College at Its Best (Hint: Small and Real)

We declare this: America's small liberal arts colleges ("SLACs") ought to be regarded as the gold-standard model for college education--and anything falling short of that model should indeed be understood as a compromise, a departure from the best. SLACs feature small classes with learned professors fully devoted to undergraduate education, who treat students as unique individuals. The small liberal arts college--a distinctively American model of college--has a long track record of success. It works. In small settings, students and professors roll up their sleeves and together get to work--in classrooms, labs, studios, and on stages. Small-scale person-to-person education works and works best, as evaluated by any empirical metric you want to use.

The problem is--let's be frank--there are some loudmouthed, well-financed, and ill-informed idiots (yes, name-calling is probably appropriate, given the damage they seek to do) who somehow find perverse joy in the prospect of dismantling ("reforming" "transforming" "disrupting") liberal arts education all across the country, and especially small-scale face-to-face education. As their response to the spiraling cost of college, they insist that broad-based liberal arts education is profligate and that small-scale learning environments featuring flesh-and-bones teachers are dispensable. Several SLACs are richly endowed, but many other small colleges are on shaky financial footing these days--so let them go under, our naysayers say, and let the others eventually topple, too. A brave new world of scaled-up technology-enhanced cost-effective education is virtually right around the corner (they keep predicting), and so they insist that, in the meanwhile, we shift all of our public monies, venture capital funds, and philanthropic dollars in that techno-teacherless direction they keep heralding as coming.

Dante, were he alive today, would surely reserve a special rung in hell for such "education reformers." They betray the deepest bonds of human society. Their punishment will be that they will have to watch Khan Academy videos for all of eternity (spoiler alert: they'll never graduate, even with 100% retention rates, but they will pile up "certificates of completion" for every on-line nether worldly course they manage to suffer through).

Let me give an example of something that cannot be taught well in large university classes or via the Internet: Writing. Learning to write and to write well requires teachers who know their students and who take the time to read written assignments carefully and to provide personalized feedback. Choosing the right word for a particular passage, deploying a strategic argument for the purpose at hand, crafting a style appropriate for the question under review, thinking hard about clarifying and conveying one's ideas--these are matters of judgment, judgments cultivated, aided, and refined through the eyes and words of a knowing interlocutor. There is no "paint-by-the-numbers" approach to learning how to write. Writing cannot be standardized, outsourced, or mechanized. It takes work. It takes time. It takes practice. It takes mentoring.

I've taught college for thirty years--at Stanford, Tufts, UC Santa Cruz, Princeton, and Pomona College. By now, I've read and responded to thousands and thousands of pages of student writing. Let me reveal here a dirty secret of American higher education these days: The students deemed best by our K-12 system--those trained and prepped in some of the best high schools across the land, who have 4.65 GPAs and 2300 SATs and who get admitted into premier colleges and universities--still can't write. They have aced numerous standardized tests attesting to their writing and reading abilities. They've been published in school newspapers and have blogged extensively about their travels to Honduras and have texted and tweeted out a gazillion digitized characters all told. Stepping onto their college campuses as frosh, they know to run their paper drafts through computerized spell checks and grammar checks before turning them in to the professor. But they still can't write. Why?

My guess is that part of the problem is that high school teachers in schools across the country, public and private, don't have enough time to read batches and batches and pages and pages of student writing. But I think the problem goes deeper. The first-year college students I encounter seem to have been taught, in this zeitgeist and heyday of standardized testing and teaching, that writing essentially means not thinking for themselves. Instead, they've learned that writing is basically a process of following formulas and fitting scripted sentences into prescribed rubrics. They've been taught that a thesis means applying and conforming to a template rather than arriving upon an arresting idea. In fact, they barely know what constitutes an idea. By the time they've tested their way into Pomona, Princeton, or Stanford, they show little confidence, as evidenced in their writing, in their own abilities to think.

At small Pomona College, we're trying our best to work on writing (and a fortiori, on the kind of thinking that good writing assumes and hones). We devote many college resources--institutional and interpersonal--to writing. Every first-year student takes a small-seminar course that makes writing the centerpiece of the seminar. Students in that course submit draft after draft of paper assignments, and the professors read and comment on every draft. The professors who teach in that program also participate in an intensive workshop on writing, and then they meet periodically throughout the semester to compare notes. Select juniors and seniors help out in the course as extra readers and peer-mentors for writing. We have a Writing Center staffed by professionals as well as writing tutors, to whom one can bring a paper draft on a "drop-in" basis. We have librarians "embedded" in many courses to help with the research en route to writing papers. Writing is a mainstay of many courses, including a good number of courses in the sciences and even math. We also feature writing workshops taught by novelists, poets, playwrights, and journalists. Several departments offer clinics for the writing of senior theses. By the time our students are juniors and seniors, many write collaboratively with our professors for peer-reviewed publications. Many of our alums become, in fact, professional writers. Others write their way into and through graduate school, into law or medical school, into business and beyond.

Small liberal arts colleges--not just Pomona--are all about writing, reading, talking, and thinking, as activities best conducted in close quarters with others. These are activities that call for, at every turn, attentiveness and inventiveness and judgment. Such judgments are informed yet improvised responses to unprecedented particularities--real-time situations, complex and evolving problems, and real-world persons who appear before us as multifaceted, non-fungible individuals. To think about such matters is always to think anew and on-the-spot (even when brooding about apparently abiding truths and enduring texts). Standardized, scaled-up, and copy-cat pedagogies simply cannot teach activities (such as writing) that involve thinking and judging about things that are inherently sui generis and idiosyncratic. I know that that's a bitter pill for many of our education reformers to swallow these days, and maybe they and their funders will need to squander many more investment dollars on bad solutions before acceding to that hands-on wisdom. But to those who value tried and true and estimable education, I say: support your nearby small liberal arts college. Great things--writ small before they become writ large--are indeed happening on those little campuses.

John Seery is co-editor, along with Susan McWilliams of The Best Kind of College: An Insiders' Guide to America's Small Liberal Arts College (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, Sept. 1, 2015)