‘Aliu’ is Andrew Liu ’11

President Baxter graduated as valedictorian of the Class of 1914, went on to pursue a PhD in history at Harvard, and then after teaching for several years returned to serve as President of the College from 1937 to 1961. He begins his speech by talking about World War I, and how “none [in the Class of 1914] realized that [they] were on the eve of a world war, whose consequences would shape our lives.”
He continues: “we who were leaving this Berkshire valley perceived that we were about to enter a world of more rapid change. We were still ignorant, however, of the lengths to which that acceleration would go.”

The Purple Bubble has been around for at least 100 years, it seems. So, “what can we do in our colleges and universities now to help the next generation do better?”

Baxter draws liberally from previous Williams College Presidents. He quotes from President Conant’s annual report for 1937, where Conant asserts that

“It seems to me a hopeless task to provide a complete and finished liberal education suitable to this century by four years of college work… Whether a liberal education has been a success or failure should be measured by the student’s breadth of vision fifteen or twenty years after graduation.”

There is this idea that Williams should provide students with the tools to continue broadening their education years after they graduate. What are these tools?

“To prepare himself to keep his feet in a world of change… the American student must… familiarize himself to some degree with both the content and the methods of the whole range of the social sciences. He must understand the contemporary world in light of its past, and bring to its study the techniques of the economist and of the political scientist.”

I’ve never taken a political science or history course here at Williams, though I am an economics major, and I’m not sure that my economics training has been the most valuable in terms of getting by in the “real world.” My friends majoring in history don’t think its that useful either. Any thoughts?

After this, Baxter sets out to defend the social sciences against 1. the natural sciences and humanities, who “denouce the social scientists for alleged imperialism, for ‘taking in too much territory,’ and monopolizing the student’s attention,” and from 2. “reactionaries” who think that the subjects covered are too controversial for “youthful minds.”

I’m not familiar with the status of the social sciences in the 1930s, though I never think “controversial” when I think “economics,” or even “political science.” Things are different now, I guess. He does make an interesting point that:

“I wish no diminution of the number of students who “major” or concentrate in the literary fields. But they, as well as those whose primary interest is elsewhere, cannot, it seems to me, be deemed well prepared for life in the world we know and in the world we can reasonably anticipate, unless they have laid—as most of them are at least in part seeking to do at Williams today– a firm enough foundation by work in the social studies in their undergraduate years to permit them to contiue such studies in later life…”

Baxter does add the caveat that

“Man does not live by social studies alone. Nor is all life simply a series of adjustments to changed social conditions. Just as few Williams men leave this valley without a deep appreciation of the beauties of nature, let us hope that few will leave unaware of the rich cultural values of literature, music and the fine arts: and that some at least will go forth well equipped to carry on work in the natural sciences, whose astonishing development is perhaps the chief glory of our time.”

Williams has done well in meeting this charge. The most popular majors at Williams are economics, English, political science, psychology, and biology (source: http://parents.williams.edu/faqs/), and divisional requirements mean that every student has some exposure to the social and natural sciences, as well as the humanities.

Against the second group he brings up arguments concerning academic freedom. He points to Russia, Italy, and Germany as examples of the “appalling effects of government control of thought and teaching.” One good quote from this section is:

“If freedom is assured some teacher will some day abuse it. That, of course, is part of the price of freedom.”

This abuse of freedom isn’t his primary concern though, instead he fears “the danger that the teacher will seek to impose his own political and economic beliefs on his students.” To ensure this, he quotes from President Eliot’s inagural:

“Philosophical subjects should never be taught with authority…. It is not the function of the teacher to settle philosophical and political controversies for the pupil, or even to recommend to him any one set of opinions as better than another.”

Technique-wise, Baxter quotes Hopkins inagural:

“It is far easier for a teacher to generalize a class and give it a lesson to get by rote, and hear it said… than it is to watch the progress of individual minds and awaken interest, and answer objections, and explore tendencies, and, beginning with the elements, construct together with his pupils, so that they shall feel that they aid in it, the fair fabric of a science with which they shall be familiar from the foundation to the top stone.”

Baxter adds that

“Our success in doing this will largely depend on our ability to keep Williams small.”

I wish he elaborated on this last point. The quotes from Eliot and Baxter sound really nice, but are fairly uncontroversial. On the other hand keeping Williams small is an actionable policy recommendation. To summarize his argument: 1. Academic freedom is dangerous because professors could indoctrinate students, so 2. professors should never impose opinions, and 3a. learning should happen naturally from discussion, and 3b. small classes are necessary to achieve that. Is there a link between academic freedom and class size? Is there greater academic freedom in a tutorial than a large lecture?

He concludes by going back to sentiments brought up in the introduction. “Insecurity has become the greatest characteristic of the modern world.” But that isn’t necessary a bad thing, because

“If, despite the freedom and mobility of our modern life here, our undergraduates will only see how difficult and challenging life is going to be in the whirling world that lies before them, they will start as freshmen to discipline and prepare themselves for the tasks for which my generation has proved inadequate.”

Depressing, you say? Well

“What to the old seems often a hateful and alarming thing is but an inspiring challenge to those who are beginning their career on the world’s stage or who are only in their first stride towards their goal.”

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