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A Note from the Director

by Rosetta Marantz Cohen

Rosetta Marantz Cohen, Director, Kahn Liberal Arts Institute
Photo by Jon Crispin

I’ve been thinking this summer about the impact of the Kahn Institute on the lives and work of Smith faculty. Those of us who have participated in Kahn projects know that the “afterlife” of a project resonates in both predictable and unexpected ways.  Books get finished and course syllabi get changed; but new friendships also develop and ways of thinking permanently shift.

I tracked down some of my colleagues from the Why Educate Women project two years ago to see how the work of the project had impacted them over the course of time.  Many of the outcomes have been concrete. Inspired by the cross-disciplinary interests of our colleagues, for example, some of us have created a new course on women’s education that will be launched this fall. Led by Susie Bourque, IDP 140 will draw together five of us from the project to speak about the range of issues connected with educating women, from the history of girls’ education in the United States to cognitive work on female learning styles, to the changing landscape of women’s education in the developing world.

Another fellow, Patricia Gonzales, wrote that she presented lectures based on work in the project to Smith alumnae in Puebla, Mexico, and that material from the project has found its way into her course on women’s education in New Spain. Suleiman Mourad reported that the project inspired changes to his Modern Islam course. “For the first time,” he wrote, “I had a three week focus on Muslim women, discussing issues of education and the power that comes from the ‘ownership’ of knowledge.”

The Why Educate Women project also informed the work that some of us did this past summer, helping to develop the new Asian Women’s Leadership University in Malaysia.  The year of collaborative study at the Institute allowed us to enter into that design with a more deeply informed sense of what is possible—to be both more circumspect and more hopeful as we discussed the possibilities for liberal arts in that part of the world.

For others of our colleagues in the project, the impact of the year was less explicit, but just as important. Nick Horton, for example, wrote that “the project served to provide a much clearer sense for me about the mission of the College moving forward, as well as our international connections.  It helped me to more clearly see how our various disciplines all relate to the education of women in a fundamental manner.” Janie Vanpee wrote that the project brought into relief surprising correspondences between women’s education in 18th century France and contemporary issues with educating girls in both developed and developing countries. Her ruminations on the connections between past and present reminded me again of the rich discussions we had during the course of the year:  “The debate in ancien régime France concerned elite women, of course, but the stakes were the same as today for girls and women from disadvantaged social groups…Although Maria Theresa was educated to be a ruler, she did not educate her daughters to be effective rulers or consorts to rulers…The results were disastrous. Could we blame the French Revolution, in part, on Marie Antoinette's lack of education?”

Interdisciplinary discourse, by its very nature, produces more than the sum of its parts. A conversation between a scientist, a literary critic, an economist, a psychologist, a mathematician and a philosopher yields something altogether new—something that is almost always interesting, and occasionally even revelatory. Throw dinners and field trips into that mix, and you have the potential for some serious transformative thinking.

Real and lasting collaboration begins with deep, broad-based understanding.  What the Kahn Institute offers to faculty is a forum for building that understanding.  Project outcomes are sometimes concrete, but more often—and just as valuably—they are not measurable in conventional ways.  In valuing the more ineffable outcome—shifts in attitude and values, sympathy for other methodological approaches and an intuitive sense of the connectedness of all our work--the Kahn Institute is a unique and remarkable resource.



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