At the Heart of Williams

“Education is a social activity. … It’s about the development of habits of mind. … To be done well, it has to be experienced, by student and teacher, as a human interaction.”

While I hope some day to meet all of you who receive this magazine, I look forward to using this column in the years ahead to share with those I haven’t met, along with those I have, some of my thoughts on Williams.

The most natural place to start may be with the question: What about Williams do I believe in so strongly that I have made Williamstown my home?

Of the many facets to the answer, one stands out. I am an educator, and I believe that how we educate students at Williams is both timeless and more valuable than ever.

At its heart, education is a social activity, not a solitary one. It’s about the development of habits of mind, not the transmission of information. To be done well, it has to be experienced, by student and teacher, as a human interaction.

Consider a modest thought experiment. Before the printing press, it was clear that to transmit knowledge from one generation to the next people had to come together. Outside the reading room of the New York Public Library are four huge murals
depicting great moments in the development of writing—along with Moses, Gutenberg and Mergenthaler hangs a depiction of the medieval scribes. (Extra points if you know who Mergenthaler was!) This activity, the gathering of learned people to conserve
and transmit knowledge, gave birth to the university. But after Gutenberg one might have expected the end of this odd practice. Instead, institutions of higher education flourished.

In the past century, when Philo T. Farnsworth’s TV could beam lectures around the world, one might have thought again that colleges, with their expensive and unnecessary campuses, would wither away. Not so. The cycle repeated itself with the Internet. Now, at last, wouldn’t education become something you could do just as well at home, alone, in your slippers? Not so fast.

Why? Because none of these inventions, as much as they transformed how we transmit information, could alter the real dynamic of education. They left unchanged the fundamental purpose of a college—to bring students together with faculty, in a space that supports and encourages their personal, in-depth interaction over academic matters. (At times, those spaces will now be virtual, but the human interaction must be real.) This is what we do at Williams, and the understanding that this purpose is absolutely central has been at the College’s heart since the days of Mark Hopkins. And this is the value, above all others, that drew me here.

Many things, of course, do change with time. We must now teach students to evaluate critically the increasing flow of data at their fingertips. The ability (and frankly the inclination) to synthesize ideas remains the ultimate objective of education. And that is something that has to be taught individually, by a skillful instructor to a dedicated student. This is why we work so hard to bring to Williams both the very best students and faculty.

Students also learn much from each other, which can only happen to the degree that the physical environment encourages and supports a community of learners. This is the role of the campus—the classrooms, the libraries, the laboratories, the residence halls, the playing fields, the stages and studios.

In a future column, I’ll reflect on this critical element of how we fulfill our mission. Until then, let me thank you for the many ways that all of you associated with Williams have made the College such an exciting place for me and my family now to be.

IMAGE CREDIT: Gabriel Amadeus Cooney