Wheaton College Norton, Massachusetts
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Active and engaged learning

Posted on January 23, 2013

I hope the New Year is off to a good start for you. The Wheaton campus is getting busy with the start of a new semester; classes begin today.

With the start of classes, the Beard and Weil Galleries have reopened with a fascinating exhibition that, if you can visit campus for an afternoon, you will want to see. The show “100 Years, 100 Objects” features a sampling of treasures from the college’s Permanent Collection and its archives--from handwritten diaries to works by famous artists and authors, including Alexander Calder’s Little Blue Oval and a rare ink-and-watercolor study by Ludwig Bemelmans (of Madeline fame).

Most of the objects in the show were donated by Wheaton alumnae/i or their family members, a fact that calls attention to the extraordinary people and wonderful generosity that have helped to make Wheaton the college it is today.

The exhibition was curated and installed by students in the Exhibition Design course taught by Assistant Professor Leah Niederstadt and College Archivist Zeph Stickney. The research and thought behind the selection of each piece are evident, and I was impressed to find that the students incorporated digital media—podcasts, essays and a catalogue—into the project. These media can be accessed by smartphone while the visitor is browsing the show.

Each object in the exhibition has a story to tell on its own. For instance, I was struck by a letter written by Dr. Eleanor Bridge Kilham, Class of 1876, who left her private medical practice in 1915 to provide medical care to wounded soldiers and establish a refugee center in France. As the show’s catalogue states, Dr. Kilham “embodied the institution’s ethos of using knowledge for the benefit of mankind.” The tradition of social responsibility is now an essential part of Wheaton’s DNA.

For me, one of the most striking stories from this exhibition is its illustration of Wheaton’s focus on active and engaged learning. This experiential approach may demand more of faculty members, and it may require more resources for the college to sustain, but it also delivers great value to our students. The opportunity to apply theory, whether in a project such as this one, in scientific laboratory research or on a creative scholarly project, solidifies learning and allows students to grow in their capabilities and their confidence.

The power of Wheaton’s educational philosophy is evident in this exhibition and in every corner of the campus. One compelling testimony to the college’s academic strength is the number of students who win prestigious national scholarships. In producing Fulbright Scholars, the college ranks among the top 10 liberal arts colleges in the country for the eighth consecutive year. Our students’ success in earning these awards reflects both their intellectual potential and the opportunities the college provides to learn, grow and achieve at the highest level.

Like all liberal arts colleges, however, Wheaton faces significant challenges. The cost of higher education, particularly the highly personalized and flexible education that Wheaton offers, puts this experience out of reach for too many young people. And even when it is within their financial reach, many families look too quickly, and superficially, for educational programs that have an obvious connection to getting that first job.

By design, liberal arts study eschews an occupational focus in favor of academic work that builds critical thinking, creative problem solving and communication skills. The fact that it is also highly practical runs counter to the current common wisdom.

We need to be active and assertive in making the case for the full value of the liberal arts in life and in work. Wheaton is well positioned to do just that. The Filene Center, the faculty and the curriculum are dedicated to helping students discover the connection between rigorous liberal arts study and success in their careers. We have long been a leader in this area, but that does not mean that we can rest on our laurels.

Our faculty are leading the way. In fact, members of the faculty expect to establish a new interdisciplinary program that will build upon a strong liberal arts foundation to offer students a clear path from campus to career. In addition, this semester we are launching the Wheaton Institute for Interdisciplinary Humanities, founded by Touba Ghadessi and Gen Liang, professors of art history and history. The institute, which will sponsor events that explore the role of the liberal arts in the professions, differs from other such academic centers by focusing on students, rather than on faculty or business professionals.

Thanks to our generous alumnae/i, we’re also able to connect current students with graduates around the world working in virtually every field. It’s hard to overstate how powerful alumnae/i involvement can be. In meeting with alums, students begin to see a wide range of possibilities for their future. Within the next few weeks, sophomores and seniors will both have opportunities to converse with Wheaton graduates about career paths and possibilities.

We welcome your involvement. If you are interested in learning more, please contact the Alumnae/i Relations office to get started, or plan to attend an upcoming Wheaton event in your area. In the next two weeks, I will be attending regional receptions in Philadelphia where a revitalized alumnae/i club is holding a reception; and in Washington, D.C., where psychology professor Jason Reiss will offer one of his engrossing lectures.

I look forward to seeing you and other Wheaton alumnae/i at an upcoming event on or off campus, and I welcome your interest in the future of our unique and excellent liberal arts college.

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