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From the Archives: Center for Continuing Education Turns Forty

Raushenbush with studentsI was so fearful of trying and so afraid of failure that I would sit for hours unable to do anything,” wrote an early printmaking student.

After 40 years, let’s begin by refuting a myth: Esther Raushenbush did not establish the Center for Continuing Education, as faculty emeritus member Hyman Kleinman once quipped, because she didn’t like the way President Harold Taylor was running the College and so went across the street to found her own.

So why, and how, did she do it?

By the time of the Center’s creation in 1962, Raushenbush had been at Sarah Lawrence for more than three-quarters of its existence, first as a literature teacher and then, from 1946 to 1957, as dean. She was as acquainted with the reasons that students dropped out—often to marry—as she was with successfully completed college careers.

In a 1957 General Committee meeting, Raushenbush spoke of the frustrated purpose of these “Women of Forty”: “[They] have a life to live, and too many of them don’t know what to do with it. At least a dozen women…came into my office the first month of this year, all with no encouragement from anyone but their own need, to ask if there were some program of study they could follow so that they might do something with themselves….Have we any interest in these women?”

In 1961, Raushenbush proposed an independent program for all residents of Westchester County—a place, she noted, that despite its affluence offered no liberal arts education to adults. Her “little plan for Westchester” (in a Radcliffe colleague’s words) was simple and revolutionary. Women over 25 could take daytime classes, with no prerequisites, taught by Sarah Lawrence faculty; the measure of prospective students would be their “intelligence, competence, motivation and promise.” She preferred students whose professional goals were undecided, wanting CCE to be a place of exploration and discovery. Five-credit courses cost $50 a credit.

In December 1961, the Carnegie Corporation made a start-up grant of $76,000 for three years (it would add more than $300,000 in the next five). A gift from Barbara Wallace Cornwall ’43 converted the carriage house next to Marshall Field into space for offices and classes, giving CCE a home of its own distinct from the regular campus.

A January 11, 1962, New York Times article announced the Center’s creation. Response was immediate and intense: Within 24 hours, the College had fielded 100 calls of inquiry and, after a fortnight, had answered some 250 letters. The scheduled start of classes was moved up from September to immediately. By March, Center staff had interviewed more than 300 women.

Center students came with life experience, enthusiasm and matured analytical ability—but also brought hesitancy and fear about creative powers atrophied or as-yet undiscovered. “I was so fearful of trying and so afraid of failure that I would sit for hours unable to do anything,” wrote an early printmaking student. When the will to create finally broke through, “I realized for almost the first time… the pleasure of using my hands and making something….[I began] to free myself from the fear of self-expression that I have always had.”

What Raushenbush may not have expected was the reciprocal effect of adults learning side-by-side with traditional-age undergrads. Joan Manheimer, who directed CCE from 1980 to 1986, says she “heard from faculty all the time that the presence of adult students in the classroom was galvanizing.” Matriculation might have trimmed the generation gap, too. “I think it helped them see their own children differently and helped undergraduates see their parents differently.”

Men arrived soon after the Center’s inception, and the locus was moved to Slonim House in the early 1980s, where it remains to this day.

A poem in the early CCE publication, Concentric, captured the surge of confidence that came from the return to intellectual exercise: “This is my time/ of possibilities become/ of potential reaped/ of my own birthing./ …Truth is greater than fear;/ Fear is less than determination./ I cry for I have found I am.”

—J.B.

Is there a "typical" CCE student?

Not hardly. The CCE "profile" keeps evolving. For example, the Internet now entices adult students to come to CCE from around the U.S., and abroad. September 11 also changed CCE, says Associate Director Joelle Sander '63, spurring younger students-and more men-to enroll. "A number said, 'I'm mortal. I realized that I don't have unlimited time.'" Some have spent years in the workforce; many arrive eager to investigate areas they never thought they'd be interested in. Throughout its history, Sander says, CCE has been a place where people who need to return to school can find a challenging program as well as people just like them, a duality that creates both comfort and excitement.