A Larger Role for the Small College

“The small college of the future cannot afford to be the special privilege of the especially privileged,”says Mrs. Raushenbush, who taught at Wellesley, Barnard, and Columbia before she joined the faculty of Sarah Lawrence College. Since 1946, she has served successively as dean, faculty trustee, director of the Center for Continuing Education, and president of the college. This article comes from THE UNFINISHED JOURNEY,a volume commemorating the one-hundredth anniversary of the U.S. Department of Education,to be published this month by John Day. It is part of a continuing examination in our pages of the pains and problems and prospects of higher education.


THE impressive salmon-colored application form on which one applies for federal funds for college facilities asks the petitioner, very early, to predict growth in the size of his institution over the next few years. Moreover, the instructions say that if it is not possible to promise such growth, the applying institution should not bother to go further in completing the application.

The reason for the requirement is understandable and sound. Twenty years ago we knew something about the number of seventeen-year-old people who would be ready for college by the early sixties, but as we review our behavior as educators, it is painfully clear we did much too little to be ready for them, although we talked a great deal about the problems their presence would pose. When they started coming, we rushed to house and feed and find ways of teaching them. The president of a great state university said, one September day about three years ago, with a kind of anesthetized calm, “Two thousand more freshmen registered at the university last week than we had expected.”

So the national need for education in quantity is great, and the national government has a clear responsibility to do its share to meet the national need. Its generous support of programs, research, teachers, and facilities testifies to its effort.

Not only in government application forms but at educational meetings, in conferences of administrators, in fund-raising efforts, in scientific and technological laboratories and factories devising and making instruments that will teach students by the thousands instead of merely by the hundreds, the race to meet the upsurge with teachers, space, equipment exerts a powerful force.

The small colleges respond in several ways. Some double and triple in size and share the need of the very large institutions for increased facilities for increasing numbers. Some of them grow, or try to grow, into universities; the need for specialized and graduate training gives many of them, at last, an opportunity to join the university ranks. Some of them resist growing, or grow moderately, out of a conviction that their educational value lies in remaining small. Finally there is evidence that in the present important search for ways to improve education, small colleges may develop new forms and new functions.

I have two things to say about small liberal arts colleges; both deal with the functions I think they have to perform in these times in addition to functions they have performed in the past, or instead of those functions.

One has to do with the way small liberal arts colleges, because of their size, their independence from large institutional pressures, their potential for mobility, their internal human relations, can serve some of the new and urgent educational needs more directly than can large institutions and give educators, teachers, students, parents, and society generally some insight into these needs as well as possible ways of dealing with them. The other endorses a new kind of relationship now developing between small colleges and large universities that may in the end maximize the assets of each and counteract, to some degree at least, the liabilities of each.

Whether in the increasing complexity of education liberal arts colleges will be able to serve these functions depends on whether we are able to summon the human resources and the financial support to serve them. I suggest that the possibilities are important and unique and can create a quite new design for education.

I do not seek to justify the traditional role of the liberal arts college or to support its survival because of its history. The small liberal arts colleges have been a powerful force in the best intellectual life of this country; they have educated great men and distinguished women. For a hundred years they made the largest contribution to the thinking of the men who designed the political and industrial life of the country and formed the institutions of a pioneering society. They were created to educate ministers and lawyers and statesmen, and until the last decade, in our own time, they still provided the undergraduate education of many of our most illustrious scientists, writers, educators, and scholars. Whether they will have this function in the future we don’t yet know, but they have other and at least as important functions to perform in a world never dreamed of by those who developed these colleges or by those who, for more than a century and a half, have been educated in them. I will try to describe some of these and say why I think the small college needs to serve them.

When we came to educate women, we created new liberal arts colleges for them, and like the men’s colleges, they performed two rather disparate functions that nevertheless seemed to live peacefully together. The men’s colleges educated men to be gentlemen as well as ministers or lawyers. The women’s colleges were the protected and private places where intelligent young women of family spent four years cultivating their minds until they should be ready to be the wives and hostesses of the gentlemen turned out by the men’s colleges. But the women’s colleges were also the lively, troublestirring grounds for the battle women fought for intellectual, political, and social equality, and they quickly demonstrated that the education that had been designed for men of superior faculties could also serve such women. The need to make this demonstration — as well as their success in making it— has been the most important factor in the design of women’s education up to now. In our time we should have new objectives in educating women, and seeking them may also be a new function of a liberal arts college.

FORTY years ago a new dimension was added to American education by the creation or re-creation (as in the case of Swarthmore) of a new kind of small liberal arts college. Those years were a lively time for education, as these are. New theories of learning, of human growth, of the importance of the early childhood years added ferment to education; new forces in scholarship, the turmoil following the First World War, the Depression, the pessimism and the utopian idealism of those years inspired new thinking about the aims and methods of education. In the course of a few years a group of colleges experimenting with new ways of education was created — Meiklejohn’s Experimental College at the University of Wisconsin, Reed College, the redesigned Swarthmore, Antioch, Bennington, Sarah Lawrence — and for all their youth and their limited size, these colleges have been a force in American education. Numbers do not give the measure of their influence. Differing in many ways, they were all innovative and independent, and each had a strong character and life-style.

They came into existence when there were strong voices of dissent against custom, in and out of the universities. They undertook to discover ways of making education relevant to the lives of their students. They sought ways of teaching that would make their students transcend routine learning. They sought new subject matter in the effort to unite the study of literature, history, philosophy, science, and the arts to the questions, anxieties, and hopes of students in a crucial period of their lives. They rejected as the function of the liberal arts college the careful preservation of an academic culture created at an earlier time for a smaller and more homogeneous population for which ivy walls and the ivory tower had become the symbols.

Their two important missions were to understand more about growth and learning in the late adolescent years and to discover how to make classical learning relevant to inquiring students in a period of history full of possibilities and hazards. Some were more concerned with the first of these issues — Sarah Lawrence College, for instance — and some with the second — the Experimental College and Reed College. They gave the liberal arts colleges new purpose — even when, as in the case of Meiklejohn’s Experimental College, the life-span was short. That college was abolished after only five years, but its importance lasted far beyond its life, and the fortieth reunion brought together able men from all over the country to a ceremony quite different from most reunion ceremonies. We have new purposes now, and we need the imagination and the commitment that created those colleges to make education relevant to the students of this time.

The new experimental colleges reached from coast to coast, but the heart of traditional liberal education in small colleges was from the beginning in the North and East — New England, Pennsylvania, New York — with some distinguished examples elsewhere. Even a generation ago, for an Easterner to go to the Midwest to college was to leave the most civilized part of the world too far behind. But in these years there is a growing vitality in small colleges from Wisconsin to Tennessee as well as a freedom from tradition that may allow them to take a front place in redesigning education and educational institutions in the coming years.

They are using imagination in discovering ways of keeping the advantages of smallness and in dealing with its liabilities. For instance, they carry on their individual programs but unite formally or informally in regional associations for special purposes they cannot serve alone. One group carries out a common program for foreign study, for which students are prepared in the individual colleges and by some common activities. Another group comes together to develop ideas for the teaching of science in ways that are especially suited to small institutions.

A group of colleges committed to educational experiment and innovation combine to exchange ideas about their own future and the future of undergraduate education, to undertake educational research and curriculum planning, and to make joint plans for educational innovation.

All around the country, in the past ten years, good private colleges have made efforts, sometimes very elaborate efforts, to seek out and admit Negro students. More recently special programs have been instituted to supplement the inadequate education many of these students have had in poor elementary and secondary schools. Such efforts have been variously successful, but however effective they have been, or can be, they will not be adequate for the future. A much greater effort must be made to find ways of designing education after high school for students severely handicapped by inferior early education.

Some students will take their chances in the public universities, even with earlier schooling that cripples their efforts in college from the start. The best of the small colleges that have been educating Negro students will integrate white students, and if adequately supported, such colleges should be able to give the attention large institutions may not to the special academic problems of these students. Obviously, improving the education of the most deprived people, white or Negro, must start in the earliest years, but every year more of them arrive at college age with severely inadequate elementary and secondary education, and we have to consider how they shall be educated in the colleges we have or can devise. We are at the very beginning of the effort, which public and private funds will have to support, to provide for the improvement of these institutions, whether by making available funds to pay better teachers, introducing new programs, encouraging collaboration between stronger and weaker institutions, or by other means. Imaginative educational experiment is essential in this area, and good small colleges should be encouraged to make such experiments.

The cluster colleges now being planned and built in California and elsewhere, creating small colleges where otherwise mammoth institutions would grow, give a new design to liberal arts colleges and extend their range. This design, of which the Claremont Colleges are a long-established model, may become one of our most important devices for preserving the values of the small college. Unlike the associations of colleges, these are built close together, so that they can use the most expensive facilities jointly and thus escape the limitations of inadequate libraries or laboratories.

What are the educational values that are likely to be lost if the liberal arts colleges disappear, and what can they add to education when the demands for educating large numbers are so great?

Education as the process of inquiry and discovery by the students, as well as the acquisition of knowledge, has been the great contribution of the best of the small colleges. The exchange between teachers and students and among students — the discovery of possibilities for knowledge, for thought, for action that comes in the process of exchange — promotes learning in a dimension different from the education that comes when the student is a receiver only. The chance to discover the important questions, to discuss ideas, to explore humanistic studies, not as academic subjects but as ways of being, serves students’ search for a value system as well as for knowledge. It is such experience of learning that motivates students and engages them in the process.

With the college years, students enter a new and highly self-conscious period of adolescent life. They look much more consciously than they ever have before for connections between what they learn and what they are and want to become — and this is equally true of the angry and articulately rebellious ones and of the silent and apparently responsive ones. It is their final chance, in their formal education, to define who they are, to discover the difference between inward and imposed motivation for study. Relations they can establish with teachers and with each other encourage such engagement, and these relations are impossible for most students in big institutions. In only two or three years their rebellion against “anonymity” has become a cliché. It is an old experience, but it has become intense and vocal, and we have all discovered that we cannot ignore it. Education will serve the life purposes of this generation of students better if we can find ways of increasing the chance for direct association between teachers and students and among students in their studies. The small colleges and the new versions of the small colleges we can create should help serve these purposes.

THE most urgent problems that undergraduate higher education has to deal with in our time are these: In the face of the tremendous growth of knowledge, how do we decide what should be taught and how to teach it? In the face of the tremendous variety of students, how do we design education that is appropriate for them? In the face of the tremendous turmoil in the world immediately around us, in this country and in the rest of the world, how do we relate the education of students in college to what they are confronted with in the world outside? And how do we cope with the sense of dislocation we find all about us in students who are more aware than some of us who educate them of the magnitude of these problems, which are their problems as well as ours?

We have to seek answers to these questions in all the ways we can. Small colleges alone will obviously not find the answers. But neither will we find them by adding more and more students to lecture halls and by building higher and higher dormitories to house more and more people.

The large institutions will find better ways than they have yet to improve the communication of knowledge by means of the great technological inventions, and that knowledge will be best communicated which is most congenial to such methods. But there is much that is crucial in the developing education of students that will not be discovered in such lecture halls. The small colleges should serve as models or laboratories in which the impact of education on students can be seen and dealt with directly, and they can provide knowledge about students and their response to education that should be useful to all institutions.

Small colleges can no longer be justified as mainly conservators of the past, as the last fine stronghold of traditional culture, as private places where young people can be sheltered from the world. This will not serve students; the extent of the problems of educating them does not justify these as the principal purposes of colleges.

The sense of dislocation that students experience and that has made front-page news has sources deeper than education alone can reach, but education obviously cannot ignore it. The violent evidence of students’ dissatisfaction with their lives and their education, for all its extravagances, is most important because it throws a harsh and high light on conditions that exist even when they do not erupt in violence.

There are some basic dissatisfactions with life as it has been organized in undergraduate institutions large and small that we have to deal with, not piecemeal and as outbursts require, but by discovering what procedures we have always depended on are no longer useful, as they once were.

ONE aspect of the traditional design of undergraduate life that no longer serves students is its enclosed and protecting function. Mobility, the spectacular rate of change in where people go, how they live, what they see has, I think, abolished forever the image of the college as a private place where for four years attention can be focused on intellectual pursuits, away from the action of the world.

The design of life on college campuses is changing faster than most people imagine, and the change will continue. We are at the dying end of dormitory life as we have known it. The passionate attention given to parietal rules and demands for changes in rules obscures the fact that whether students have to sign in at eleven at night or at two in the morning or whether men and women students can visit in each other’s dormitory rooms is not the issue. These are only symptoms of the issues. Students in all except the most provincial colleges are rejecting a life that is enclosed — in terms of what they study, how they live, how they function in the institution — and we discover to our dismay that the pattern of life that has so long been appropriate for the years between seventeen and twenty-one in an educational institution no longer suits.

That it will change, is changing, is obvious. There are two possibilities for change. One is to say that the institution has no responsibility for the style of life of its students, that they may live as they please and make such arrangements as they can. This is what happens in many of the great public universities. Students who wish to do so may live in dormitories under dormitory rules made by the administration, and the others may live as they please. We can, in this way, let the life-style of small residence colleges erode and change by accident and circumstance, but it is in such colleges that we should be able to discover whether it is possible to create change, not by accident but by design.

The questions about how young people should live and be educated — young people who neither have the responsibilities to their original families that exist when they live at home nor have taken on responsibilities to families of their own — were settled once, when residence colleges were created. They have to be settled again, and it is important for education, for the lives of students at a particularly vulnerable time, and for the understanding that adults need to have of the young people they educate that the college not abdicate the question of how they are to live — that is, in what kind of community, if any, and by what values, and with what relation between their daily life and activities and their learning. The disruption of conventional dormitory life is as yet greater in the big universities than in the residence colleges, for many reasons, principally that the colleges can exercise greater control. But the causes of erosion, the dissatisfactions that make students seek to change regulations and seek more freedom to choose where and how they should live — it is in the smaller colleges that these can be seen and discussed with students and serious thought given to what should take the place of what we now have.

The restlessness with dormitory life, which is most obvious on the campuses with the most inquiring students, is part of a larger questioning about undergraduate education as we have known it. It is part of a rejection of the magic of the fouryear span of undergraduate education. It took us a long time to get over the idea that students dropped out of college because they could not, or would not, manage academic work, a long time to discover that dropouts were often able students who resisted the uninterrupted span of four years after the uninterrupted span of twelve years in elementary and high school. It was in some of the best institutions with the ablest students that administrators began to recognize the importance for the life of some students of interrupting the four consecutive college years. We are taking a more reasonable view of a leave of absence for students and looking less on such interruptions as signs of failure either on the student’s part or the institution’s. But merely countenancing it may not be the best solution for a student’s education. It is possible that we need to think of ways in which the time out of college can, tor some students, be important as part of their education as well as part of their personal growth. The public universities permit students to come and go freely enough. It is in the small colleges, where teachers know students and can follow the process of their education, the quality of their experience, and their growth as individuals, that we should be able to discover ways of making both study in the institution and experience outside it contribute to a student’s education. The educational design of some colleges already provides for such activity for all students. Antioch is the best known, but students in other places should be able individually to spend time at work outside the college — in a laboratory or agency, on a government project, at an archaeological digging, in another school, or in industry — as part of their academic studies, whether or not this is part of the institutional design.

In the time to come, as we confront more fully the need to discover how to educate this larger and more heterogeneous population of students in a revolutionary world, the small colleges should be at the forefront of educational innovation. Their manageable size, their very freedom from the necessity to work with students in thousands, should encourage them to consider how to redesign programs of study to meet the needs of students and of a changing society. It is in such institutions that new ways of organizing a curriculum can most easily be found, and such efforts on a small scale might even provide experience and ideas useful to large institutions.

WE KNOW that most of the students in this country will be educated in massive institutions by methods that will reach large numbers of students at a time. Small colleges and the examples they are able to provide can be a force in decentralizing large institutions, and I suggest that their greatest new importance in our time will be to accomplish this. We have the chance, if we will take it, of creating a new design for education that will make the fullest use of the new technological devices that enable us to teach large numbers of students at once and perhaps better than they would be taught in conventional ways, that will preserve the irreplaceable qualities in teaching and learning that come from an interchange between a teacher and a student, and that will give opportunity and occasion to work in imaginative ways on educational problems that have been created by today s necessities.

The time is here for a union of great institutions and small colleges, and one of the most encouraging signs in American education today is the start that has been made all around the country to do this. From Florida to Michigan to California, men and women dissatisfied with dealing with education by accretion are trying to find ways to decentralize, to create small colleges as satellites to universities in which the values of the small colleges can be extended to more students.

Such satellite colleges should not be merely collections of students and teachers in small groups instead of large ones. Each one should have a character and educational style of its own, as the best of the small traditional colleges and experimental colleges have had. In such colleges as these, every chance should be given for educational experimentation — the kind of effort that cannot be made with large masses of students and that can be made with small groups. Such institutions as these can be bold in the effort to discover how traditional knowledge can be redesigned for its greatest use to students in this time and how teaching methods which have been until now the experience of only the selected students in the more selective private colleges can be extended to others.

While some universities will encourage the establishing of “honors colleges” as satellites to give the most able students individual education and an environment for the exchange of ideas, it is even more important that these satellite colleges educate ordinary students — students who, by attending them, will have a better chance to develop high motivation for study. Some might be organized to teach students for only two years, sending them then on to the parent university.

Each should have its own faculty, its own livingspace, and its own study and teaching space. A number of experimental colleges connected with universities have been created in neighboring towns or at a distance from the parent institutions. But it seems to me that there are advantages in establishing satellite colleges close to the campus of the parent university; one might imagine a ring of small colleges around the periphery or on the grounds of the university. The satellite can then use the expensive facilities of the university.

There should be a faculty for such a college that is identified with that college. The professor should not teach in it as part of his regular program in the university but teach there full time, even though for only a limited number of years. It might be an asset to teaching for a faculty member to stay for several years in the satellite college and then return to the university.

Such small colleges could safely have a limited curriculum — fewer courses, fewer subjects to study at once, more depth and commitment to what one does study. Students should have free access to certain courses in the parent institution — lecture courses that supplement their studies in their own college. For this part of their education the size of a lecture class, the impersonality of the situation, would be no drawback, and perhaps an advantage. If there is a series or cluster of such small colleges on a university campus, it will often be appropriate to have free interchange of students among them. Each one might have its strongest emphasis in a single area of knowledge and develop special competence in its students in that field — the arts, behavioristic studies, literature and writing, science.

It is often said that in these days small colleges cannot provide adequate programs in science. It might be interesting for such a small college to discover what kind of study of science is indeed important to its students and appropriate in such a setting. The developing knowledge and the increasing importance in our society of environmental biology, for instance, might encourage the creation of a curriculum emphasizing such studies that would involve not only biology and chemistry but appropriate courses in sociology, psychology, and planning.

This is a branch of science with immediate and wide humanistic significance. Our civilization will be as immensely affected by problems of air and water pollution, population control, disease prevention as by the scientific problems that need nuclear reactors and atom smashers for their study. Such a college would seek to attract students interested in these studies.

SATELLITE colleges should experiment with new populations as well as with new curriculums and new ways of study. Some should encourage the admission of students from poor homes and poor schools who especially need tutorial and small-discussion teaching to develop the abilities that their previous education has not developed.

The small college of the future cannot afford to be the special privilege of the especially privileged. We have for a hundred years neglected the education of the Negro population of this country, and we have ample evidence that we can neglect it no longer. We have tried to assimilate such young people and other poor and badly taught students into our schools and colleges, giving them such casual help as we could and letting them drop. A major responsibility of education in the coming generation will be to take their needs into serious consideration and bring to their education all the knowledge and skill we have developed in educating the most privileged of our children.

I have spoken of the fact that in this generation the residence college is no longer a private place and that the dormitory life of a generation ago will not do. This raises the question of what kind of life is desirable for young people in their undergraduate years. A satellite college could try to invent an appropriate community life, and it would be wise to have the students who will live in it participate in the invention. And perhaps this satellite, or perhaps another, could create a curriculum that has as a major part of its design a combination of on-campus and off-campus studies — an in-andout college that would discover for students, and let them discover for themselves, modes of activity off campus that would be given form by their studies on campus. Such activities could range from research in laboratories or research institutes to teaching or other work with the volunteer service organizations which enlist students or in political offices. Such jobs might be related to studies before they go or after they return.

A college in such a setting that seriously turned its attention to the education of women might teach us a great deal we need to know. I suggest that we have never paid much attention to the education of women in this country, although we have talked a great deal about it. The women’s colleges, in general, have modeled themselves on the men’s colleges, and this made very good sense at a time when it seemed necessary to demonstrate that women are as able intellectually as men and can take the same education as men. But it took relatively little time to demonstrate that the women’s colleges were also important for the encouragement they gave to women (for whom there were no other educational opportunities) to seek intellectual, social, and political independence, and in those days they performed a mighty function and educated an impressive group of women. In our time it may be important to recognize that differences between men and women, whether of nature or nurture, may be such that the education of able women should in some respects be different from the education of men precisely because they are women and not men. The events of women’s lives in timing, pace, and rhythm are very different from those of men’s lives. The line of education for men from the beginning to the time they enterbusiness or a profession is relatively straight unless interrupted by war, economic depression, or some other social dislocation. The line of education for women is quite different, and we will educate them differently, certainly for the professions, when we cease to think of marriage and the bearing and rearing of children as an interruption to a normal life design and begin to recognize them as part of the mainstream to which education is also central. So a satellite college could experiment, as we have done in only very small ways, so far, with the education of women.

It seems to me that the largest problem — and the greatest doubt in even the partial decentralization of large institutions — is the problem of faculty. But this seems to me not an argument against the establishing of small colleges as adjuncts to large institutions. It seems rather a challenge to seek to discover, and when discovered properly reward, teachers and administrators for whom this kind of experimentation would be an enlargement of their lives.

Designing, teaching in, and administering such an experimental college are enormously timeconsuming and energy-demanding. We know that creative institutions are designed and brought into existence by individuals committed to the purposes for which the institution is created. These satellite colleges will no more be created by the order of a university administrator than were the experimental colleges of the 1930s. Alexander Meiklejohn was not to be restrained, nor was Frank Aydelotte when he was ready to bring to life his vision of what Swarthmore should be.

Any educational enterprise that requires imagination and courage can fail at the beginning if we do not have the human resources to create it. We need not only faith that they exist but support to find them out.