accustomed to do her own thinking.”
With the presidency of Benjamin Wright, in 1949, there is a shift in thinking about the character of women’s education. Arguing from a sense of men’s and women’s separate spheres, he writes that women’s education must be distinct from men’s, to suit her for her place in society. While admitting that women’s colleges must take into account their economic and public activities, he goes on to say that “we must constantly bear in mind that the great majority of women who attend college will marry and have children, and that for most of them their home will be the focus of their lives; other things will be secondary. Their great responsibility will be the organization and management of the household, the creation of an atmosphere in which parents and children lead harmonious and satisfying lives.” President Wright’s inauguration, on October 19, 1949, exactly 53 years ago, marked the 75th anniversary of Smith College. At the anniversary convocation the next morning, Eleanor Roosevelt, then our delegate to the United Nations, was the featured speaker. The first paragraph of her speech takes a very different point of view in regard to woman’s role. She begins, “Last night I heard the Prime Minister of India, Mr. Nehru, say that the development of India could be measured by the development of women in India. I was very much interested in that because I think perhaps we might say that the development of women and their acceptance of responsibility is part of the changing world in which we live.” Eleanor Roosevelt devoted the rest of her speech to telling Smith’s students how best to prepare themselves for a role in international affairs. These two contrasting images -- Eleanor Roosevelt urging women to go out into the world, and President Wright anticipating their focus on home and family -- tell us a great deal about the Smith of the fifties and early sixties. The college invited leaders like Eleanor Roosevelt to address the women of Smith, while it encouraged them to think of themselves principally as wives and mothers.
Exactly 26 years after President Wright’s inauguration, on October 19, 1975, Jill Ker Conway became Smith’s first woman president. The women’s movement had created a new understanding of women’s history and aspirations, in part through the leadership of Smith graduates of the '40s and '50s like Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem. When President Conway described her vision of Smith, she imagined the college in newly utopian terms. Like her immediate predecessors, she felt that women’s education should be different in some respects from that of men, but it was not a domestic ideal she described; it was a heroic one. Because of the history of women’s subordination, she argued, women’s colleges have a unique role both in studying and teaching matters of importance in women’s lives and in educating and inspiring women to achieve everything of which they are capable. Mary Maples Dunn and Ruth Simmons continued to shape a feminist vision of Smith’s identity and mission. They also continued to do the work of Presidents Mendenhall and Conway of diversifying the Smith community, expanding the Ada Comstock program, and increasing the racial and ethnic diversity of Smith’s student body. Presidents Conway, Dunn, and Simmons created the Smith that we know today and upon which we will build in the years ahead.
What will those years hold? Or to put the question in a more personal way, what are my aspirations for Smith? My primary value, and the core of Smith’s mission, is academic excellence. What will we need to do not only to sustain but to enhance Smith’s excellence? Providing the very best education for our students in the decades ahead will require many kinds of fluency. John Schwab described the Yale curriculum at the beginning of the 20th century as a modern factory, with a large stock of very different, complex, and delicate tools, few of which any single employee would understand and use. I wonder if we might imagine today’s curriculum in more electronic terms, as a worldwide web, in which links move us into different disciplines, different cultures, different areas of knowledge, abruptly and with lightning speed. Professor Schwab’s metaphor implies that you can manipulate your own set of tools in the factory, engaging in your piece of its work, without a great deal of concern about your ignorance of others. The worldwide web requires that you continually change your frame of reference. So many problems and questions today require inter-disciplinary and cross-disciplinary analysis, that we must develop the ability in our students to move across disciplines and bodies of knowledge. This is more than taking a course in music, and a course in English, and a course in economics, and a course in biology. It involves understanding differences in methods of inquiry and argument and asking how the tools and materials of one discipline can illuminate the subjects of another. The problems we face today are complex and far-reaching; their solution requires various modes of inquiry and multiple frames of reference. How can biologists, geologists, and engineers work together to understand watersheds? What can the anthropologist teach us about literary texts and the literary scholar teach the anthropologist? How can the philosopher help us understand new capabilities in genetic engineering?
In teaching our students to travel across the disciplines, we cannot hold to a falsely stable sense of the liberal arts. The liberal arts curriculum has never been stable. The structure of the disciplines is a historical artifact, and it changes over the course of time. Since I have come to Smith, I have been amused by how often I have been asked whether Smith’s development of the sciences, embodied in its new engineering program and its plan for a new science center, means that it will abandon the liberal arts. Citizens of 18th-century Virginia could have asked Thomas Jefferson the same question when he introduced medical science and natural history into the curriculum. Like Jefferson, I have no intention of abandoning the humanities; they are my intellectual passions and the center of my writing and teaching. But surely the sciences are among the liberal arts—fields of study that contribute to general intellectual culture. We must hold out the same possibility for engineering. Just as the modern languages and the natural sciences came to be regarded as liberal arts over the course of the 19th century, engineering and computer science may well become part of a liberal education in the 21st. Smith will be a pioneer in this process, as one of very few liberal arts colleges and the only women’s college to offer engineering in its curriculum. We must determine not only how best to educate engineers in a liberal arts college but what role engineering might play in the education of musicians, economists, political scientists, and philosophers. Just as the study of literature and art enriches and deepens the education of scientists and engineers, so the study of science and engineering should enrich and deepen the education of historians and poets.
Smith’s curriculum should teach students other kinds of agility as well. In an increasingly diverse world, we need to become fluent in other cultures. This begins at home, with fluency in the variety of American cultures. Increasing consciousness of the diversity of experience of American ethnic groups has created important changes in many disciplines; we must include that knowledge in our courses. But we must not stop with the borders of our country. When Eleanor Roosevelt spoke at Smith in 1949, she described the world situation in words that apply today: “How well prepared are we to live in a world that has constantly grown smaller and where we must rub shoulders with people of different cultures, of completely different customs and habits and religions, who live under different legal systems, whose languages are different?” I think we have to answer, more than 50 years later, that we are not as well prepared as we should be to live in this increasingly small and volatile world.
Mrs. Roosevelt’s advice to Smith students about what to learn in their years here reflected an assumption that we test the significance and adequacy of our knowledge by bringing it to bear on the world of practice. We must provide opportunities for students to do this. Definitions of the liberal arts often derive from a dichotomy between general knowledge and knowledge that is professional, technical, or useful. I think that this dichotomy is a false one. College curricula have frequently included areas of study like architecture or meteorology that we would consider liberal, professional and practical, and most professional education has its roots in traditional liberal disciplines. We must strive to use the knowledge and methods of the liberal arts to address problems of praxis and to use practical problems to test the power and adequacy of our disciplinary paradigms.
The ideal of academic excellence that I have described -- agility in moving between disciplines, between cultures, and between academic study and praxis -- leads to active engagement with the world outside the Grecourt Gates. This is not a woman’s world, or a man’s world; it is a human world. Understanding the specificity of women’s experience will help us shape our work in the world, and single-sex education develops the authority and confidence that lead to significant achievement. By this education, in the words of Sophia Smith, “women’s weight of influence in reforming the evils of society will be greatly increased, their power for good incalculably enlarged.”
Smith’s founders wanted the college to be built in such a way that its students would be part of the practical life of the town. We must now imagine the town as a global village, linking the local and the distant, the familiar and the foreign. As I look out on the Smith community, I see in all of you the large embrace of the college. The lives you have touched, the changes you have brought about, the things you have created have realized Sophia Smith’s vision, for it is not what you did here but what your education here helped you do after that is the real measure of Smith’s value.
I began my remarks today by talking about the Smith community and the bonds that connect it over the many years of its existence. To sustain the sense of common experience across the generations, we will need to be generous in our sympathies. In times of significant historical change such as there have been in women’s lives in the past 60 years, it is easy to feel alienated from the past if you are young and alienated from the future if you are old. But seeing ourselves in the younger sister who stands beside us will teach us, like Wordsworth, about the language of the heart and the imagination.
I stand before you now looking both back and forward. I am joining at once a historical community and a community that is present among us at this moment. I thank you for your good wishes and ask for your advice and support in the months and years ahead as we, together, work to make Smith College everything to which her founders aspired.