Liberal Arts 101

I still remember the day I signed up for the First-Year Residential Seminar (FRS) – entirely on a whim. It was on a warm summer day in the rolling hills of Pennsylvania Dutch country that I found the strange purple flier in my mailbox. All of us in the Class of 2014 received it: the invitation to become a part of FRS in the fall. I think what attracted me to FRS was the diverse reading list (including but not limited to Plato, Marx, Mill, Forster and Fitzgerald) and the intriguing reviews from former students (“There were times when I fleetingly glimpsed what education could and should be”). At that point in my life, I really had only the faintest inkling of what I wanted to study in college. I pretended like I had a plan, of course. Yet like most prospective students at a liberal arts college, I really had no idea at all about what direction I saw my life going, except some vague notion of “forward.” But I thought that I liked books. And – if nothing else – FRS promised books.

I think I enrolled more out of curiosity than anything else. I figured that if I was going to attend college in the least densely populated county of Massachusetts, I should embrace my identity as an Eph – including whatever eccentricity that implied. Williams seemed to me a self-contained unit. Not only did I want to engage in its culture fully, but there was also nowhere else to go if I didn’t. In the end, I came to FRS out of a sort of aesthetic detachment verging on boredom; I was hoping for a show. I wanted to see how a professor would spin a common thread out of Civilization And Its Discontents and Das Kapital. I wanted late-night conversations about the existence of free will. I wanted to see people tear each other to pieces in the classroom over the meaning of justice.

What those of us who did FRS got was something a little more subtle.

FRS could rightfully be called “Contemporary Liberal Arts 101.” The implicit question behind every book that we read was, “What is this thing called ‘education,’ and why has Williams College spent gobs of money trying to give us one?” In my experience, there aren’t very many people with convincing answers to that question (with the exception of science majors – and yet they still have to explain why they are here and not MIT). FRS took a crack at this question and, in my humble opinion, it did a good job in answering it. The conclusions we reached could only be provisional, but the important thing was that our discussions got us thinking about the big questions of how to find meaning in what we do. If only for a moment, we could be chugging along toward “a better life” and really think for ourselves about why we were here; we had to temporarily stop the methodical thinking which resulted in the grades and test scores that allowed us to get this far.

FRS forced me to think more deeply about the purpose of life than I ever had before, at least in an academic setting. This might sound a little jarring, and it certainly was. But I believe that this is the essence of what we mean by a liberal arts education. If we are going to take our professed mission at the College seriously, we cannot afford to sidestep these issues.

I was unsure how to feel when I read that FRS was being canceled next year. No program is perfect, and the structure of FRS comes with its own set of academic and social complications. It might be time to call it a good 30-year run and give FRS a proper burial – I don’t know. But what I do know is this: Whatever academic success I’ve had at the College, I owe to that first semester in FRS.

 

Spencer Flohr ’14 is from Chambersburg, Penn. He lives in Carter.