Saturday, October 8, 2016

Liberal Arts in the Rockies: Colorado College

When I graduated from high school at Los Alamos High School in New Mexico, the world was much smaller to my thinking. I had done reasonably well in high school, at least I thought so. There is an ongoing debate among politicians, academicians, and potential scholars regarding the value of a liberal arts education versus a focused educational program leading to a specialty in medicine, law, teaching, and so forth. I applied for matriculation at 3 public universities and 2 private colleges. I was fortunate to be accepted at all 5 institutions.

There are solid arguments on both sides of the debate about liberal arts and universities designed to offer entry into areas that are traditionally specialized and professional in designation. I am not going to repeat the major points on both sides of the issue. The main criticism of liberal arts colleges has been that an education from a liberal arts college does not lead to a highly paid profession. I would like to address that argument, amongst others in this essay.

Here are some points about my education. I went to school in a predominantly Hispanic and Indigenous elementary school in Espanola, New Mexico through seventh grade. The class sizes were rather large, and most of the students had not had the benefit of kindergarten or Head Start, which came later.

Being from a family with a professional elementary school teacher, my mom gave me the drive to learn to read, write, and do simple math before I entered kindergarten, which my family paid for privately. The teachers I had blamed my mother for making me "over-prepared" for first grade. In reality, I was just one of those kids who was always asking questions and trying to find the answer  to them. I would like to thank the Espanola Schools for hiring the teachers I had from first through sixth grades in elementary school.

I entered junior high school in Espanola, and did not do well as it was a difficult time for me, and I encountered some hostility from peers which today would be called "bullying." I never enjoyed this sort of interaction, and my grades and self-esteem began to plummet. When pressed to divulge why I was not thriving in Espanola Junior High School, I finally confessed that the seventh grade year had been difficult, and why that was true. My mother, the teacher in our family, asked me if going to a different school system would help.

I  was  able to help my parents understand that the kids teasing me were primarily Hispanic, but also some white kids as well. I had begun to understand the dynamics of being a minority, in that my school was 90% Hispanics and Indigenous students, and 10 % white. Poverty in the Espanola Valley has always been a contributing factor to the Valley's insular qualities, and compared with my fellow students, my family was considered wealthy. This was not the case, but it certainly appeared to be true from those student's perspective.

My family decided to place me in Los Alamos Schools  for the remainder of my education, and I thrived in a highly funded, highly competitive academic environment. The last 2 years of junior high, we lived in Espanola but I commuted with my dad 20 miles up the mountain to Los Alamos, where he worked. We moved to Los Alamos for my last 3 years of high school. The difference in my self-esteem and ability to get along contributed to my adjustment. The experience of the Espanola Valley Schools made me make a special effort to reach out to minority students in Los Alamos High School, and I made several lifelong friends that way.

Having graduated from Los Alamos High School,, my next task was to choose a college. I had personal experiences with all five colleges I applied to, and I chose Colorado College. The faculty and administration had persuaded Colorado College to drop their traditional approach to course selection, leading to a load of four or five courses per semester. The approach that replaced it was the Colorado College Block System, which concentrated all classes into a four week term called a "Block." Some courses were sufficiently intense that they were split into two blocks, with the first half in the early block, and the second half the following block. At the time I entered Colorado College, the Block System had only been in place for one year prior to my matriculation.

My curiosity was encouraged in this unusual liberal arts experiment. I sampled many different fields in my freshman year, and learned to write and research in the accepted manner for college level work. Today, I look at the broadly diverse sampling of courses I completed, and marvel at the opportunities I had. I learned how the United States is truly an oligarchy, with guidance from two exceptional faculty members, Fred Sondermann and Alvin Boderman. I learned beginning level Economics from Ray Werner. Classes were never lectures, but rather facilitated class discussions that were lively and whizzed by simply because they were challenging to the way we as high school students had learned.

I declared a major in Religion after taking two excellent courses on Religion in America and Buddhism. My own approach to spirituality was refined and challenged repetitively in the various classes I took. I also decided to use the Block System to develop a better command of the Russian language I had started to learn in Los Alamos. With several friends, I fell in love with the Southern Rockies, and Great Plains. I was able to learn what tall grass prairie had been, and that it was a threatened and disappearing habitat in the Midwestern United States and Front Range of the Rockies. Elizabeth Wright-Ingraham , granddaughter of the famous architect Frank Lloyd Wright, explained that the loss of that tall grass prairie ecosystem was highly fatal to the various plants and animals native to it.

Courses on West African Art and Navajo Language broadened my already enthusiastic interest on those topics. The student life at Colorado College encouraged lasting friendships, and my roommates in my second and third years at CC are lifelong friends of mine.

A wonderful benefit of the Block System was the Block Break. After four weeks of rigorous study on one subject, the Block System Breaks of 4 days allowed us to clear our minds and enjoy activities with friends. In those brief periods between blocks, I had the chance to hike in Canyonlands National Park, to view an Ara Parsieghien  coached football game at Notre Dame, and to spend time in the cottage of a fellow student near the Collegiate Range in Colorado. It seemed that there was always an adventure awaiting if we as students took the time to commit ourselves to submersion in the next experienced adventure awaiting us.

There were drawbacks, in that some faculty were full of themselves and did not like eager beavers. The Psychology was completely Skinnerian, with the exception of three courses. I immersed myself in B.F, Skinner, only to conclude that while several of his theories were valuable, I preferred a more person-centered approach to counseling. One Religion Department faculty member, who shall remain nameless, found the whole idea of interests in Indigenous Religion and Buddhism to be unacceptable. Sadly, the guy was my faculty advisor. Despite his closeminded approach to Religion, I had excellent courses in Buddhism.

The benefit of a liberal arts education in the Block System was a boost to my own career later in life. I owned and managed book and record stores, managed a large hospital's materials management department, served as a personnel director, program director, administrative services director, and executive director in human services. I taught in undergraduate and graduate courses in a mid sized university, and worked as a professional counselor and therapist.

The versatility in this litany of my different jobs is a direct result of Colorado College's willingness to allow my mind to enter so many topics in courses without discouragement from advisors and department faculty members from around nearly every department at C.C.

Colorado College's variety of courses, top-flight faculty, willingness to experiment with educational methods, and extracurricular opportunities have made it excel in a number of dimensions that make it the most promising college education that I could imagine for any person whose curiosity about the world will never be satiated. This is the benefit of a liberal arts education.

Copyright 2016 by Peter Reum - all rights reserved