My awakening to the possibility of new forms of education came unexpectedly in a course I would never have taken had I not flunked Economics the first semester of my senior year at Pomona College.
Suddenly my final semester of college, I was forced to take five courses, instead of the usual four. This meant a lot of extra work—20% more than I had ever handled before, in fact. How would I manage?
I’m not sure what made me choose the course in Social Welfare. Was it because it was taught by a woman? Was it because it was offered at Scripps and the one prior course I had taken there (Shakespeare) turned out to be one of my favorites? Did I think it would be less work than other courses I would be taking? Was it because the class only met once a week and would fit into my already busy schedule? Was it because it was completely different from anything else I had studied until then and it was time for something new? Perhaps I thought it would relate in some way to the path I had decided to pursue after graduation, the path toward ministry.
For whatever reason or reasons, I found myself in a very different environment the moment I walked in the room. There were no tables or desks, only a cirle of chairs. The professor was Jean Barrett, a visiting assistant professor of sociology who had earned her PhD at Claremont Graduate School in 1961. She seemed younger than many of my previous professors, friendly and open, and interestingly non-professorial. As we students dutifully took out our notebooks and tried to balance them on our laps, she smiled and suggested immediately that we put them away. It was our choice, she said, but she predicted if we took notes we would not do as well as we would if we listened with full attention and engaged in discussion. She went on to explain there would be no assigned reading, no texts, and no tests. She pointed to a table full of books at the side of the room. These we could borrow and read, if we wanted to. Or we could find our own resources.
The requirements for the course were to come to class, participate in discussions, and go on field trips. Our grades would be based on class participation and a final project we would work on throughout the semester. The project could be a term paper, but she suggested it include research beyond the library and encouraged us to choose an aspect of social welfare with facilities we could investigate in person, so we could explore both social problems and potential solutions.
To say this first class session blew my mind would be an understatement. This was unlike anything else I had ever experienced in education, something exciting and new. I felt blessed by some unseen spirit of life for flunking Econ and discovering this new approach to learning, this opportunity to try something different from the highly structured academic education I had been previously immersed in.
I walked out into a sunny blue sky afternoon, the kind of late January day that makes southern California seem like a paradise. The air around me was fresh and new. My reality had shifted, and I was grateful be alive in this place at this time. This was not your normal everyday college class, and I was excited by the possibilities. I opened my arms and said out loud my favorite words from the musical, “The Fantasticks”: “Please God, please, don’t let me be normal.” PS. If you were in this class or one similar, please contact me so we can share our memories.