Of Colleges and Cohorts (Part 5)

14th March

“Order is not static, it is a living movement.”

Farewell to Vinay at Penn Station, overcrowded due to weather related delays and cancellations. But mine is on time and the train has wireless, so I deal with a few emails before my battery runs out and by that time we are out the backdoor of NYC and into the countryside. But it is not until over half the journey to Boston is completed that the line meets the Atlantic Ocean and the scenery becomes striking. This is the Eastern Seaboard and there are numerous rocky shorelines, quiet bays, tidal inlets and rivers, with beautiful timber ‘clap-board’ houses perched at the waters edge, or gathered in hamlets and towns.

As we approach Boston the train stops for signals and does not start. Rajesh calls, he is sitting in his car outside the downtown station with not much time to spare and wonders where I am. We start moving again and pull into Boston a short time later, the rain now beating a tattoo over the city. Rajesh has a flight to London to catch leaving in a little under two hours, so we are no sooner at his home – greeting Lisa and the children – and he is out the door to a taxi idling in the rain.

I am at the dining room table catching up on the family news and sharing dramatic stories with the children. They are tickled, and fall about laughing, after the one about a student friend skiing for the first time, beautifully kitted-out in knickerbockers and knee length red socks. Faced with a gentle slope he loses control and skies gracefully into a young tree disappearing under the snow loosed from the branches. Only his red socks can be seen!

15th March

“Our life is movement, but we have brought about disorder in our life.”

A half-hours drive and I’m at Wellesley College, one of the ‘Seven Sisters’. These were the seven woman’s colleges started in the 19th century to match the seven Ivy League schools, which were all male at the time. Only a few of them have remained single sex, Wellesley being one. It has beautiful grounds and for just 2,300 students is exceedingly well endowed: 1.6 billion dollars! The alumnae include such luminaries as Madame Chiang Kai-Shek, Madeleine Albright and Hilary Clinton.

I meet with the woman who deals with international student applications and while she acknowledges the competition for places is stiff there is a shortage of applicants from the UK and the profile of Brockwood interests her. Outside it is bucketing down again, so I decline the offer of a tour and head for the Student Centre in search of a coffee and an international phone card. It is the most confusing building I have been in for a long time. Very modern, very attractively furnished, but with no signage and so angular and quirky that I spend 15 minutes wandering about trying to figure out where things are and which floor I’m on.  I find the coffee but not the phone card.

I’m left with mixed feelings about Wellesley. It is perhaps the most attractive and well endowed campus and college I have seen so far, but it has the rarified air of a both the single sex institution and a place of great wealth and privilege and I’m not sure that it would work for many of our students.

After supper the children quite spontaneously decide to re-enact the skiing accident I told them about last night, complete with red socks woolly hats and umbrellas as ski poles. The one assigned to being the tree immediately envelops the unsuspecting skier in a white sheet and there is much wrestling on the floor, red socks flashing, before the hapless skier is freed and has to changes places with the tree, as it’s now her/his turn to do the skiing and crashing bit. It has been some time since I’ve been in a house with small children and their energy, imagination and passion is a joy.

16th March

“Negation of disorder is order.”

This is Tuesday so it must be Amherst. Always check what you take to be a given! Getting up early for the two hour drive was helped by the fact that finally the weather has broken and the sun is out. I have programmed the satnav correctly (but not my brain) so when it takes me to the door of Hampshire College, I figure it is not working properly, switch it off, turn around and head back the few miles towards the attractive township of Amherst, looking for the College that bears the same name. As I drive I phone (legal in the US) the man responsible for International Students who I’m due to have lunch with and we agree that instead of coming to the college I should meet him outside a restaurant in town. It is not until he arrives, we have introduced ourselves and I begin asking him about Amherst that he stops me to explain that he is not from Amherst, he is from Hampshire, has nothing to do with Amherst and I have had an appointment to meet him on this day for some time now.

“I’m not losing my memory, I’m just being in the now!” is how the character in the New Yorker cartoon puts it, but the way I would put it is “Be sure you do your homework and pay attention to the detail.” So, having got off to a shaky start we make up for it over lunch. Hampshire is a liberal arts college that a number of Brockwood alumni have gone to over the years and they generally speak highly of it. It is in many respects a natural fit with Brockwood and having just turned 40 is only a fraction younger. It was started by a handful of educators, most of them faculty of neighbouring universities, and was regarded as a bold experiment in education at the time, offering self-directed courses of study; students working closely with faculty on research and creative endeavours; an interdisciplinary approach across the curriculum and a pedagogy informed by real-world issues and infused with social justice.

I take a tour and yes, she starts out walking backwards, but part way through appears to decide, without any prompting, that this is a bad idea and abandons it, making only small, half-hearted concessions to it from time-to-time. Something I take as a sign of her having received a good education so far: independence of thought and the supremacy of commonsense over management directives. The setting of Hampshire is gorgeous, surrounded by woodland with extensive grounds and its own farm, but sadly the buildings seem to let it down. Nearly all built at the end of the 60’s they are on the whole functional concrete and brick boxes with little character and no apparent concern with aesthetics. The fact that this is the spring break and there are no students around does not help show it in the best light.

In the science block we are taken to see a lab which is massive and without dividing walls. Almost every piece of furniture is on wheels and workspaces can be adapted according to the need. Working quietly away in a corner is a biology professor who was a founding member of faculty, and who when asked explains his reasons for insisting on the design of this room.  He is an engaging man and probably an excellent teacher and shares with us his approach to teaching at Hampshire, which requires that students learn science by doing it. Everything that occurs in the biology class from day one is about research and students discover scientific skills by working as scientists do. A body of knowledge is never taught just for its own sake.

Later, in brilliant afternoon sunshine, I go looking for a hotel and find a ubiquitous ‘Howard Johnsons’ which seems to offer the best value for money in town. Now all I need is a ‘Trader Joes’ and sure enough there is one a few blocks down.

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