Let’s revisit our September discussion over the (infamous) claim that the mission of Williams is to be the best college in the world and that being the best college requires admitting (and enrolling) more of the best students. Professor Shawn Rosenheim wrote a letter to the editor in response. Day 2 of my 3-day reply.

For instance: I’ve taught Moby Dick a dozen times as part of a 300-level English course. For the last three years, I’ve also taught the book in the Summer Humanities and Social Sciences (SHSS) program. Without question, the SHSS classes have been better – in fact, they have been some of the most serious and electric courses that I’ve had the privilege to teach. My pre-frosh brought unusual guts and heart, as well as brains, to their work – at times challenging my assumptions, at others finding unexpected resonances between their personal histories and Melville’s. Their diversity of experience was a fundamental resource for what we learned.

What is wrong with the English Department? I am sure that Rosenheim’s SHSS classes are wonderful. Williams pre-frosh are smart and excited. But then he, and the rest of the English Department, takes those same students — and students chosen using the same procedure — and turn them into, what, exactly? Surly malcontents? Drunken layabouts? One purpose of studying English at Williams is to get better at understanding novels like Moby Dick, better at analysis, better at discussion, better at writing. How can 2 to 3 years of English classes at Williams create students who are worse at discussing great novels than a bunch of 18 year-olds are? Possibilities:

1) Rosenheim is blowing smoke. If an outside observer looked at videos of the two classes, she would rate the quality of class discussion as higher in the 300-level class.

2) Smart students don’t major in English. All the smartest students in SHSS, the ones who make Rosenheim’s class so wonderful, major in topics like math and philosophy. They never take 300-level English classes.

3) English majors are as smart as non-English majors (or at least as smart as SHSS students) but 2-3 years at Williams (or in the English Department?) have soured them on the academic enterprise more broadly, and/or on class discussion specifically. As juniors/seniors, they know more about analyzing novels than the SHSS students, but they decline to speak up in class.

4) The PC environment of Williams (or the English Department?) stifles class discussion. No one is comfortable saying what they really think, at least about controversial topics, and no one wants to offend a fellow Eph.

5) SHSS students are not afraid to speak openly, mainly because they are still innocent of the PC landmines and/or because their very lack of diversity — all are URM and/or low income — means that they don’t need to worry about PC niceties.

I don’t know which of these explanations, if any, is correct. What do readers think?

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