This past week, I have felt the closure of Sweet Briar College pressing on me like some great, invisible weight, always present yet never quite tangible. I spend at least an hour a day scrolling through the results on Google, trying desperately (and usually unsuccessfully) to find an article, a think piece, something to help me make sense of what has happened, to provide me with commentary that will help me work through this event. For the most part, nothing has, as each piece seems so facile, so superficial, basically regurgitating the same set of facts without really adding any substantive to our collective understanding of this event.
On one level, all of this seems slightly strange. After all, I am a cis-gender man who graduated from a state school and now attend a large private university in a doctoral program. I know only a few graduates of Sweet Briar, and I do not have any other meaningful connections to the school No family attended, and to be quite frank I had only distantly heard of it before the dramatic announcement of its closure swept through the internet like a brush fire on March 6. Why, then, am I so obsessed with it? Why do I feel this peculiar melancholia creeping over me any time I think of it?
A great deal of, I’ve come to realize, stems from two things. First is my absolute commitment to the importance of a liberal arts education, of a focus on cultivating critical thinking in all fields, from English to biology, from physics to business. As more and more colleges (and high schools!) forsake the humanities in favour of technical education and other more “job-friendly” foci, liberal arts colleges seem like a holdout against the inexorable forces of the capitalist university system, struggling against a tide that eats away at all aspects of their existence every year. Because I have long fostered the hope of teaching at one of these smaller schools, the closing of Sweet Briar and, perhaps more importantly, the reasons behind it, send a chill through me at the thought that the liberal arts school may be an endangered species.
Secondly, I still adamantly believe that women’s colleges have a vital part to play in our higher education landscape. As Patricia McGuire, President of Trinity Washington University, put it at the Huffington Post, there are still many women, particularly women of color, who struggle to attain the same educational opportunities that many white and middle-class women have come to take for granted. For them, a women’s only college can often provide a mountain of opportunities not available elsewhere. Her statement on the matter is worth quoting at length:
More important, recognize that women who have never enjoyed the camaraderie of other women, never had faculty members boosting their success (especially in math and science), never knew the true joy of presenting their own creative work to an appreciative audience, never thought they could really go on to graduate school, get that prized job or earn the praise and recognition of peers and community leaders alike — all women deserve such a chance, and such chances exist still on the campuses of today’s women’s colleges.
Her words help us to understand what we are losing with Sweet Briar, and what we stand to lose if, as some have thought likely, the closing of this one college is a harbinger of things to come. In order to understand what we have lost, we have to understand what institutions like Sweet Briar have to offer.
The closing of Sweet Briar College is, without a doubt, a tremendous blow to any who continue to hold on to the value of a liberal arts education, who see such a pedagogical project as absolutely vital to the continued healthy functioning of our society. However, it should serve as a call to arms. If we want parents, students, lawmakers, pundits, and all the rest who constantly question the value of the liberal arts to see and understand the value in what we do, we have to continue to find more effective ways to communicate with them. We need to fight against this tide, even though it might seem overwhelming. Our future as a culture, a society, and maybe even as a species relies on our ability to think critically and to engage with the world around us.
That is what the why the closing of Sweet Briar matters to me.