Is Earlham a Distinctive College?

October 18, 2010

In what ways does Earlham’s educational excellence lie in its distinctiveness?  We believe we are both excellent and distinctive, but are these the same?  Does one require or support the other?

These questions are on our minds at the college because while we are confident we are a college that is uncommonly successful in inducing student learning (that’s what we mean by educational excellence, I hope) and also confident that we have a number of features that make us distinctive, we worry that neither our excellence nor our distinctive shine through in a crowded admissions marketplace to prospective students.  Every college and university claims in is a community, claims it gives personal attention to each student, and claims it stresses global education.  With all such claims inflated and thus diluted, how do we best present ourselves to prospective students?  More importantly, how do we understand ourselves?

I believe that our educational excellence rests primarily in our trying to be a learning community in which everyone (students and faculty) is focused on learning, on the pursuit of truth, and everyone is expected to accord unreserved respect to every other member of the community.  We could each learn on our own, but learning communities create a kind of extra energy that catalyzes learning for all who participate.  I could go on about what it means to be a learning community, but this is enough to make the point that we are not distinctive in aspiring to be a learning community.  Earlham may be (and I think we are) unusually successful at creating such an environment for learning, and we may have (and I think we do have) some unusual practices that help us stay focused on creating this environment, but being a learning community is essential to our excellence – and there are other colleges that can and should say the same.

Learning communities differ from one another in the kinds of learning they stress.  I believe that all true learning communities are, in some sense of the word, communities of liberal arts and sciences learning.  They help their members learn how to learn, not just learn ‘stuff.’  Put another way (this from Alfred North Whitehead) they help give a person all the uses of herself or himself; they activate possibilities.  A learning community may not describe itself in terms of the liberal arts and sciences; it may use some other terminology.  (In 1987, David Fraser, then President of Swarthmore, published an article in the New England Journal of Medicine making the case that epidemiology could be seen as a liberal art.)

Institutions that do embrace the liberal arts and sciences (institutions that are fully committed to being learning communities) may, and likely will, have stresses and emphases, strengths and corresponding thin spots, that differentiate them.  One might stress the sciences more, another less.  One might give special emphasis to creative endeavors.  Another might be strongly oriented to interdisciplinary studies.  This is where a college’s distinctiveness shines through.

Likely a college will have its reasons why has the emphases it does.  It won’t present these as just random choices.  Since its founding, Earlham has always given the sciences significant weighting.  Even as biology became more of a laboratory science, we sustained a strong emphasis on field, ecology approaches, and this seems wise as environmental concerns now come into prominence.  We have unusually strong connections with Japan.  In part out of this taproot, over the past four decades Earlham has embraced international education in a way unrivalled, I believe, by any other U.S. college or university: we expect second language learning of everyone, we send most of our students on semester-long study abroad, and very significant percentages of our students and faculty grew up outside the United States.  We have an unusual equestrian program.  Etc.

These are all choices we have made, and quite deliberately.  Other colleges have made different choices.  It is our choices (and there are others worth mentioning) that make us distinctive.  These distinctives give some students reason to choose Earlham over other colleges or universities: it is with regard to these (whatever they are) that questions of the ‘fit’ between a particular student and a particular college enter in.

Beyond these distinctive program choices, any college or university will have some idiosyncratic features that grow out of the passions and preferences of one or another member of the faculty: an interest in teaching Papiamento (a creole language spoken on some Caribbean islands), for example, or an unusual concern with certain Iguana populations.  These give personality to the college, but are unlikely to be enduring emphases that define (make distinctive) the college’s education, even if some students fall in love with these enthusiasms.

Again: we ought not to confuse excellence and distinctiveness.  Our excellence consists in our approximating a full-blown learning community as much as possible.  This may be relatively rare, but not distinctive.  And it takes focus and hard work to regenerate the features of a learning community year after year.  Above all, it takes putting student learning first.  Having distinctive aspects to our educational program differentiates us from other colleges and universities.  There are likely good reasons behind the choices we make about how to be distinctive, but they are less choices about whether to be excellent than choices about what postures or strengths give texture to our excellence.  It may be useful to think of the difference between ‘nutritious’ and ‘flavorful.’  Our food must be nutritious, but it is also good for it to be flavorful.  And the flavor is what makes food distinctive.

About Doug Bennett

Doug Bennett is Emeritus President and Professor of Politics at Earlham College. He has a wife, Ellen, and two sons, Tommy (born 1984) and Robbie (born 2003).
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