Becoming Sarah Lawrence
by Barbara Kaplan
Meredith Monk ’64 once described Sarah Lawrence College this way:
“A Sarah Lawrence education teaches you that you have the right and duty to be what some people would call a troublemaker—that is, an independent, intelligent, curious person who wants to find his or her own solutions to things.”
This is a place that encourages people to take risks, to go against the grain—intellectually, emotionally, artistically and politically. How did we get that way?
Seventy-five years ago, it was not so obvious that we’d move in such a direction. Indeed, a central goal at the founding was to educate young ladies of good families to take their proper place in polite society. One need only glance at the portraits of William and Sarah Lawrence in Westlands to see how different that world was. It was a world of refinement, order and decorum, a world with a clear sense of right and wrong. A comment by Sarah herself is illustrative. “I never ask myself if I want to do anything. I ask myself if it is my duty, and that answers the question.”
In the College’s first years, all students were required to meet with their dons every week. Students could not keep a car, and they could drive family cars in Bronxville only if accompanied by family or by the chauffeur. Men could be entertained only in Westlands, with severely restricted hours. A centerpiece of the education was something called “productive leisure,” an activity with which each student had to occupy herself for eight hours a week. Among the possible options: French conversation, modeling, art appreciation, crafts, make-up, athletics, music, tap dancing—and also natural dancing—observing stars, typewriting, shorthand, literary club, bird club, public speaking and gardening.
A centerpiece of the education was something called “productive leisure,” an activity with which each student had to occupy herself for eight hours a week.
Sarah Lawrence College was easy to caricature—and endless articles and cartoons did just that, starting from the earliest days and carrying on throughout our history. We have been seen, at times, as having a student body of only beautiful, blond-haired debutantes. But Sarah Lawrence students have also been described as sloppy, poorly dressed, slouching about and generally up to no good—even as they were acknowledged to be brilliant and determinedly altruistic, ready to solve all of the problems of the world. We have been told that everyone at Sarah Lawrence is a communist. And that all Sarah Lawrence parents are rich Republicans, horrified at what is happening to their daughters. The caricatures seemed to cover almost every aspect of life, but they are beside the point: They miss what was really happening at Sarah Lawrence at the time and what continues to happen today.
William Van Duzer Lawrence was no rebel. He believed in educating a small, homogeneous group of young ladies for life in polite society, and he didn’t question the values of that society. And yet, he also believed that students needed to be actively involved in their education. And that may have been the quality that let him pursue the project of a new college.
Sarah Bates Lawrence, too, was no rebel. But she did believe strongly in two radical causes: women’s suffrage and college education for women. And that made it appropriate for her husband to honor her by beginning a college in her name.
When William V. was deciding what to do with his estate upon his death, he turned to Henry MacCracken, president of Vassar. MacCracken was feeling constrained at Vassar, unable to try some of the educational reforms in which he believed. It was he who convinced Lawrence to establish a college of girls, and it was largely his vision that defined the College at the beginning. Before Sarah Lawrence opened, MacCracken worked closely with the first president, Marion Coats; Coats resigned from the presidency after only one year, and Constance Warren became president, serving from 1929 to 1945.
A Sarah Lawrence education has always combined theory, practice, and social responsibility.
MacCracken, Coats and Warren were influenced by John Dewey and the progressive education movement. Dewey talked a great deal about the student learning about the world through his or her own experience, rather than through received wisdom. For Dewey, the act of making knowledge one’s own was the central goal of education, the creative act he saw as crucial. That was the vision that guided Sarah Lawrence, and that has remained a constant throughout the past 75 years. It leads in quite a different direction from William V.’s original dream of students taking their rightful place in society. Instead, the emphasis is on individuals finding and defining roles and values that are appropriate to themselves—and often bucking convention. It is a full-blooded, imaginative and powerful vision: Its terms of success concern liberation, freedom, growth, expansion, development, creativity and courage. It is the intellectual foundation for our belief in taking risks, for our willingness to go against the grain.
Sarah Lawrence (along with Bennington) was the first college to incorporate into its curriculum the ideas and ideals of progressive education. Like other liberal arts colleges, we believe in exposing students to the intellectual and artistic traditions—and the challenges to those traditions—to which people turn to make sense of life. But for us, the angle shifts. The focus is on an individual’s meeting and absorbing great ideas, ideas to be used in one’s life and not just admired from afar.
The practices here that embodied Dewey’s theories have remained remarkably consistent for the last 75 years. This is not to say that there have been no changes. In the 1930s, for example, the faculty chose to abolish the infamous “productive leisure,” to the students’ great relief. Interestingly, they abolished course syllabi at the same time, on the ground that the direction and shape of a course should be left flexible to meet the needs of each class. Of course, that rejection of syllabi was, itself, later overturned.
But the most important practices of the College have remained constant all along.
First, individual education. This comes from the understanding that people learn in different ways and tempos and that there is no one path to an educated person. Thus, our investment in individually designed programs rather than a series of arbitrary requirements.
Second, the belief that education must engage a student’s full capacities and not just his/ her intellect. Thus, the recognition of the role of the arts in a liberal arts education—and Sarah Lawrence was one of the first colleges to put this into practice. Thus, also, the belief that education must engage a student’s own emotional resources and urgencies.
Third, the emphasis on real work rather than assignments made up just to test students. Thus, our belief in work that focuses on questions that matter to students, on depth rather than breadth—both of which are underpinnings of the conference system.
Fourth, getting rid of unnecessary, arbitrary rules and practices. Thus, there can be no easy reliance on simplistic grades and no easy identity from a conventional major.
And finally, the primacy of teaching. The College has always understood that its heart is its faculty, that the College is nothing without a superb faculty that has the freedom to teach to their passions and to design their own courses. Thus, our rejection of faculty rank, of a rigid publish-or-perish system.
In short, the College is the product of a moral vision based on individual development and expressed through a series of practices that are unique in higher education. But individual development is not the only end of our education: We believe that one purpose of individual growth is a social purpose—that education must lead back to the community. Dewey believed that from education would come a sense of community life, both an awareness that one is part of society, and an ability to criticize that society. Harold Taylor, president of Sarah Lawrence from 1945 to 1959, said, “The task of the College is to teach liberalism—not the philosophy of an ethnocentric, middle-class, nationalist, Western, white man’s ethic, but liberalism conceived as a classless philosophy, which draws individual human beings closer together, teaches a concern for the welfare of all social groups and all countries, and judges the value of acts and societies by the effect they have upon enrichment of individual human lives.”
A Overseas programs include Paris, Cuba (photographed in 2003 by SLC participant Suzanne Nelson '04), and Florence, while efforts at home made SLC fully coeducational and increased diversity—and SLC's reputation stretched to the popular culture.
The belief in the social purpose has been manifested in a number of ways. The tradition of fieldwork was central to the College’s beginnings. During the Depression, local agencies asked the College for assistance in collecting data for anti-poverty efforts. So, in 1938, 50 students worked with the Yonkers Housing Authority to conduct a house-to-house canvass of a Yonkers neighborhood. The Sarah Lawrence College War Board was organized by the students in the fall of 1942; 204 of the 293 students signed up as volunteers during its first week. In the 1950s, when it was attacked by the American Legion for harboring communists, the College took a strong public stand in defense of academic freedom. A number of faculty members were called before the Jenner Committee; it took real courage for them to refuse to give information about their friends and colleagues. In the 1960s, Sarah Lawrence established an Upward Bound program to help high school students from poor areas prepare for college. Sarah Lawrence was also one of the sponsors of the Cooperative College, a college program for students from poverty areas. Theatre Outreach, the Child Development Institute, the Empowering Teachers Program, the Community of Writers Program, the Office of Community Partnership and the Fulbright High School Writers Program are among the many programs founded since the 1970s to provide services to the larger community.
Student activism has been a strong part of the College, even as it has sometimes been at odds with accepted practice. Student movements of the late ’60s and the late ’80s had different goals, but they shared some of the same values and purposes: Their emphasis on diversity in all its forms has had a profound impact on the makeup of the student body, the faculty and the curriculum. On a 1952 field trip to Tennessee to study the TVA, SLC students refused to stay in segregated housing. The ongoing effort to make Sarah Lawrence a more diverse community has been very much a concern of the student body—and we are much the better for its efforts.
In 75 years, Sarah Lawrence has grown in all sorts of ways: It started with 204 undergraduates and now has 1,100. The first men to attend Sarah Lawrence were returning World War II veterans in the 1940s; in the late ’60s, we officially became a coeducational college. The graduate programs began in 1949 with a few individualized studies; we now have eight programs—several of them the first of their kind in the country—and more than 300 graduate students. Our Paris program started in the 1950s; the programs in Oxford, Florence and London followed in the 1980s; and in 2001, we inaugurated the first semester-long liberal arts program in Cuba. Since the sit-in of the late ’80s, the diversity of both the faculty and the student body has grown enormously. In 1989, only 6% of the faculty were people of color; now the percentage is around 22%. In 1988, fewer than 11% of the students were people of color; now it is more than 18%.
Sarah Lawrence started as a small school without an endowment, with little more than an untested and original view of education. The fact that it opened on the eve of the Depression was an act of courage and vision. I would like to think that each generation since then has, in its own way, displayed that courage and enhanced that vision. It is a vision and a heritage of which one can be proud, and all Sarah Lawrence College students and alumnae/i must lay claim to it and make it their own.
Barbara Kaplan has been dean of the College since 1985.