Letter: Exploring the benefits of experiential education

I’ve never been quite sure what “the real world” means, but I do know that the majority of you will live your lives outside of academia. What should be the relation between the classroom and the parallel worlds you’ll later inhabit? Some insist on a firm boundary maintaining the refuge character of college. Others recognize the multiple ways we already blur the boundary. Almost every student here participates in at least one of these: an on-campus research or support service job, fieldwork for a class, independent Winter Study projects, summer internships, study abroad and community service. These all have grown exponentially and 20/20 promises more. We’ve gradually developed the support structures to sustain them because they develop “marketable skills.” But is that their most important role?

Should we see these under a single rubric such as “experiential education?” Do we regularly provide opportunities for critical reflection about these experiences? How do we bring them into the classroom? Additionally, can we generate more classroom experiences that move outside, be it the Northern Berkshires or the world? The richness of lived experience with a topic that seems unreal in the classroom is the place to start, but equally important are the opportunities for reflection and action on the often complicated ethical issues that arise when dealing with real people, places or actions. Behind all of this are other questions about how these other worlds work, what kind of people they create and how choosing a vocation in one will form who you come to be.

What more might Williams be doing to blur the boundary between the classroom and the “real world?” I’ve suggested a “real world requirement,” but short of that we might benefit at looking around our neighborhood at what other schools are doing. Bennington College recently announced that it will develop required laboratories/classes to deal with the range of political, social and environmental challenges facing us as citizens. The newly founded Roosevelt Institute here might lead to something similar. Smith College has its Praxis program to integrate internship experiences more into the educational mission of the college. Amherst, funded by the Argosy Foundation, this year opened a Center for Community Engagement that links classes and co-curricular activities “where students learn the skills and knowledge to be effective leaders in a diverse democracy.”

Things are happening around us, what should Williams be doing?

William Darrow

Lissack Professor of Personal Ethics and

Social Responsibility