The Corner

Liberal Arts Colleges

I’ve gotten a lot of email regarding my SLU and Hamilton gig from readers far and wide. Some suggest I simply bombed at SLU. I really don’t think so and, believe me, I’m open to the idea. I’ve bombed before and I’m sure I’ll bomb again and, as in the past, I’m the first to admit it. The organizers at SLU were very pleased as were most of the faculty in attendance. I gave pretty much the same talk at Hamilton and it was a great success (though one’s energy goes up when the audience is responsive so that’s a big factor).

Anyway, my point isn’t to discuss how my speaking gigs go. But I do think it’s interesting how cultures on liberal arts campuses can differ so wildly. Of course, I don’t get to immerse myself at these schools. But the sorts of kids I’m exposed to holds pretty constant from one school to another, and yet the differences are really glaring. Davidson, for example, was profoundly academic (i.e. grade-obsessed). Bowdoin much more country clubby. Williams is a bit too intense. Etc etc. At some schools all of the kids reflexively put on jacket and ties when we go to dinner, at other schools it’s jeans and flannel. At some schools the campus is 30% Greek (i.e. fraternities) and the fraternities absolutely dominate social life. At other schools, the ratio is identical, but the fraternities are a joke. And so on and so on.

What I find comforting about this is that it shows how even small communities and institutions can have very different cultures even though most of the objective conditions are the same (tuition, age, resources, socio-economic background of the students, etc). Personalities, individual decisions and the like have real consequences on the tenor and flavor of life. Anyway, I just think it’s interesting.