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Smith College: The Middle Way

By J. MICHAEL Crichton

The strongest traditions at Smith College are balance and moderation. Academically, the college has followed neither the formal but intensively intellectual approach of Sarah Lawrence, nor the pattern of disciplined scholarship of Bryn Mawr and Radcliffe. Socially, Smith remains firmly middle class and middle of the road: the Smith ideal is diversity rather than intensity, and among the girls, the urge to be well-rounded is extremely powerful.

"You've got to watch out," confided one girl, "or you'll get labelled a grind or something. People are always trying to do that to you." When asked what she thought a girl should be like, she answered, "Like most of the girls here, I guess. You know, all-round kids. Not at all narrow."

To the casual visitor, the 2200 undergraduates living in Northampton, Massachusetts seem wonderfully all-around girls. They arrive for their classes neat and clean--even during the week--and they all look exuberantly healthy and athletic. Though they work hard, they aren't slumped over beneath bookbags, and they don't twitch nervously when you talk to them. Indeed, Smith girls seem to be everything they're supposed to be: bright, cheerful, attractive, and socially adept young women.

The social prowess of the Smithie is rightly legendary. Smith girls date a lot and even those few that said they disliked the isolation of the campus (Northampton is 90 miles from Boston) did not mention a scarcity of boys as a factor in their feelings.

Each weekend, Northampton is jammed with boys from Amherst, Dartmouth, and Yale; the girls' experience is reflected in their poise around boys, and in their command of any social situation. (One small, defensive-looking girl, when asked what she did when a big Dartmouth animal got out of hand, smiled and said, "It's really quite simple. If he is being very obnoxious, you just pull back, look him straight in the eye, and say coldly, 'Frankly, you don't appeal to me at all.' It never fails.")

The Graduates

Smith's tradition of social adeptness carries on after graduation. As president Thomas C. Mendenhall says, "A Smith education must remain a privilege in that no graduate can forget the public responsibilities which accompany whatever personal growth her education may bring her." Smith women do not forget. They strive to be suburban community leaders, clubwomen, PTA heads. But their social concern is not only directed along such selfless lines: the Smith woman is famous for being a good wife for an organization man. There is a story, often repeated in this regard, of the rising young IBM executive who was engaged to a senior at Vassar. His superiors made it known to him that while Vassar was certainly "all right," to ensure full realization of his potential in the company, he really ought to marry Smith.

The girls themselves are likely to laugh off such stories, especially during the week, when their minds are on other matters. For the Smithie from Monday to Friday pursues her studies with a display of energy that threatens to topple her carefully guarded ideal of moderation. When pressed, a girl is likely to explain the situation this way: "You do what everybody does, you know, what the accepted thing is. And around here, the accepted thing is to work pretty hard all week long."

Smith education is interesting, both for its stated goals and for its application in practice. The laudable goal of four years at Smith is the production of "responsive and contributing members of the community." In practical terms, this means a series of concentration and distribution requirements as stiff as those of Harvard, with an emphasis on independent study.

Interim

Independent study, which presumably prepares the individual to continue her education alone after graduation, has long been a sore point at Northampton. President Mendenhall observes that "this (ability to continue after graduation) is particularly important for a young woman to acquire, and there is unhappy, clamorous evidence around us that her predecessors somehow failed in the attempt." To give the Smithie a taste of life on her own, the college has instituted a three year experiment called Interim, which provides the student with three weeks in January without classes or course commitments of any kind. So long as they remain on campus for the first five days of each week, they are free to do what they please.

There have now been two Interim sessions. As the program goes into its third year, student support--and opposition--has become increasingly vocal. Those who favor the program do not claim that significant work is accomplished in the period, but rather feel it is a valuable time for introspection. "It is surprising what one can learn about oneself in the short space of three weeks," said a letter in the Sophian. Others agreed. "I did some practice teaching," said one girl, "and I decided I liked it and wanted to be a teacher. In a way, that's not much to do in three weeks, but in a way it's a tremendous lot."

Other supporters of the program cited the value of Interim as a motivating force. "You suddenly see that it's all up to you. If you don't do anything for three weeks, you have a pretty low opinion of yourself. I think you work better in the spring after Interim."

What do the girls do during reading period? Some follow up work begun in the fall; several conscientious souls said they completed fall term reading lists. But the trend seems to be toward taking up some new project completely unrelated to course work. One girl wrote and illustrated a children's book, and another conducted an experiment in physical fitness. A few non-scientists tried their hand at lab work. The largest proportion set out to read "all the books I've been waiting and wanting to get to;" their enthusiasm resulted in a record number of withdrawals at the Smith library.

Inevitably, there was a final group of girls that did nothing at all. These students relate a quite different picture of Interim life. "The whole thing is a farce," said one. "The girls here just play bridge a lot, talk a lot, read a paperback or love comic. Ski on weekends. For most of us, it's three weeks of boredom."

Many feel this way. Although these girls regard the failure of Interim as a failure of personal motivation, there is considerable dissatisfaction with the efforts of the college as well. "To make Interim work, you need interested students. That's the job of the faculty all year long--to get the students interested. They don't do it." In one way or another, these girls felt the regular term-time education was not as effective as it might be. Some argued that the quality of the courses has failed to keep up with the rising academic ability and preparation of the incoming classes. ("Let's face it: what was tough stuff a decade ago is boring as hell to the better prepared kids coming along.")

Others felt that a more productive student-faculty relationship would aid the situation. Smithies do not have close contact with their faculty except in primarily social circumstances; they are likely to regard any professors they know more as benign uncles than as teachers. "We go to see them if we get behind in their course," said one girl. "Of course, we don't go unless they're nice," added another.

The girls seem to prefer working on their own; certainly the Smith faculty is very much available. Everyone agreed that the professors are "always there, and always nice about listening to you," but they felt that it "just never seemed important to see them about anything."

Rigidity

Still other opponents of the Interim session blamed the rigidity of regular coursework, claiming that it contrasted too strongly with the total freedom of Interim. "In Interim, you have three weeks to work on your own. But before and afterward in class, the exact opposite is true: the lectures are simpleminded and the exams and papers are strictly playback. You aren't asked or expected to think for yourself."

Added another, "It just plain isn't very exciting. Hard work, yes. But not exciting. This place has a cafeteria view of education; they just shove the knowledge in front of you and let you take what you want. It is so passive, so uninteresting, so mechanical you want to go nuts, sometimes."

It is strange that the girls complain about the passivity of the teachers ("the Smith faculty has too many informers and not enough stimulators"), for one of the most striking characteristics of the Smith education is the marked passivity of the students. They sit blankly in lecture; large numbers of them knit. ("They don't mind as long as we don't drop the needles.") In seminar groups of less than a dozen, the teacher often has trouble eliciting any response at all, to say nothing of starting up a live-exchange.

The girls are not bothered by their seeming unresponsiveness. "Look," said one, "at Sarah Lawrence they encourage you to say any old thing that comes into your head. Around here, we don't speak unless we have something to say, and we think before we speak. We like to be right about what we say." But another girl put it a different way: "We're scared to be wrong, to look foolish before other people. So rather than say something we're unsure of, we say nothing. The pressures in those little seminars is tremendous, sometimes."

Pressures at Smith are not confined to the classroom; conformity in manners, ideals, and dress is a hallmark of the Smith student. All colleges tend toward an undergraduate uniform, but nowhere is it more widely and carefully adopted than Smith. The well-groomed Smithie is moderate in dress, neither ostentatious nor sloppy; she looks classically well-scrubbed and cheerful in her Pepsodent smile, Pringle sweater, Ship-n'. Shore blouse, and pleated plaid skin. Wool knee socks and brown Bass Weejuns complete the basic picture.

Goals

The girls' eventual goals are no less standardized. The average Smithie wants to get married shortly after graduation, and to have children (two or three) after about three years of marriage. After that, she tends to simply be a good mother, a good and socially helpful (not to say advantageous) wife, and perhaps to take up a career later in life. It is not difficult to see why Smith has been labelled the great finishing school of upper-middle class suburban wives: little imagination is required to envision these girls in fifteen years, still pretty and still smiling, in their car coats and station wagons, driving the kids around town in Stamford, Connecticut or Shaker Heights, Ohio.

As might be expected, the rebels at Smith are rare. Almost everyone eventually succombs to the pressure. The girls live in 34 residence houses which are quite small (the largest has about 80 girls), and rather like sororities. The atmosphere is relaxed, but it is through the small house groupings that the pressure is exerted-pressure so great that distinctions between preppies and public school students, debutants and non-debts, are all but erased. The initial resentment of some freshmen for the pressure ("it's a chummy little hell") disappears and is replaced by an unthinking acceptance of the system.

"You get annoyed sometimes, when you realize people are telling you how to act, how to wear your hair, and what clothes to put on. But most of the time you don't care. I imagine it's the same at any girls' college," said a senior.

The Smith girl's lack of concern for her own individuality may be disconcerting to some, but taken on her own terms it is perfectly understandable. "We are here to get a certain kind of education, and preparation for a certain kind of life," one girl said. "Whether we admit it or not, we consciously came here for that purpose. We are all after much the same things--why shouldn't we act similarly?"

Undoubtedly, Smith girls pay a price in individualism, and in personal flamboyance, for their balance and well-roundedness. By emphasizing diversity, they sacrifice some of the intense intellectual excitement they might have found elsewhere. But one good look at one good Smithie is likely to convince a Cambridge observer that the compromise is unquestionably justified

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