Would I Choose Swarthmore All Over Again?

As graduation approaches, I’ve been thinking about why I came to Swarthmore, and whether or not I would want to come again if I were currently a high school senior. Right now, I’m not really sure I can say I would.  

Going into my senior year of high school, I was dead-set on attending Williams, Amherst, or Middlebury. But after I visited Swarthmore during my senior fall, I changed my mind. At the time, I might have said that what set Swarthmore apart from the other schools was its Quaker heritage or that the tour guide seemed to emphasize academics more than those at the other schools. But really, I think I chose Swarthmore because I got a feel for “Swattie-ness”—something unique about the place that I identified with and valued.

But what is “Swattie-ness”? What is the intangible quality that attracted me to Swarthmore in the first place? People often describe Swarthmore students as intellectually passionate, quirky, countercultural, socially awkward, and socially conscious. I definitely know many students here who could be described in all these ways, but I also know many whom I would just as readily call “Swatties” even though they don’t quite fit this description. As I was struggling with the question of how to define “Swattie-ness” I was reminded of my late maternal grandfather, whose high regard for Swarthmore helped me decide to come to this college.

My grandfather, Charles Muscatine, was an English professor at UC Berkeley for about 40 years. He was an internationally acclaimed scholar of Chaucer who would tell my siblings and me his own renditions of Beowulf as bedtime stories whenever he visited. He was a man of great intelligence and vitality, but he was also deeply principled.

In 1949, the University of California Board of Regents, compelled by the rise of McCarthyism, mandated that all state employees, which included faculty members in the UC system, swear a “loyalty oath” affirming that they were not members of the Communist Party. My grandfather (who was 29 years old at the time), along with 30 other faculty members across the state, refused to sign the oath on grounds that it was unconstitutional and suppressed freedom of speech and freedom of conscience. After months of contentious debate, he and the other faculty members were fired for their refusal to sign the oath. The ACLU eventually represented the non-signers in a lawsuit that was ultimately decided by the California Supreme Court in their favor. In the intervening few years, my grandfather subsisted on help from Jesuits who took the non-signers in and offered them jobs as tutors before he was finally reinstated to the Berkeley faculty in 1954.

He was also a vocal advocate for the liberal arts, even at a massive institution like UC Berkeley. Following student protests advocating for educational reform, he co-founded and directed Strawberry Creek College, an interdisciplinary seminar program for Berkeley underclassmen that operated in the 70s. The college ultimately lost funding, but my grandfather stuck to his ideals. Throughout his career, he always taught freshman English even after he had earned tenure for decades and published major works of literary scholarship. Even after he retired from Berkeley, he didn’t stop teaching or arguing for educational reform. The year before he died, at 88, he published a book called “Fixing College Education,” and until his death, he was meeting weekly with a former convict whom he tutored in reading and writing.

His passion for inspiring intellectual curiosity deeply influenced my life. As a young kid, I went through a fairly serious dinosaur phase and obsessively watched Animal Planet. Accordingly, for years my grandparents would mail me clippings from the San Francisco Chronicle of announcements of new dinosaur discoveries and send zoological encyclopedias as birthday gifts. Perhaps unsurprisingly, I have sustained a somewhat obsessive fascination with the natural world for my entire life.

My grandfather died in 2010, a year before I began applying to college. But during my senior fall, my mom told me that he thought highly of Swarthmore, and I’ve never forgotten that. In my recent reflections, I thought about how he enabled my passion for the natural world, and how this passion represents a significant contribution to my “Swattie-ness.” I brought this issue up with my mom, who made the point that, at his core, my grandfather was a champion of individuality. That is, he always encouraged and supported people to “just do them.”  She was right, “Swattie-ness” is fundamentally just individuality. People try to describe it as some mix of passionate intellectual focus, countercultural tendencies, quirkiness, etc. but those are just side effects of people “doing them” and caring about others’ ability to do so as well.

I feel pretty good about this definition: Swatties are people who express their individuality, generally with some sort of intellectual bend to it. Thinking about all of this made me realize that the times I’ve valued Swarthmore the most have been whenever “Swattie-ness” has been encouraged, celebrated, and affirmed at an institutional level. For example, I’ve loved my academic experience here because the college’s academic program clearly strives to allow students to express themselves as intellectual individuals: Honors Seminars are largely student driven and the topics often follow student interests; independent study/research with faculty is not exceedingly difficult to get credit for; and students are encouraged to think for themselves and then challenged to defend their arguments.

However, over the past few years, it feels as though the college’s commitment to individuality has waned—not in the academic program but with regard to the campus social experience. During my first couple of years, there was a more laissez-faire approach to student life that was a bit frustrating on the one hand (getting on club mailing lists, for instance, seemed to happen mostly by word-of-mouth) but was great on the other (A hundred people could enjoy an impromptu kegger in Worth courtyard without repercussions). Student traditions might have taken a while to get going, but when they did, they were true reflections of the student body’s character, interests, and ethos.

Today it feels as though students have lost the autonomy that they used to have. Crunkfest has been killed and Pub Nite is struggling to survive. The OSE and Public Safety closely regulate student assembly on weekends. Changes to the Physical Education requirement a year and a half ago have decimated engagement in student-run sports, dance, and martial arts clubs. And just this past week a number of students were cited for nonviolently protesting the administration’s refusal to engage with students regarding divestment. There is perhaps no starker evidence of the current dichotomy between administrative policy and academic teaching than an instance when students are penalized for putting ideas they learn in the classroom into practice.

So when I think about whether I would want to come here again, I hesitate a bit. The many recent changes—at the social level—appear to be regressions away from the ideal of a liberal arts institution. As someone who values individualism, I appreciated being treated as an adult who could make decisions on his own without significant restrictions during my first couple of years.

We don’t live in a classroom after we graduate, so to truly prepare ourselves as individuals in the world, we as students need some level of autonomy. What good are our academic studies if we don’t also learn how to live together as individuals?

Student independence is the crux of a liberal arts education that actually values individualism—inside and outside of the classroom—and that is the philosophy that my grandfather believed in and that I wanted to experience in college. I just hope that in future years, once the dust surrounding recent changes has settled, I can visit and say that, yes, a high school version of me definitely would still come here.


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One comment

  1. 0
    Scott Ferrall says:

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but I’d assume that as at most liberal-arts schools, this is ultimately student-driven. The overwhelming demand that campuses create “safe spaces,” and the corrosive backlash that would occur were a single student to feel “unsafe” for any reason seems to incentivize just getting rid of these events altogether. It’s a “can’t have your cake and eat it too” situation.

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