Does a small Liberal Arts college such as Earlham College need to be distinctive in order to provide a good education? Perhaps not. Does it need to be distinctive in order to survive and prosper? Probably so. President Doug Bennett’s recent blog posting IS Earlham a distinctive college? made the fruitful analogy between excellence/distinctiveness and nutritious/flavourful. If we think in these terms, what sort of flavour does Earlham actually have for our students? I submit that the flavour we experience at Earlham has to do with our Quaker tradition and in that regard we are indeed unique among liberal arts colleges in North America. The question then becomes how can we articulate the nuances and subtleties of how this tradition is expressed in our campus community to young high school students in a convincing yet authentic way. A way forward, I believe, can be gleaned from an insightful video from Georgetown University in Washington. Entitled ‘Reimagining Tradition: the Spirit of Teaching and Learning at Georgetown‘ the mere title lets us know that the teaching enterprise is grounded in a tradition of the university. What emerges later that this tradition is in fact Jesuit (we even see a priest as a faculty member) and that the spirit associated with this tradition is helping Georgetown faculty reimagine their teaching efforts to the demonstrated benefit of the students. Moreover the video doesn’t talk about curriculum (at least not directly), it doesn’t talk about teaching faculty concerns, it is even reasonably free of platitudes; instead it gives concrete examples of great teaching and how this has itself changed and also changed the lives of students, and situates this ‘reimagining’ within the tradition of Georgetown.
We could do this at Earlham. We already are to some extent. I’m not thinking about producing a video, more about realizing Earlham’s Quaker tradition both in the way we teach and what students take away from their Earlham experience. What components are we talking about?
- Simplicity. Here is one area where we struggle to simplify our lives.
- Peace. Peace and it’s associated virtue, justice, are undercurrents which run through many courses. The campus student body is very concerned with global peace and justice issues.
- Integrity. This has two strands. The obvious one is living a life of truth and seeking truth. Then there is the path to achieving integrity of character and the way the Earlham helps build authentic persons who can go out into the world with a better self knowledge and understanding.
- Community. Henri Nouwen once described community as ‘living with the person you would least choose to live with’. Earlham’s tradition of equality brings with it a radical diversity in which real community spirit can be forged.
- Equality. Bringing a radical diversity both in the student body and in curricular offerings together under one tent. The absence of hierarchy is at first confusing, then perplexing, but finally liberating. Equality of persons is a strong Quaker tradition that we try to realize in our everyday lives and in teaching faculty’s respectful interactions with their students.
So far, I haven’t addressed the ‘community of learning’ part and what, if any, relevance this has to my social networking explorations but this will follow in a subsequent post.