Saturday, December 14, 2013

Serious people

A colleague, here in Denmark, launched (unprovoked) into bashing US higher education, as light conversation at a party. We discussed the serious problems of student debt, lack of public funding, and the very variable standards of education. She had read something that said that US college students were just there to party, take the easiest possible courses, and "not be serious people." The young women, it was reported to me, only stay in school long enough to find a husband. The strongest evidence for the overall lack of seriousness, I was told, is that students spend a great deal of their time taking courses that have no direct connection to their major. The implication was clear: if one actually intends to do something with one's studies, one focuses exclusively on preparing oneself for that something, and no dabbling. Good biology students, Danish biology students for example, take biology and just enough math, chemistry and physics. At this point I mentioned that as a biology major, I also took classes in essay writing, ceramics, psychology, stage management, dance, etc. and that I thought it was time well spent. This was clearly not comprehensible, and the subject quickly changed.

I will not badmouth the Danish educational system, which in many ways is excellent, and certainly in some ways (particularly public funding, affordability and access) is far better than the US system. I will say that Danish students strike me as no more serious, or sober, than their US peers. As foreign as it is to most people here, I remain a believer in the liberal arts education, and I think they could benefit by allowing some breadth to accompany the focus.

To this day, those writing courses improve my manuscripts, and the stage management experience has made it possible for me to organize myself and a new scientific society. The Social Psychology course, taken concurrently with an Animal Social Behavior course, brought me to understand how barriers between social and natural science impede scientific progress, and that the fallow spaces between these fields are often where the most interesting unturned rocks remain. The dance class was, well, a useful diversion at a stressful time, was useful in wooing a very serious wife, and helps me to entertaining our two-year old. Some of my most original biological thoughts have come to me while making not-quite-round pots and not-as-expressive-as-I-had-hoped monsters out of clay. My creativity, a characteristic more than one boss has told me is my most unusual strength as a researcher, was learned by taking more than just biology classes.

So thank you, Bennington College. Bennington's educational philosophy is as fervently opposite to the Danish way of doing things as almost any school in the world. I do admit that quite a few of my peers there did not strike me as "serious people," although I'm fairly certain no one I knew was there just to find a husband1, and that most of these not serious people wouldn't have been all that serious at any school. Most of them have turned out just fine. As crazy, dysfunctional and you-can't-be-serious as Bennington sometime is (getting saner actually2) I'm still glad I went there.3

1If I remember correctly, Bennington's student body was about 70% females, 10% gay males, and 15% taking-full-advantage-of-the-ratio straight males, so the husband hunting would have been challenging.
2 Bennington has a new president. The old dysfunction had many roots, but the animosity between the president and almost everyone else didn't help.

3 This is all just a long-winded way of saying that I've started applying for jobs back in the US, and will be looking for a place with a good liberal arts educational program.

1 comment:

GML said...

Wonderful, charming and right-on note. Perhaps you would like to submit it to a Bennington newspaper or alumni magazine; it is meaningful both in terms of Bennington then and education-in-general now. GML