Of Colleges and Cohorts (Part 6)

17th March

“A human being confused, disorderly, uncertain, in trying to establish order only creates more disorder.”

At ‘The Lone Wolf’ I get a pancake stack with maple syrup (from down the road) and coffee for breakfast. Today is Wednesday, so it is Amherst!

When Scott Forbes was the principal of Brockwood in the 80’s and early 90’s, he made a point of visiting US colleges and establishing a link with some of them which lead to quite a few Brockwood students coming to the US to study. For most it went extremely well, mainly because of the nature and approach of the colleges themselves. The liberal arts tradition in the US is based on the idea of a college curriculum that develops general intellectual capacities and imparts general knowledge over a four year period, leading to a Bachelor of Arts or Science. It is not regarded as a professional, vocational or technical qualification and in general the colleges allow more freedom to experiment with unusual groupings of subjects, or for the student to develop his or her own programme of study. In the US most colleges do not offer graduate studies and those that do are generally known as universities.

The private colleges are usually small in terms of the overall number of students, which means that classes never get too big and are discursive and interactive in nature. Courses are taught by the professors (not graduate students) who are available to meet with students needing assistance. Many of the colleges, especially the older ones, are extremely well endowed and able to offer generous financial aid, though getting places can be competitive. For the high school graduate not sure about which direction they wish to take in life, and not wanting to commit to a particular specialization too soon, the colleges provide an excellent opportunity to carry on exploring intellectually across a wide range of subjects, mixing and matching improbable combinations, or beginning to hone in on a particular field, but with the flexibility to pursue their own project work. These are not luxuries afforded in many European colleges and universities.

Amherst is part of the Five College Consortium, which includes Hampshire, Smith, Mount Holyoake and the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Students enrolled in any one of these are able to attend courses in the other four and all are geographically close to one another and linked by buses, which run regularly between the campuses. This means that a freshman has something like 5,000 courses to chose from when starting out, but in reality it appears that most courses are attended in the college in which one is enrolled and in the first year only a few students take advantage of the other colleges.

Amherst College is infused into the town of Amherst in ways that make it hard to tell where one begins and the other ends, but chances are that if a building is neo-classical in design, imposing and expensive then it belongs to the college. This is a highly competitive, top-ranking, liberal arts college with a long history and a big endowment. Several Brockwood alumni have attended it in the past, including Rajesh, my host in Boston and one of our current trustees. I meet with the Assistant Dean of Admissions who has made some time for me during the busy ‘selection season’.  She is part of the committee having to decide from more than 9000 applicants which 800 will be offered places. Only around 400 will end up attending, as students are typically applying to 5 to 10 colleges at the same time.

Amherst offers the BA degree in 34 fields of study ranging from Dance and Theatre, through Economics to Neuroscience, and has a faculty-student ration of 1 to 8 (fairly typical for most private liberal arts colleges). Students are able to participate in research work at undergraduate level (as in other colleges) and can chart an individual course, with the help of faculty, through the more than 800 courses offered. About 75% of Amherst graduates go onto graduate school within 5 years of leaving the college.

The college is on its spring break so the Assistant Dean decides to give me a brief tour. It is a stunning spring day and the campus looks gorgeous. By the end of our quick walk around I feel like starting my own education all over again here and seeing where it might lead, however, I have a nagging feeling that my application will not make it to the short list.

A 15 minute drive gets me to Northampton, a bigger (30,000) and more bustling town than Amherst and home to Smith College, another top-ranking all women’s liberal arts college, also well established with a beautiful campus and large endowment. I do not have any appointments here so simply pick up some literature on the college and take a walk in the grounds. This is as near as you get in the US to the cloistered, studious feeling of the Oxbridge colleges, and it is impressive with resources and funds available that are a tad mind-blowing.

Having had my fill of academia for one day I get in the car and return to the co-ed world of Barnes and Noble and Hojos (Howard Johnsons).

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