As students and alumni of Williams, we like to proudly claim that we belong to a liberal arts institution. It evokes a certain kind of mystique and glory that students from any other type of school cannot understand. And we should be proud. We are consumers of an education that endures much political beating and is rarely disseminated. When we were high school seniors, the Office of Admission showered us with pamphlets and brochures exhorting the value of critical thinking, of being intellectually challenged and of exploring the mind where it had hitherto been unexplored. We heard the phrase “liberal arts,” and we were floored and ensnared by its promise of a better life ahead, whether or not we were fully prepared to accept the reality and responsibility of what the term meant.
Having graduated last year and thought carefully about my tenure at the College, I cannot be so sure that Williams is the ultimate paragon of the liberal arts. If I said that it was, I would be intentionally misleading people, and the worst offense is that I would be deluding myself.
I will start with a disclaimer. I do not hate my experience at Williams. I am grateful for what the College has endowed me with. It taught me to be a more civically engaged citizen. It armed me with the tools to articulate myself and helped me to tap into my powers of intuition and creativity. It gave me an elite education for which my parents only had to front a few hundred dollars. For that, I am thankful.
But I am also dismayed and ashamed that the institution I once called home is pretending to be something that it is not. The administration likes to tell the world that it is championing a comprehensive liberal education. I am impressed that it has managed to fool some of its students that it is. This so-called achievement manifests itself when we witness Williams appearing at the top of college rankings and sometimes as a runner up when U.S. News and World Report decides that it would like to have a little fun deflating our egos.
Throughout the years, I noticed discrepancies in the ways that Williams embraces the liberal arts, especially throughout many of the humanities disciplines. The English department demands that its students possess a de rigueur and meaningful understanding of British literary works, but it does not require them to read Toni Morrison, Junot Díaz or Maxine Hong Kingston with the same level of attention. I understand that someone like Shakespeare is a great writer and makes an invaluable contribution to the intellectual canon. However, it is the prerogative of the students, and not of the College, to decide who is “great” and who is not, especially when the curriculum precludes the majority of works by people of color. With the amalgamation of people from all walks of life in America, there are other narratives to examine other than those of dead white men. We like to talk about the ingenuity of Henry David Thoreau, but we do not give equal attention to the wisdom of Malcolm X, Frederick Douglas and W. E. B. Dubois, and if we do acknowledge these thinkers, they are always kept at bay, within a day’s worth of discussion, rather than a whole semester afforded to the likes of Socrates and Foucault because if we devote one day to them, we’ve already covered the requirements for “exploring diversity.” No further discussion needed.
If Orwellian democracy is found anywhere, it seems to have made its home at Williams, ensconced within its ivory towers; all majors are equal, but some are more equal than others. Nowhere is this truer than the statuses of the Latina/o studies, Africana studies and other ethnic studies departments, where the fields have been relegated to concentrations rather than majors. These departments contain a fraught history found in no other academic area of inquiry. Students rallying for Africana studies sat in Hopkins Hall until the deans acquiesced to their demands. The administration only relented to a Latina/o studies program when students threatened, then followed through, with a hunger strike. What does it say about an institution, especially one that purports to be the very best, that it will only permit an area of intellectual study only when students have to force its hand?
I myself encountered this administrative resistance last year when I, along with a few peers, campaigned for a concentration in Asian American studies. Along the way, we were forced on the defensive: “Why is this needed? Why should we create a concentration program to address every type of diversity? How is this a legitimate field of study?” I was not surprised by this backlash, but needless to say, I was still insulted. Why did we need to defend the merits of an academic discipline? Wouldn’t it have furthered the college’s mission of enriching the mind’s intellect? Again, I demand to know, how is Asian American studies any less worthy than say, classics? Reading about Amy Tan is too narrow, but examining the works of Milton is not? When we met with the dean of faculty to discuss further steps, he assured us that we had his utmost support. Those words of support were empty promises, as we never heard from him afterward. In a similar vein, hearing Williams claim that it is espousing the liberal arts is as convincing as listening to Pinocchio tell his version of a story.
Allen Lum ’12 majored in history and currently lives in the Bronx, N.Y.