My son is a senior at the oldest public school in the U.S. Admittance to this institution, which emphasizes a “classical education,” has always been selective. For the first 200 (plus or minus) years, the school taught young men from prominent Boston families. Now the entering classes must pass an entrance exam to gain admittance. Irregardless of its elite status, nearly everyone associated with this high school will agree on one thing: the kids are great.
That’s important. Students there have to rely on their friends to endure the challenges of those dusty hallowed halls. Like Latin– a mandatory language requirement, I’ve personally found the place to be stuffy, riddled with rules, and offering limited opportunities for exciting, real life application of concepts. I first visited the school some years ago and watched the previous headmaster warn a crowd of admitted students that they didn’t want to know her. If they were in her office, they were there for the wrong reasons. I remember thinking “what a wonderful example of community spirit and compassionate leadership!” When alum gather, they often talk about their high school experience in tones similar to how Wikpedia defines hazing: “activities involving harassment, abuse or humiliation used as a way of initiating a person into a group.” Although I understand that many of the stories I’ve overheard are probably embellished, I’m always amazed at how rarely students talk about how this school has instilled a deep love of learning. That gift comes later, when they go on to college, after they’ve survived the rigours of a classical education. If they survive. You sink or swim, and if you start sinking… well, maybe you’re just not cut out for the place after all. Of course, Ben Franklin dropped out of that same high school years ago and I think most would say he still somehow managed to do something with his life.
But now it’s April, and those who have made it to their senior year finally get to make decisions about college. Many will go on to prestigious institutions like Harvard and McGill and Brown, among so many others. But frankly, I’m surprised at how few of my son’s friends have seriously considered small liberal arts colleges. After spending most of his high school years in the grind of memorization and exams, declamations and reports, (not to speak of tardies and detentions), I suggested looking into colleges where he is more than just another face in a filled lecture hall.
I think we’ve found the right place.
In addition to the small class size, the professors’ personal involvement with their students, the opportunities for hands-on study and research, the exciting interdisciplinary exploration, and the chance to shape your own learning, here are a few other reasons I like the small learning institution my son wants to attend next year:
A current student told me that once during his first term as freshman, he had pushed the snooze button on his alarm clock too many times. A little while later, there was a knock on the door. He opened it to discover the professor and his classmates ready to hold that day’s discussion inside his dorm room– which they did. (The professor had warned the students that this would be the step he would take if they missed too many classes. This story also told me that the student-teacher ratio must, indeed, be quite small if they all managed to fit inside a freshman dorm room).
A graduate talked about how he learned to speak up. When Gloria Steinem came to visit the campus, he took it upon himself to challenge the validity of feminism. The questions he raised might have been seen as ‘politically incorrect’ (or, when said to Gloria Steinem, at least ‘politically uncomfortable’) and, I would wager, most adults would never have the courage to say such things loud. He admitted that she gave him an earful. It was clear that he also had the personal confidence and poise to be open to debate and discussion. As a result of that experience, he now considers himself a “post-modern feminist.”
A professor told me that each year they are evaluated on four criteria. First and foremost, are they good teachers? Next, are they effective mentors? (There are no counselors or graduate advisors at this college– each student works with a faculty mentor throughout their four years). Are they engaged in good scholarship? And finally, do they provide service to the community– both at the college and in the world outside? I once attended a graduate program at a large university partly because a scholar I admired was teaching there. I was very excited to enroll in one of his classes, only to find that I would be taught by an international student recently discharged from the military who ran the class like a boot camp. Though my fellow students and I spent hours furthering the nitty-gritty details of the professor’s research, we were only “invited” to meet with him on three occasions throughout the semester.
Enough said. Now I’m keeping my fingers crossed that my son will manage to maintain his focus in high school for just a few more months. Ironically, earlier this year he missed the deadline for the photo shoot for his yearbook. When the book comes out, instead of a photo, we will encounter an empty space above his name. It will appear as if he has already left.