Smith College: The Middle Way

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.


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."

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