Sunday, September 20, 2009

Colleges for Free Thinkers

Published in the September issue of Next Step Magazine : http://www.nextstepmagazine.com/nextstep/articlepage1.aspx?artId=3428&categoryId=59

Do you often wonder how your schoolwork relates to the real world? Or perhaps you have trouble remembering names and dates for history tests but write amazing essays on the lessons of history.

If this sounds like you, then you may be interested in one of the innovative colleges that offer an alternative to the traditional college experience.

Student-designed curriculum

Some students take comfort in the familiar academic structure of grades, exams and course requirements. However, there are some students who thrive much better in a self-directed learning environment with the freedom to decide their own courses of study.

At The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash., students enroll not in individual courses, but in interdisciplinary programs, such as “Health and Human Development,” “Writing for Change” or “Music, Math and Motion.” Each program explores a theme or question from a variety of angles.

Like their peers at Evergreen, students at Bennington College in rural Vermont design their own interdisciplinary courses and receive detailed written evaluations rather than grades. The interdisciplinary format allows students to learn about a subject in depth, discovering the connections between different themes or ideas.

At St. John’s College, a small, rigorous college with campuses in Maryland and New Mexico, there are no textbooks or lectures. Instead, students read great works of literature, study mathematics and learn to write classical music. At the end of each semester, rather than receiving a grade, students meet with instructors for a no-holds-barred evaluation.

Evaluations are “much more informative than letter grades,” says Evergreen alum Andy Cornell. “But lackluster work will be much more glaring if you aren’t on your game.”

Real-world experience

Many of these schools strive to bridge the gap between the classroom and the real world. Eugene Lang, part of the New School for Social Research, is located in the heart of New York City and offers opportunities to intern at the U.N. Relief Work Agency, teach kids to read in Harlem, or learn directly from curators at the Museum of Modern Art.

A high proportion (64 percent) of students at Earlham, an Indiana college founded by Quakers, study abroad through opportunities like peace studies programs in Northern Ireland and the Middle East. Many are also active volunteers, collectively contributing 30,000 hours to volunteerism. These experiences help students break out of the campus bubble and bridge the gap between theory and practice.

Small classes

With a total enrollment of fewer than 800 students, the New College of Florida is a close-knit campus where students call their faculty by their first names and meet with them at caf├ęs to discuss philosophy.

Vermont’s Marlboro College is even smaller, with an enrollment of only 330 students, allowing for close interaction with faculty, including advanced one-on-one instruction called tutorials.

Campus life

The college experience is about more than just academics, though, and campus life can be as unique as the classroom environment. Whether it’s an abundance of vegetarian food in the dining hall or the tendency of students to be involved in social activism, these campuses foster an appreciation for individuality that attracts independent thinkers.

At Hampshire College in Amherst, Mass., the longest running student group is Mixed Nuts, a food co-op that provides organic food to students and community members.

On Bard’s rural New York campus, student-written “zines”—homemade, low-budget magazines about anything from music to politics—are popular, and the college houses what is reputed to be the largest zine library on the East Coast.

Portland, Oregon’s quirky, intellectual Reed College offers theme dorms, including one about ancient civilizations and an organic-friendly co-op.

Is a nontraditional college for you?

Students who thrive at nontraditional colleges like to take the initiative in their own educations.

“I wanted to learn for the sake of knowledge, not for just the degree,” says Rachel, a St. John’s alum. She adds that the curriculum there is unique because it “trains you to look at the world critically and form your own opinion.”

Of course, nontraditional colleges are not for everyone. Their rigorous but unstructured academics can cause some students to fall through the cracks. For the right student, however, these extraordinary learning environments offer a true chance to blossom as a thinker and a person.

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