Whitman’s identity crisis

Bex Heimbrock, Opinion Editor

The New York Times Best Seller and subsequent non-profit Colleges That Change Lives (CTCL) describes Whitman College as a place which, well, changes lives. The CTCL’s entry on Whitman College reads: “When asked what kind of person should come here, the first thing a Whitman student is likely to say is, ‘If you’re not willing to get involved, don’t bother to come here.’ By ‘involved’ that student would mean in one’s studies, with one another, with teachers and in campus life.” What CTCL neglects to mention is that it is also one of many liberal arts institutions having an identity crisis. 

When asked what kind of person should come here, one Whitman student may say, “If you don’t love science, biology, geology and other STEM fields, don’t bother coming here.” Yet, another might say, “If you aren’t willing to commit to an interdisciplinary education, don’t bother coming here.” The fact of the matter is, Whitman College doesn’t know what it wants to be and neither does its students. 

Consider the first-year seminar, General Studies (GENS). This seminar provides a well-rounded introduction to what it means to be a liberal arts student. However, whereas other CTCL colleges have a four-year seminar program that follows the student until they graduate, Whitman College takes a more one-and-done approach. In fact, GENS courses offered in the spring are extremely specific, giving students the chance to enroll in something that interests them, rather than providing them with foundational knowledge through key texts. So much for learning broadly. 

GENS is a recent development in Whitman’s history, but one that signals the depth of its identity crisis. Replacing Encounters, the previous first-year seminar which championed foundational texts for the liberal arts such as Plato’s “Symposium” or Euripides’ “Bacchae,” GENS divides the seminar into different topics that a student may choose from. For the first semester, these topics are broad; “End(s) of the Body” and “Time” are two head-scratchers offered this year. By the second semester, the topics have been further narrowed down; “Reproductive Justice” and “Sites of Memory: The Whitman Mission and the ‘Massacre’ of 1847” are two of many extremely specific courses offered this spring. 

These courses run in contradiction to the ancient Roman definition of GENS as a group of families in ancient Rome who shared a name and claimed a common origin. Where is our common origin, as students, if we are divided into different classes based on individual interests? Our campus-wide crisis of self stems in large part, no doubt, from a lack of shared texts and intellectual proximity. While one first-year can take a STEM-related GENS course, another can take one dedicated entirely to a single author — and forget about continuity after GENS, as most of us have decided our tracks by our second semester and are happily enmeshed in our major-specific echo chambers by the time we’re sophomores. 

As a prospective student at St. John’s College, I was delighted by the tales of students there who shared rather grotesque details from their labs (a required course for every student), such as licking specimens and probing fetal pig hearts with electric prods. This is a unique — and truly liberal arts — way of learning, something that Whitman College students will never experience. St. John’s College has a pottery studio that any student can access 24 hours a day, seven days a week. There is a certain delicious freedom within the experience of throwing clay in a pottery studio at 1 a.m., even (and, perhaps, especially) if one is not a fine arts major. I am constantly longing for a similar freedom at Whitman College.

This identity crisis isn’t just relegated to curricula; it’s intrinsic to the student body’s very way of life. Here, we need only consider the 24/7 quiet hours (the only thing that actually is 24/7 on this campus) during finals week. Instead of opening up spaces for more students, more learning and more interactions, Whitman renders every space exclusionary through its archaic rules. Instead of a study break in the form of a controlled scream on Ankeny, I’d much rather determine my own study break in an academic building that I have access to, not because of my major, but because of Whitman’s liberal arts ethos.

We, as students, lose so much from this misuse of institutional power. We should have the opportunity to truly learn broadly, meaning: 24/7 access to fine arts buildings like the ceramics studio, a more liberal arts (dare I say, unsafe? Learning should be dangerous!) approach to labs and a GENS program that lasts four years instead of one. 

This four-year program should teach foundational texts, becoming the veritable intellectual core of Whitman. Taking inspiration from the Great Books Program, which influences all modern modes of thought and learning, the program should include works such as the Bible, the Torah, the Qur’an, Euclid, Aristophanes, Descartes, The Rubaiyat, etc. 

Sure, all of this will cost money, reorganizing, etc. Whitman should be giving us what we’re paying for — a genuine liberal arts education, not this watered down nonsense.