Filed under: business, class, education | Tags: A Room with A View, Dickens, Excellent Sheep, Florence, hope, Italy, Jaron Lanier, Marley, old growth forests, Sarah Lawrence College, Sarah Lawrence in Florence, Scrooge, the gig economy, Who Owns the Future?, William Deresiewicz
The Board of Trustees of my alma mater, Sarah Lawrence College, just made a decision last week to dismantle its study abroad program in Florence. Alumni of the program (of which I am one) banded together, and over the weeks leading to the decision, wrote letters, set up a fundraising campaign and made every effort to save it. To no avail.
The plans are to fire the staff of the program in Florence (many of whom have worked there for decades,) let the lease expire on the Florence campus, set up a partnership with another college to keep it going in name only, or, failing that, to dismantle it altogether.
And a lot of us (over 600 members in the Facebook group) are FURIOUS (and heartbroken, distressed and baffled.)
Why? Why should we care about a program that some us haven’t been to in over 20 years?
And why should you care? You, who probably didn’t study with us in Florence or probably even at Sarah Lawrence?
I wasn’t sure why I cared about it at first, or why I thought you might – but the more I think about it, the more I see this decision as an example of a disturbing trend in our culture. I have seen this sort of thing happen many times before. BAM dismantled its Shakespeare program, for which I’d taught for 14 years. Universities are relying on adjunct faculty for 70% of the teaching, without providing a living wage for its scholars. Over and over again, successful, rigorous educational programs, like big old growth trees with venerable root systems are chopped down and replaced with cheaper, younger forests created for quick profits. And this is happening in the arts, journalism and education.
I’ve previously written about my own confusion about what college is for. To train for a job? To make money? To transcend class? To learn? To grow a soul? I settled firmly on the “build a self” and “Grow a soul” side – even though, for me, that has meant a lifetime of poverty. And I stand by it. I was proud as hell to have gone to an institution that helps create more interesting, well-rounded people that want to make the world a better place. My fellow alumni are articulate, passionate and socially minded. We love learning things. At reunion this year, I failed to find out what most of my former classmates were up to because we were too busy talking about ideas, our teachers and things we learned in college. The ideal Sarah Lawrence experience deepens the intellect, expands one’s empathy and horizons and gives one tools for social change. I’m not trying to be an ad for Sarah Lawrence (SLC) here. Far from it – because this decision about Florence tells me that the Sarah Lawrence I knew is dead. The new SLC has nothing to do with who many of us alumni feel ourselves to be.
I keep thinking about William Deresiewicz’s article about what college should be for. (It showed up in my last post, as well.) And SLC can really do that self building stuff sometimes. Or it could. (On a good day, when it isn’t cutting out pieces of its soul like it’s doing right now.) And the program in Florence could REALLY do it. Here’s how:
1) While there may be a glut of American programs in Florence, (yes, there are a ton) the SLC program was particularly good at encouraging intellectual rigor and building on our natural curiosity, as so many of the letters written to the President of the college recounted. While other programs were the Hop on Hop Off Bus Tour version of studying abroad, our program was an embedded, immersive experience. While we experienced Italy, other programs were Epcot Italy. I went there looking for A Room With a View experience and came back with a whole new world of Machiavelli, Goldoni, Dante, Boccaccio, Calvino, Levi, Giacometti, Cherubini, Vivaldi, Caravaggio, Vasari and Giotto.
2) Self building doesn’t just happen in a classroom. So much of my learning happened off campus in Florence – in museums, streets, in the countryside. We traveled with support and context and I began to understand both the country I was in and how I might become a citizen of the world. Guided by compassionate, intelligent people, we learned how to feel at home in a foreign land. My experience there made me braver and stronger. I got my spine there.
If the program sucked, that would be one thing. I’ve seen any number of administrators who ought to be fired and programs that had no educational value whatsoever that I would not bemoan the loss of. But by all accounts (so many of them!) this program in Florence did an exemplary job of all the things we hope college will do for us. It was the highlight of most of our college careers.
I’ve worked in a great many schools, programs and colleges and it is exceptionally rare to find a program that is this beloved and respected. You will be hard pressed to find an administration so well regarded elsewhere. So to see this program that is highly successful, that does the job of building selves, that provides such important soul work to its students, be summarily dismissed because there are cheaper options available? It makes me want to throw things. Hard things. That break.
I mean – there are any number of cheaper options for going to college. Why not just dismantle SLC altogether? I mean, all it’s doing is a good job educating the people who choose to go there – it’s just too expensive. And there are so many other options for college. I mean, just in the tri-state area alone! So what if many of the faculty have been there for decades? So what that a lot of us loved the place? It just doesn’t make sense to spend money on education, apparently.
That’s what this decision says to me. It tells me that the values of an institution once known for its values have changed. It would seem that the college is more interested in the bottom line than in the extraordinary education of a small group of students. Which is all the college is.
SLC in Florence is SLC in micro. It starts here – with a diminishment and dumbing down of something valuable and where does it go from here? Will SLC eventually cut the entire humanities curriculum like colleges in Japan are considering? Are the arts no longer worth it? They’re expensive. Artist alumni don’t give back as much as hedge fund managers could. Old growth forests can’t make you cheap paper like a pulp forest can.
Is this where we’re headed? Is this where all culture is headed?
Good god. I hope not. Because I am running out of things I can throw.
Finally, I think a good education also features morals and social justice. We learn, from other people but also from books, from art, from teachers, how we ought to treat one another. Whether or not we do it is another question. But in college, we hopefully learn what we think the right thing to do is for the culture and for ourselves. We shape our sense of social responsibility.
That’s why the firing of an administrator (as well as her staff) who has given 29 years of her life to the betterment of this particular program, (and thereby increased institutional reputation internationally) feels so fundamentally out of line with everything I thought my alma mater was about. We don’t behave that way, do we? We take care of people. We treat the guardians of our education, our intellect, our lives, with respect. We don’t toss them out on their ears when the lease on the classroom gets expensive. That’s Scrooge shit, right there. And we all learned that lesson way back in the Victorian age. Or has our world transformed so much that this cheap paper version is the new norm? In the gig economy, maybe everything and everyone is disposable.
And it’s not just SLC behaving like Scrooge here. All over the world, beloved institutions that have always done good work disappear because they don’t meet someone’s line item on the bottom line. We lose libraries, theatres, museums, schools – all of which do the good work of helping us deal with the mysteries of life and become better humans – not just humans who will fit appropriately into machines.
Is this who we want to become? Excellent sheep as Deresiewicz suggests? I’d like to believe not. I’d like to believe that there is still a place in the world for small groups of people learning, building themselves, experiencing edifying art and cultural touchstones and just becoming better people. Is that too corny for the current moment?
Are we all Scrooges now? And are we in a world with no Marley to come knock on our doors and remind us of who we dreamed we could be?
“Business!” cried the Ghost, wringing its hands again. “Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence were all my business.”
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