Tuesday, July 12, 2005

What the few experience...

I just returned from a quick trip back East for my father's birthday. My parents now live in an assisted living community in Williamstown, MA, just 25 miles or so north of the family home sold a year ago. Their apartment overlooks Mt. Greylock, the highest peak in Massachusetts, and they are pleased with the move, wrenching though it was at the time to leave a home, 10 acres of land, and 40 years of memories.

Williamstown, of course, is the home of Williams College, the Clark Art Institute, and a magnificent theater where I have seen Christopher Reeve and Blythe Danner act in summer productions. These places are a major draw for the seniors who make up the assisted living center where my parents now live. I knew Williams a bit from growing up nearby, visiting high school friends who went there, such as the novelist Jay McInerney, and now coming to the town and college as my parents' new home.

I was struck by how removed from the experience of most people a Williams education is. The town exudes old New England charm. The stores and restaurants all cater to a sophisticated crowd. Professors drive Toyota Priuses. The curriculum is strictly liberal arts.

Having attended a similar kind of place (Dartmouth), I can't help but compare this kind of education to what I have experienced in my working life: an isolated comprehensive university with which I was loosely affiliated while working at a contiguous institute, located in an even more spectacular setting (Cullowhee, North Carolina) but with little of the charm of a Williams or Dartmouth; and now, an enormous midwestern Moo U. with students studying everything from philosophy to "building construction management."

This same feeling came to me when I recently watched "Declining by Degrees" on PBS, the John Merrow produced and narrated examination of higher education today. How different Amherst College, one of the "Little Three" along with Williams and Wesleyan, is to the other institutions portrayed in the show (a community college in Denver, Western Kentucky University, and the University of Arizona)! A Williams or Amherst education is certainly only experienced by a rare few, and yet, in many places, including this show, it is either explicitly or implicitly held up as an ideal against which others are measured.

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