Saturday, August 5, 2006
Saturday, August 5, 2006
Posted by Bill of the Birds at 11:13 AM
On the mini-diploma that I got from my alma mater, it says I graduated from Miami University of Ohio with a Bachelor of Philosophy degree. But in reality I went to The School of Interdisciplinary Studies/Western College Program. I was there for three years and overseas studying in London for my junior year. I took a handful of classes on the main campus of Miami U., but always felt like I was a Western College student. To this day I never refer to myself as a Miami alumnus, but as a Westerner. And I don't carry my mini-diploma.
I stumbled upon the Western College Program, literally. I was in Oxford, taking the orientation tour with my dad and I spotted the older brother of a high school friend. Greg Russi was a Western senior-to-be and he immediately took us to Peabody Hall for an impromptu tour. Peabody was an amazing building--very old and funky. Greg knocked on a door and said "Hey Curt! Are you here?" A man looking like a Civil War general came to the door. It was Curt Ellison, Western's dean. Greg introduced me as a potential student and Curt and I spent the next hour talking books, baseball, and Civil War history. I knew Western was where I wanted to be.
My first night on campus, the entire Western community gathered on the lawn near our cafeteria. We formed a giant circle and holding hands, we sang "The Circle Game" written by Joni Mitchell. This may sound odd, but it set the seed for me of a lifelong sense of community and love for what Western stands for.
The concept of the Western Program was to give students a broad-based liberal arts education. It stressed the concept of classes and topics and learning being "interdisciplinary" or interwoven. Classes were kept small and informal. There were lectures and seminars and hours of discussions, often spilling over outside of class and lasting until the wee hours. We wrote papers, debated, and performed--never did we "take a test." some of our professors lived in Peabody Hall with us and most of our classes in the three core courses (Creativity & Culture, Social Systems, Natural Systems) were also held in Peabody, or elsewhere on Western's wooded campus. One part of one semester, all freshmen and sophomores studied Melville's "Moby Dick" very intensely from the different perspectives of our core courses. It was fascinating. My brain exploded with ideas.
After two years at Western, we were asked to design our own program of study toward a Senior Project. Then we built a course schedule, proposed a topic for our Senior Project and worked with an advisor to make it all happen. This academic path was not for everyone. Many of my fellow students could not handle all the freedom of having to chart their own academic course, or think about what they wanted to do, or even to write papers that were due "sometime next week." And many did not make it through the Senior Project phase, which was very similar to a mini-masters program. When you presented your Senior Project, you got a thumbs up or down (though they also assigned grades to satisfy Miami's need for numeric grade point averages). My Senior Project was on the role of the national newspaper press in the American environmental movement from the late 1960s through the late 1970s. I passed.
I learned so much at Western, and not just in class. The papers--hundreds of pages of them--helped me hone my writing. The interdisciplinary approach in the classroom also had application in life. And to this day, I find that problem solving is much easier when you look at the problem from a variety of angles. Our professors at Western challenged us to think rather than merely to memorize information to regurgitate on a test.
The students on Main Campus Miami called us "hippies" and laughed that we "talked to trees over there at Western." [It was the start of the Reagan years when I was at Western]. And it's true, we DID talk to trees, and to birds, and to butterflies, and most importantly, to each other. The Western students and faculty got together every Monday night for "Community Dinner" at the cafeteria. We were different and we were proud to be apart from the mainstream.
I credit my Western experience with landing my first real job at a New York advertising/public relations agency. When, during my interview, I was asked by the president of the company if I could write, I could state with complete confidence that I could, and that I really enjoyed writing. I think what I actually said was: "I wrote so many papers during college that I'm pretty sure I could write anything you asked me to right now." Pretty cocky for someone who'd spent the last year playing music in rock bands and burning people's dinners in a restaurant. She hired me on the spot.
Western College is my real alma mater. So I was much dismayed to see that Miami's outgoing president had presided over the killing-off of the Western College program. I won't rant here except to say that it's perfectly in keeping with the-bottom-line-is-all-that-matters philosophy that seems to be so much in vogue these days, especially in the U.S. Miami is a state school. Ohio, like much of the rest of the country, has been having a hard time economically, so I am sure, rather than fund a special (and tiny) learning environment, Miami's board of trustees decided to save the money. It's a shame.
Miami will be a lot poorer academically with the elimination of Western, and the university community will lose one of its most vibrant segments. I sent money to Western when I could and I recommended the Western Program to lots of students whom I thought would fit well into the non-traditional learning environment. Miami will have to figure out a way to continue without my financial support (which must have them trembling in their wingtips).
We western alums will still continue to hold our all-classes reunions once every five years. But over the coming years, no more Western graduates will join our ranks and so our numbers will dwindle with time, like the last living veterans of some long-past war. We won't ever have a parade, but I'm sure we'll form the circle one more time. We'll hold hands and sing "The Circle Game" together. That's the song of MY alma mater.
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