Overthrowing the ivy

First Fridays didn’t used to be the event that brought Ephs together on a monthly basis. Nor was moon howling. Instead, on a designated evening, students would assemble below the Stetson balcony, “Homer” and “Aristotle” providing inspiration for what was to come. A master of ceremonies would introduce a topic and the debate would begin. Students of all classes would enter the center of the circle, and reveling in the attention of the entire student body, embark on a night of vigorous debate. At the first sign of dawn, a winner would be declared.

Midnight Oratory died long ago; its legacy, too, faces the prospect of expiration. Where the College used to respect intelligence in its myriad of forms, the acknowledgement that knowing extends beyond the analytic is becoming increasingly rarer. While the ability to express oneself in a group of 17 students remains in high regard, the proliferation of “likes” and “umms” suggests that being articulate doesn’t hold the honored position that it once did. The same can be said of creativity and imagination, especially outside of the classroom. Just look at the number of ballet flats and Sarah Palin-appropriated librarian glasses. Students at my all-girls high school were more creative with their kilts than we are with our entire wardrobes. Also, we had more than one Goth.

Focusing on wardrobe is not meant to trivialize my argument. But looking at how individuals express themselves on a daily basis offers some insight into what they are thinking inside. And, from the looks of it, our mental rubric is ensnared by the same normalcy that motivates me to choose my Barbour over my orange leather jacket.

There are exceptions, to be sure. For every few a cappella groups paying homage to Mariah Carey, there is a singer-songwriter concert. For every few parties themed “pajama party” or “plaid,” there is a Vampire Weekend or Lipbone Redding concert. For those people wishing Williams tutorialized into a mini-Oxford, there are those of us who think that tutorials and experiential education can be productively combined, leading the liberal arts’ march into new spheres.

In an article pillorying elite education published this summer, former Yale Professor William Deresiewicz wrote, “The existence of multiple forms of intelligence has become commonplace, but however much elite universities like to sprinkle their incoming classes with a few actors or violinists, they select for and develop one form of intelligence: the analytic . . . But social intelligence and emotional intelligence and creative ability, to name just three forms, are not distributed preferentially among the educational elite” (see the complete article, “The Disadvantages of an Elite Education” at http://www.theamericanscholar.org/su08/elite-deresiewicz.html). Deresiewicz goes on to distinguish between institutions of “elite education” and “liberal arts colleges,” praising the latter for offering a “conversion experience.”

But is Williams really that different from Yale? Is our version of the liberal arts that different from theirs? After three tremendously fulfilling years here, I must say that, based on Deresiewicz’s criteria, I am not entirely convinced. While Williams has met its breadth requirement in terms of subject areas – I have taken classes in almost all departments and loved them all – I am not sure that it has realized breadth in the realm of knowing.

That other ways of knowing might exist did not occur to me until last semester, when I enrolled in the Williams in New York program. There, I learned how to speak to people who hadn’t heard of Brancusi, how to interpret how individuals act in institutional settings and how to question behaviors that had always been obscured by their normalcy. Had I not spent those few months learning to examine the organism that is New York City, I would not be able to apply the same critique to Williams College.

Williams now has the chance to truly differentiate itself from the impoverished “elite education” that Deresiewicz describes. By welcoming experiential education into our liberal arts model, we have the opportunity to reify our esteemed position in the production of intellectuals. If being intellectual begins, as Deresiewicz contends, “with thinking your way outside of your assumptions and the system that enforces them,” then Williams must not shy away from its first foray into experiential education. We must ensure that Williams doesn’t become Yale; it, after all, produced Dubya. And, to come full circle, he would suck at Midnight Oratory.

Anouk Dey ’09 is a political science major from Toronto, Ontario.

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