Educating Outside the Lines
reviewed by James H. Nehring - February 24, 2012
To the segment of public casually familiar with Bard College at Simons Rock, it is an early college, a place where students begin at age 15 or 16 and graduate with a Bachelors degree at 19 or 20, two years earlier than most of their college-going peers. While early is certainly a defining characteristic of the very small liberal arts college located in the Berkshires of Western Massachusetts, what also, and more substantially, sets Simons Rock apart is a vision of teaching and learning shared by faculty and administrators and, with time, students who take up residence in this extraordinary community of learners. In 2007-2008, Simons Rock Professor Nancy Yanoshak used a one year faculty fellowship to recruit colleagues and students/alumni as co-authors for a book chronicling the intellectual life of the school. The result is Educating Outside the Lines: Bard College at Simons Rock on a New Pedagogy for the Twenty-First Century. The books seventeen chapters provide a virtual tour of classrooms led by (mostly) college faculty who offer probing commentary on teaching and the intellectual life they share with their young students.
For example, Rebecca Fiske, who has taught literature at Simons Rock since 1986 describes several courses she teaches on the Torah, the Bible, and the Koran. None of the courses is required, yet there is always a waiting list. Students approach the books, in the ornate editions that Fiske deliberately orders, with a reverence that Fiske endearingly juxtaposes with the brash demeanor of her pupils,
Kira is dressed in ripped jeans, a Michael Starr tee, and black flip-flops. Her dirty blond hair is long and dreaded, and her silver hoop earrings and tiny ruby nose ring catch the midday light, twinkling, as she enters my class. She has an 80% recycled green laptop bag over her right shoulder. Cradled in her arms, is Robert Alters The Five Books of Moses, all 1,064 pages, still in its sleeve, Guido Renis Moses glaring. (p. 32)
To Fiske, however, the adolescents who walk into her classroom are not merely an interesting spectacle. They are her students, brimming with intellectual power, varied in their ways of thinking about the world, at once brash and shy, confident and uncertain. Fiske understands their vulnerabilities and respects their minds. She asks them demanding questions: Why are you taking this class? When you read anything, how do you decide what it means? When you read a sacred text, say The Five Books of Moses, how do you decide what it means?(p. 33)
Fiske leads her students in a form of close reading taken from Jewish tradition called midrash, which accepts multiple interpretations. Many of her students, Fiske finds, have never read these texts. As they encounter passages that do not square with the cozy, familiar stories that everyone knows, midrash becomes an indispensable resource for managing the ensuing dismay. Fiskes approach is quite representative of the pedagogy featured across these varied chapters, characterized by close reading of important texts, demanding questions, a collaborative search for meaning, and an expectation that there will be multiple interpretations.
Even in math class. Samuel Ruhmkorff states flatly at the beginning of his chapter, There is something wrong with mathematics and science education in the United States. (p. 65) He laments the lack of attention in high schools, as represented by the experiences that his students bring to The Rock, to math and science methodology. Many of his students arrive profoundly unready to think broadly and conceptually and, sometimes, overcome with self-doubt and fear, which he and his colleagues conquer through insistent coaching (You can do this) and deliberate mixing of students with a range of interest and preparation. Such heterogeneous grouping runs sharply counter to the prevailing orthodoxy of public schooling in math and science. To make it work, SR math and science professors build their pedagogy around thematic study (e.g. global climatic change), opportunities for multiple paths of exploration, and presentation of pre-requisite skills on a just-in-time basis. The rewards are substantial: students grow in confidence as they gain solid and sophisticated understanding of mathematical and scientific principles, while, the enthusiasm and skills of the more advanced students [is made] evident to those who may be less interested or prepared. (p. 83)
The chapters in Educating Outside the Lines are, on the whole, beautifully rendered classroom portraits. While the language at times wanders into abstruse academesesubjugated knowledges, murky references to space, borders, and paradigms the narratives are mostly winsome and knowing. Two-thirds into the book, a skeptic might begin to wonder if all these outstanding classroom experiences are a bit hyped by enthusiastic faculty interested in selling their school. Then comes Chapter 15: Early Ever After: Alumni Reflect on Life after Simons Rock. These student testimonials heartily endorse the faculty narrative. Alumnus Daniel Neilson contrasts his first year in graduate school with the undergraduate education he received at Simons Rock:
There was a profound unwillingness among my cohort to critically engage and question the professors; they were much more about absorption of information. Working in the following semesters as a teaching assistant, I saw how these students came to see their education in this waythe undergraduates I taught, even at a good school, were all about mastering a fixed set of ideas for the exam. (p. 248)
This sort of post-Rock encounter with students from other colleges, together with the assessment of a Simons Rock education that it implies, is echoed in various ways by many of the alumni interviewed for this telling and persuasive chapter.
Full disclosure: Several years ago, our middle daughter expressed interest in attending Simons Rock. We visited. The students, many dressed as well-heeled bohemians, were described by faculty as feisty. Looking around, I wondered privately if feisty was code for entitled. Four years later Abigail is graduating with the class of 2012, and my transformed opinion is that, while some students may arrive thus, for nearly all, the Simons Rock education is demonstrably the most intellectually powerful experience any college in North America can pack into four years.
Powerful but not newdespite the title. The liberal-progressive approach in full bloom at the college issues from a long tradition reaching back to the twentieth century (e.g., the Eight Year Study of the Progressive Education Association), and the nineteenth century (Bronson Alcott, Elizabeth Peabody, Francis Parker), and the eighteenth century (Johannes Pestalozzi, Rousseaus Emile), and beyond (the Agora in Athens?). Nancy Yanoshak acknowledges the colleges intellectual ancestry in bookended chapters that open and close this diverse and fascinating volume. But the title leaves one asking, Why are progressive educators in every generation labeled new? (Francis Parkers methods in Quincy, Massachusetts were called new-fangled in 1875.) Perhaps it is societys way of protecting itself against an education that asks fundamental questions. After all, new can also mean marginal, experimental, and dangerous. It is deeply worrisome that a high quality education based on asking good questions would be considered in any of these ways. What does that say about the mainstream of American undergraduate education? It is, therefore, a great encouragement that at Bard College at Simons Rock, as this fine book bears witness, the light of powerful learning burns brightly.