Quo Vadimus: Where is Lawrence going?

Austin Federa

It seems more and more we find ourselves in a period of unending transition. Next year, Lawrence University will undergo a consequential change of executive leadership conceived as an undeniable step forwards. Mr. Burstein’s credentials place him in high regards; there is no doubt Lawrence will continue to grow under his leadership. Yet between the morning of June 30, and the evening of July 1, only one change will have occurred at Lawrence, Mr. Burstein.

As an institution we hail crowning milestones along an unseen path, the Warch Campus Center, Conservatory2, LU-R1, the Downer renovation, Senior Experience and the appointment of Mr. Burstein. Yet beneath these accomplishments two foundational questions remain unanswered: What are we, and where are we going?

We are ‘The Lawrence Difference,’ ‘The Power of Individualized Learning,’-or now, it seems, we strive to ‘Educate and Prepare Students for a Rapidly Changing World.’ We are going forward to an era where we students ‘Shape [Their] Own Education.’ I ask again, where are we going?

Despite our marketing, our curriculum falls short of a progressive, individualized learning experience. Independent studies, creative unorthodox projects and indeed self-designed majors are not the cornerstone of the Lawrence education. Our system of evaluation, while deeply rooted in the liberal arts ideal, is not process-driven, but product-oriented.

 Students lack formal systems of concurrent education, such as student-designed and taught classes for academic credit, or truly interdisciplinary approaches to the traditional major system.

These schools exist, barring such names as Oberlin, Sarah Lawrence, Bennington, Antioch, Putney and The New School. At these schools, a visual arts project on the Arab Spring can count towards a political science major, and a paper on the chemical processes of oil paints accredits in art history. At Lawrence, a course on the origin of the Nation State cannot be counted towards the government major.

I say this not to fault the university, faculty or student body, but to ask yet again this question unanswered: Who are we? We are built on the tradition of discipline, of depth in specificity and breadth of comprehension. It is the model of the tracked major, coupled with the general education requirement. It is a model of standards to be met, and expectations to be exceeded, where the brightest rise and those unable to attain do not.

This is the model of Dartmouth, of Amherst, of Middlebury and Williams. It is a model of history and tradition instilled very much within the Lawrence faculty: it is a platform of raised expectations; one that fewer than 15 percent of students can reach. Is this who we are?

We beg the question of vision with answers of ‘Forward’ and ‘Up’-platitudes of an undiscovered country, just beyond the horizon yet within reach. Lawrence’s transition from President Beck to President Burstein must include a thoughtful look both to where we stand, and where we want to go.

We must expand our depth, support our breadth and continue to value extracurricular education. We must constantly challenge ourselves to step from the realm of comfort and to challenge those tenets held dear. We must never stop asking those questions to which we do not know the answer, yet.