Mount Holyoke College: Isolation and Maternalism
Have no fear, folks
Knew you'd be glad to hear, folks
We're under lock and key,
We've got security.
This verse form a dormitory song at Mount Holyoke College reflects, unfortunately, a great deal about this 125-year old women's college.
Mount Holyoke is located in South Hadley, Mass.-about 90 miles from Boston-in the Connecticut River Valley, which also contains the University of Massachusetts, Smith, and Amherst. Despite the proximity of these other schools, Holyoke suffers from a genuine case of isolation. The village of South Hadley is a quasi-mythical entity; it contains the College Inn, where you can go for a cup of coffee between classes; and Gleseman's Drug store, where you can go for a cup of coffee between classes. That's about all, and the neighboring city of Holyoke is not much more lively. Public transportation is notoriously insufficient, and any boy who goes to Mount Holyoke for a date without a car may well find himself stranded in South Hadley for a week end with little to do but take a long walk in the woods. Even communication tends to isolate Mount Holyoke; one girl ruefully noted that Amherset boys frequently prefer Smith girls because "it costs ten cents to call Northampton, but Holyoke is a forty-cent long distance call."
Mount Holyoke's geographic isolation has inevitably affected the social life of the college. Girls at Mount Holyoke primarily date boys from Yale, Dartmouth, Amherst, and Williams (though many look upon Amherst with contempt and Dartmouth with suspicion). Harvard is not a major source of dates. ("After all, you've got Radcliffe," a girl commented.) Because of Mount Holyoke's separation from men's colleges, social life is strictly a weekend activity; since they are not in frequent contact with boys, many girls-especially freshmen-must rely heavily on blind dates to meet boys.
Almost inevitably, girls eventually become quite dissatisfied with blind dates-they are generally enveloped by an aura of phoniness, superficiality, and a unnatural intensity. "I doubt that there is such a thing as a relaxed blind date," a girl observed. The unpopularity of blind dates and the general contempt for mixtures make many girls who are socially inclined feel that having a steady boyfriend is almost imperative at Mount Holyoke. One girl took a rather cynical view of the function of boys in Mount Holyoke's world: "Boys are primarily a means for getting out of Holyoke for a weekend."
Geographic isolation has proved to be one of the major formative factors of the character of Mount Holyoke, and the clash of urban and urbane girls with the "country college" setting has been one of the greatest sources of students' discontent with the school.
Quite apart from the school's isolation, however, there is an abnormal amount of unrest among the girls at Mount Holyoke, and the causes of the discontent are frequently inscrutable to the outsider and even perplexing to the girls themselves. But the majority of girls at Mount Holyoke do go through a phase of seriously considering transfer to another college.
The source of the dissatisfaction is most decidedly not the college's academic quality. Mount Holyoke is unquestionably one of the finest and most rigorous women's colleges in the country. Probably its grates academic asset is the genuinely close contact that students have with faculty members; all of Mount Holyoke's classes are small by Harvard standards. Furthermore, the College offers numerous seminars and a liberal independent study program in which even freshmen may regularly participate.
This close personal attention extends past the academic side of life at Mount Holyoke. One girl, describing a geology professor, illustrated this close faculty student contact: "I hardly know him; I've never taken a geology course in my life and I don't plan to; yet he's the type of person that I could just walk into his office and say 'I have a problem' and he'd do whatever he could."
Mount Holyoke recently announced sweeping revisions in its academic structure to take effect next fall. Intended to give students greater "intellectual repose and opportunity to concentrate," the primary change is a switch from the five-course schedule. The school has also altered its general education courses to make possible the completion of its massive general education requirements by the middle of the sophomore year.
Mount Holyoke is also participating in another even more significant academic innovation. Since 1956 an increased sharing of resources has evolved among Mount Holyoke, UMass, Smith, and Amherst. Through this cooperation, joint departments and programs have been established, and girls may take courses in any of the other schools which are not offered by their own school. This has the obvious advantage of broadening the potential fields of study open to girls at Mount Holyoke, whose course offering are necessarily limited because of the college's size.
Despite Mount Holyoke's academic excellence, many girls have complained about the lack of truly intellectual atmosphere at the school. Many girls attributed this to the absence of boys in classes and the general day-to-day life of the college. "Girls here can seemingly only use their minds toward their course work," is a typical objection. Another girl complained, "The main topic of conversation here on Monday and Tuesday is the date you had the last weed end, and for the rest of the week it's the date you'll have the next weekend."
One of the most attractive aspects of the college is, simply, that it is a friendly place. As one Harvard undergraduate succinctly observed, "When you walk into a dorm at Smith, you feel as though the walls are made of icebergs; when you walk into a dorm at Holyoke, everyone is warm and friendly." This congeniality is felt just as keenly by the girls themselves as by visitors; and for freshmen, the informal, friendly atmosphere considerably eases the transition from secondary school to college.
But in spite of certain obvious assets, the fact remains that there is widespread discontent among students at Holyoke toward the college. Why?
Mount Holyoke was founded in 1837 as a Congregational seminary, and until World War II, Mount Holyoke girls were generally looked upon, in the words of one sophomore, as being "religious and kind of finky." Although reality has changed, the image of the "urbanized milkmaid" has persisted, and the epithet "Smith to bed an Holyoke to wed" is still a widespread and popular one.
An outspoken faculty member discussed the reasons the "Holyoke image" has remained largely unchanged. "The college seems to feel that it can have only one image which will be acceptable to the general public-an image of 'proper gentility.'" Mount Holyoke has tried to legislate this image into existence, and while this attempt has been fairly successful, it has had been fairly successful, it has had some unfortunate consequence.
Sign-out hours are an example of Mount Holyoke's protectiveness. Girls must be in their dorm by 11 p.m. on week nights, midnight on Friday, and 1 a.m. on Saturday. Catherine P. Robinson, Dean of Residence, justified the stringency of the rules: The Holyoke girl is really freer than she thinks. The college is responsible for minors, and we cannot run a community of 1600 girls without law and order. It is up to the institution to set standards of behavior."
She further stressed the inadequacy of the local police force to protect the girls. Anyone who leaves the dorm after 8 p.m. must sign out where she is going; explained Dean Robinson, "If I have to start looking for girls I want to know which state police to call." But no matter how valid the reasons for the stringency of the sign out regulations, it nonetheless seems vaguely insulting that a 21-year old woman must be told she must be in at 1 a.m. Saturday.
Surprisingly, very few girls registered real objections to the sign-out rules. "There's nothing to do around here after midnight anyway," one girl said.
Far more irritating is the sheer bulk of rules. "There's a rule for this cigarette," one girl protested, "there's a rule for this rug, there's one for that piano, there's one for this tapestry."
Even a cursory glance at some of the rules in the handbook of "Student Government Association Regulations" verifies this observation:
*"Students shall not knit or chew gum at public lectures or concerts, or in classes when guest lecturers are present.
*"Each student has the responsibility...to attend frequently either the College services arranged at Abbey Chapel or comparable services of her choice. If neither of these alternatives is compatible with here conscience and reason, it shall then be the student's responsibility, in consultation with the Dean of the College Chapel, to determine which of other opportunities for spiritual growth she desires to accept, and to undertake."
*"Typewriters and bottles of ink must never be taken into the living rooms."
*"If at any time the College considers that the residence of a married student in one of the college halls is not in the best interest of the College or of the student, the College reserves the right to require the right to require the student to withdraw from residence.
*"The use of the Connecticut River for aquatic sports is prohibited at all times.
"Operating within the framework of the rules," one girl summarized, "the college leaves you no room to use your own discretion," The whole atmosphere of Mount Holyoke is a protective one which tries to mold each girl into The Image. Many girls cited instances of the college's big brother watchfulness. One told of an occasion when her boyfriend dropped into her dorm to visit her. Because he had been in his shirtsleeves, the head resident later took the girl aside and asked her whether her parents knew just what type of boy she was dating.
In many ways, Mount Holyoke's protectiveness has backfired. When a college has so many trivial regulations which can be broken without any qualms, it undercuts the significance of major rules. A teacher told a story which illustrates this point: "After a ten o'clock class, a girl came up to me and said she had just come from a martini party. Now, I have nothing against martinis-I think they're wonderful thing-but not at ten in the morning. It was just an obvious effort to break a rule for the sake of breaking a rule."
Another teacher asserted that the same attitude characterizes the administration's relations with the faculty. Mount Holyoke, he said, puts an exceedingly great stress on "good academic citizenship," and imposes a burden of trivial rules on the faculty.
Is it possible to cope with this atmosphere? Most girls say "yes," and appreciating the good aspects of Mount Holyoke, learn either to accept or to ignore its bad points. This teacher said no-"That's why I'm leaving at the end of the year."
The real misfortune of Mount Holyoke is not simply that many people at some time want to leave, but the caliber of people who do leave. Mount Holyoke is alienating the sophisticated, independent, and decisive students and faculty members, the very people who make an academic community exciting.