Anything But Timid

When I host small groups of first-year students at dinners at the President’s House, I conduct my own informal, unscientific poll to find out what brought them to the College. Often it’s a favorite teacher, a guidance counselor, or an alumna/us who says, “You’re perfect for Sarah Lawrence.”

Karen Lawrence hosts a dinner for students at the President’s House.Or, in the barrage of brochures smart high-school students receive (and often ignore), a piece from Sarah Lawrence captures their attention. Increasingly, we are discovered online in the search for a college that is demanding but not soul-crushing, where the student studies subjects out of interest rather than requirement, guided by teachers who are truly compelling. Inevitably, out of 15 students in the conversation, at least two will have seen the movie Ten Things I Hate about You and identified with the iconoclastic Kat, a modern avatar of Kate, Shakespeare’s independent, bold, and witty character in The Taming of the Shrew.

I thought about these conversations over the summer when I read a pair of articles in The New Republic about the system of admission to top American colleges and the outcome of elite education: William Deresiewicz’s “Don’t Send Your Kid to the Ivy League: The Nation’s Top Colleges Are Turning Our Kids into Zombies” and a rebuttal by J.D. Chapman, academic director of an independent high school in Virginia. As his incendiary title makes clear, ­Deresiewicz, who taught at Yale for 10 years, blasts the Ivies for “manufacturing” young people who are smart but timid, “with little intellectual curiosity . . . great at what they’re doing but with no idea why they are doing it.” Although he has come across “many wonderful young people,” he says that “most of them seemed content to color within the lines that their education had marked out for them.” Chapman takes on Deresiewicz for reductively treating these schools and their elite education as monolithic in practice or philosophy.

Chapman is right, I believe, to challenge Deresiewicz’s sweeping generalizations and his almost unrelieved cynicism about elite education. Nonetheless, something rings true in Deresiewicz’s description of the performance pressures and risk avoidance that students experience on the conveyor belt from kindergarten to commencement at prestigious institutions. (It’s no accident that Deresiewicz calls it the “manufacturing” of graduates). From the beginning, Sarah Lawrence chose not to support this machinery, by refusing to focus on test scores or class ranking, by eschewing academic silos, and by de-emphasizing grades in the learning process.

In fact, one of the few points of agreement in these dueling essays is that certain liberal arts colleges are places that welcome—and develop—students who are passionate about ideas. Chapman writes, “I agree with Deresiewicz that liberal arts colleges like Sarah Lawrence and Reed are uniquely positioned to nurture and challenge students, and I champion them when I can.”

From the beginning, Sarah Lawrence chose not to support this machinery, by refusing to focus on test scores or class ranking. 

With our educational model, Sarah Lawrence is indeed uniquely positioned to nurture and challenge students. Accordingly, we are playing a leadership role in reframing the often contentious conversation about the value of a college education and the definition of a successful outcome. Amid a national dialogue that sometimes equates value with a student’s salary soon after graduation (which is one of the criteria for President Obama’s proposed rating system), the faculty at Sarah Lawrence are pioneering a new assessment tool—organic to our culture—to measure abilities we believe a Sarah Lawrence education develops in our students and which they will need to thrive after college. In every course, for every student, the teacher assesses the student’s learning according to the development of six critical abilities: to think analytically; express ideas effectively in writing; exchange ideas orally; bring innovation to one’s work; envisage and work independently on a project; and accept and act on criticism. (See page 28 for an in-depth look at this new assessment tool.) The desired “outcome” is that, with these capacities, students can construct a satisfying and meaningful life for themselves in whatever type of career they pursue.

Like any new model, our assessment tool is subject to revision and improvement. But it has already garnered considerable national, and even international, attention. Associate Dean Kanwal Singh and I were recently invited to Washington, DC, to discuss assessment at a conference called “Restoring Confidence in Higher Education,” and last spring, I spoke about our educational philosophy to a large group of educators, parents, students, and public officials in Qingdao, China, who assembled to hear about the value of a liberal education and of Sarah Lawrence’s model in particular. It’s a model uniquely well suited to our mission of educating students who are anything but timid in forging their own paths personally and professionally.