April 16th, 2008


It's a "Lawrence thing" ...

When I joined the Lawrentians group over on LibraryThing, the first bit of conversation was about Henry M. Wriston's The Nature of a Liberal College, a classic reflection on the college experience by one of Lawrence University's fabled Presidents. Originally published in 1937, this had a hardcover re-release in 1991 (a dozen years after I graduated), and they began handing over a copy of the book with one's diploma at graduation.

I was relieved to find that this was obtainable via Amazon's new/used vendors (in pristine copies, still tied with the tiny silver cord that dressed them up for the graduation ceremonies ... I guess not everybody who got one of these bothered to read it), so ordered a copy and added it to the to-be-read pile. One glaring anachronism of this book is that, even in the 1991 edition, it has no ISBN. I can only figure that this is some sort of intentional statement on the part of the university, but I really don't get "to what end?". Needless to say, the omission almost automatically "drops it down the memory hole" for most searches, making it something of a "shadow publication" against Wriston's numerous other books.

To a certain extent, this book is intended for graduates of Lawrence (and similar colleges) to "process" the experience they'd had over their years at school (certainly, that was what was implied with the latter-day graduation gifting of it), but it is really quite a solid bit of philosophy about "liberal education", and I wish that I had been encouraged (OK, forced) to have read it before entering college.

There is a certain quaintness to this, however, coming from 1937, in the wake of one World War, and with the clear clouds of another (the key protagonists of which get mentioned in this) hovering over the horizon. Wriston struggles a bit with the elitism of "the educated classes", but nary a mention goes to the 100% masculine pronoun usage ... as Lawrence did not become a co-ed institution until 1964! Of course, what is called "liberal" by Wriston is more likely to be called "classic" by today's standard, just as constitutional conservatives today are closer to classic "liberalism" than the quasi-Stalinist socialism of the "Liberals" in our current political landscape.

Here's a bit from the opening of the book:
        There are many barriers to an understanding of a liberal education. These obstacles arise from the nature of the thing itself and from all sorts of extraneous or irrelevant factors which distort the picture
        The first and greatest difficulty arises from the very essence of a liberal education. It is a profound experience. An experience is only superficially something that happens to a person. Fundamentally, it is something which occurs within him, makes some organic change in the structure of his life and thought, and leaves him permanently different. The effects are not transitory; they are part, thereafter, of that mysterious entity which we call his personality. Therefore and experience is not only like, indeed it is a manifestation of, growth itself. As such it can be described only in its external, its superficial, aspects, for no objective statement can ever give adequate expression to a subjective change.
It is fascinating that some of the quirks of Lawrence were set down decades before I showed up, as codified in this book. One of the "cliché " lines about Lawrence was that "it taught you how to learn" not so much teaching you anything in particular (and woe to the student who wanted to study something practical, as, if the subject had an immediate non-academic career path associated with it, it was at best viewed with suspicion ... ala my wanting to study typography as part of my Art major, which elicited the sniffing comment "you can study that at Fox Valley Tech!" ... to being eliminated from the curriculum, as happened to L.U.'s once-famed Architecture department, in whose studios I ended up throwing pots for ceramics class).

The Nature of a Liberal College is divided into ten subjects: "The Liberal Ideal", "Institutional Form", "The Student", "The Faculty", "The College Library", "The Structure of the College", "Emotional Life", "Aspects of Stability and of Change", "A Theory of Disciplines", and "Vocational Guidance". Each of these is brilliantly considered, and largely stand up against the changes of the past seventy years.

Frankly, upon finishing this, I was rather hoping that Henry Wriston would have approved of my journey from Lawrence's halls, constantly seeking, constantly studying, and even now pushing myself to read an average of six non-fiction books a month! This is certainly a book I wish were in greater circulation, as it is a warning against the "trade school" model of Universities, where students go to get qualified to train as doctors, lawyers, accountants, and MBAs. This is a voice saying "the college is about enabling the man to perfect himself", assuming that, given these tools, the mere matter of getting through law or med school would be a trivial inconvenience.

So, yeah ... go pick up a copy if you can find it ... the Amazon new/used guys have it at various price levels, and those (given its lack of ISBN) might well be your best shot!

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