Wellesley College: The Tunicata
Broad, Liberal Education Curtails Specialization
(The Tunicata are thin, lithe animals that move about the sea in their youth, investigating their surroundings. Then one day they grow fat, settle down on the ocean floor--never to move again--and reproduce.)
Wellesley College offers perhaps the finest terminal education in America; and both its virtues and defects arise from this fact. The College is able to produce a girl with a "broadly liberal" back-ground, yet Wellesley is a very tempting target because it does this so well.
The phrase "broadly liberal" comes from the college catalogue, which itself defines the emphasis: "limitation of the amount of specialization safeguards the broadly liberal purpose of the four-year undergraduate curriculum." This is a double-edged ideal; for, despite the increasing numbers of its graduates who go on to take higher degrees, Wellesley itself gently discourages the academic. The Wellesley girl may not be narrow; but on the other hand there is the danger which Malcolm Cowley pointed out in the Harvard of 1915--that "culture was something to be acquired, like a veneer."
The lack of concentration, of independent study, is reflected in the fact that of 70 senior English majors, only three are writing theses. This statistic does not necessarily indicate preference. At Wellesley students do not apply to write theses; they are notified of their eligibility, largely based on course grades, by a committee of the College.
Moreover, there is no tutorial; and want of focus can bring out the worst in a Wellesley education--a fine background, but no individual discipline worth attaching it to. Now this is a problem of most women's education--not just for oft-maligned Wellesley. Yet it seems more pressing for this college: for with its wealth of material: classes with a high average on the SATs, a low faculty-student ratio and a good endowment--it is geared to turn out enlightened, intelligent, and placid students. The waste provokes the maligning.
Now independent study is not a panacea guaranteeing intellectual curiosity; and mere mechanisms, such as a Harvard-type tutorial system or more theses, would effect little change. Wellesley is a small college and can operate on different systems than can a large university. There are few lecture courses. Most of the work is done in sections, and seminar courses--common for upperclassmen--offer opportunities for individual research projects. The facilities exist for more than a spoonfed, reading-list-and-1500-word-paper education. Only the desire is absent.
Attitude is elusive; one instructor at Wellesley, a Harvard alumnus, characterized it as a "cult of gentility." It is manifested in rules, in curriculum, and in the faculty itself. Smoking is permitted in the halls of Administration buildings--for visitors. Again, a recent student request to go to the college PX shop, The Well, after 10:00 curfew until it closed at 10:45 was turned down. According to a member of the newspaper, the Dean of Students objected that Wellesley girls should not be "living a life of whim."
About the curriclum, one faculty member asserted that it was too cut-and-dried, with little encouragement of exploration or treatment of sensitive topics. "They're usually leery of any topic that doesn't have a long critical bibliography," he added. Commenting on this, Professor Ferdinand J. Denbeaux, chairman of the Bible department (Biblical history is the only specific course requirement at the college), stated that suprisingly enough his discipline was the only one in the college which studied Freud.
Limited Thesis Choice
The passive quality of this scholarship constitutes another reason why the faculty as well as the students are unenthusiastic about the-sis writing. An editor of the Wellesley News felt that faculty members were unwilling to take on the extra work "unless they know the topic thoroughly." She gave an example of a girl who wanted to write a thesis on the effectiveness of propoganda in India. Unfortunately, no one in the Political Science department felt qualified enough to direct it, and the girl had to switch majors.
Wellesley recently has moved toward more independent study. This year classes have been lengthened from fifty minutes to an hour; they are scheduled fewer times weekly; and there are no Wednesday morning or Saturday meetings.
But this has not been done in the spirit of any drastic change. One dean, perhaps the move's strongest supporter, sees the modification merely as a slight improvement in teaching method. A member of the Administration, she would admit few defects in Wellesley to outsiders.
Rebels Without Causes
--No, she did not think there existed any Wellesley stereotype.
--No, she did not understand what any reference to clubwomen, suburbs, or Helen Hokinson had to do with Wellesley.
--Yes, she said wearily, there was a place for rebels at Wellesley. (She had had experience with college newspapers before.)
The dean was right about the "rebels." One student officer, describing herself in this way, regretted that most descriptions of Wellesley College start out with a preconceived notion about the majority of students which they proceed to document--and neglect a substantial and rather vocal minority. These, she added, usually gravitate to the theatre, the paper, and the literary magazine, and "spend our time fighting for something worthwhile out here."
The indefiniteness of the last objective--"something worthwhile"--is no accident, for the dean was right too. There is no obvious Wellesley stereotype on campus. The college prides itself on the ever-widening geographical distribution of its students, and weekday dress does not fit in with the usual picture of the Wellesley girl. (Leather jackets, lumber jackets, and gym suits were scattered plentifully.)
Any objection to Wellesley must then come from something less specific than dress or a section of the country--it must come against an atmosphere. This atmosphere seems revealed best in the class sections, the basic way of teaching at Wellesley.
Using Harvard as a basis for comparison, class discussion is much freer at Wellesley; there is less fear of saying the wrong thing. Wellesley's faults carry along with them merits; and although the instructor confesses that he consciously pitches the level of the discussion a little lower than he would prefer, he has the satisfaction of almost one hundred per cent participation.
Sometimes this pitch seemed a little extreme, as when the class spent some time to decide on the meaning of catharsis, and when, in the third class on the Odyssey, some of the girls were still referring to Telemachus. But the instructor hesitated to correct, and said he felt that this might make students self-conscious.
The girls were certainly not self-conscious; they, not the instructor, dominated the discussion. And, in fact, when the latter was explaining a point in some detail, one student interrupted him to ask, "Should we be copying this down?"
The idea behind this method of teaching seems almost anti-academic--that the fact of discussion is more important than the material itself. Wellesley, if articulating its justification for such a value judgment, would do it as did one professor--in terms of the terminal education.
His argument runs like this: a Wellesley student, if she really wants an academic discipline, does have a chance to work on her own if she proves her ability. She can concentrate upon almost anything she wishes, once she has gotten some broad lower-level humanities courses out of the way.
But most of these students intend to marry; and a girl's position as far as education is concerned is expected to be more flexible than that of her husband. The man can concentrate his education with a career in mind: his wife must usually adapt hers to him. Consequently, it is better that the girl come out of school with a wide-ranging background (even at the expense of its being a little nebulous) rather than emerging a rigidly intellectually formed botanist or medieval philosopher or drama critic or anything else.
Facileness, then, is prized more than conviction, and perhaps this is one reason why the class discussions are carried on so eagerly and freely, for there is the underlying feeling that it is easy to take a stand on an issue--the issue doesn't really count anyway.
This same lack of friction carries over into Wellesley's intramural social life--the upperclass societies. To join, a girl must go to tea at each one; but any junior or senior who wants it is guaranteed acceptance, and the hierarchy, if any, is slight (Tau Zeta Epsilon--"Tizzy"--seems to be ranked a notch above the rest). Far from being an important part of the college's life, either intellectual or social (they were originally formed with specific purposes in mind, for example the Agora as a political science organization), they have become merely a pleasant place to take a date. The most frequently spoken