College Tour 2009: Vassar College

Our tour of Wellesley College wrapped up later in the afternoon than we expected and we still had a long drive to Poughkeepsie, New York ahead of us.  After filling up the Jeep we decided to fill up at the Bertucci’s across the street.  Again, while being thankful for the GPS and not having to deal with paper maps or printed directions, these things are not without fault.  After all, who in their right mind would choose to drive through Hartford and endure I-84 all the way to New York on a rainy Friday night if they didn’t have to?  Well, we did, probably still being of relatively sound mind and relying on the imperfect blessings of technology.  U.S. Route 9 from Fishkill to Poughkeepsie is no prize, either, with traffic lights every quarter mile, but we eventually made it to our hotel for the night.

Vassar College ChapelRainy weather was forecast for the day of our visit to Vassar College.  Very rainy weather.  Checking out of our hotel the skies were merely overcast but with rain heavy in the air.  A few minutes drive delivered us to one of the entrances to campus, coming in behind the chapel.  As an aside, it’s interesting to note that all of the colleges our middle daughter and I have visited have chapels, remnants of their past (often, but not always) as female seminaries.  The chapels remain as ecumenical worship spaces, assembly spaces, and performance spaces, but also as architectural landmarks on each campus.

We weren’t as pressed for time to get to Vassar as we were to Wellesley, and finding the admissions building was quick and easy.  First impressions being what they are Vassar’s more compact campus, while no less beautiful or architecturally striking than Wellesley’s, felt much more accessible and friendly.  The rain held off for nearly our entire visit at Vassar, making the walk that much more pleasant.

The residential quad wasn’t as impressive as the rest of campus, nor were the Vassar dorms anything like Tower Court at Wellesley, but they were easily comparable to anything we had seen so far.  The main academic quad is dominated by the Main Building, which once was home to the entire college, on one side and the Thompson Memorial Library on the other.  We were not able to tour any of the Main Building, which houses offices and classrooms and still some students, but we were able to walk through part of the library.  Much like the other schools we had visited the library was impressive both as a building and as a learning resource.  Except for the Connecticut College main library, which is a completely modern building, the Wheaton, Wellesley, and Vassar main libraries are combinations of historic and modern structures.  In every case there are (according to the tour guide and research) extensive collections, and student computer clusters for both PC and Mac.

Thompson Memorial Library

During the tour and, later, the information session Vassar’s academic program sounded similar to Wheaton’s in its emphasis on interdisciplinary study, but threw in a twist we hadn’t heard elsewhere – the “open” curriculum.  As this was explained, the open curriculum means there are no basic “core” requirements beyond what are required for a particular major.  The only exceptions are a freshman writing seminar, proficiency in a foreign language, and a quantitative analysis course.  This notion of an “open” curriculum seemed alarming for at least one parent at the information session, but seems to be consistent with the direction I have seen in visits to colleges and universities over the last couple of years.

Not being an expert in education at any level I am probably not the best person to comment on the virtues of one type of curriculum over another, but I can understand why some would find an open curriculum disturbing.  On one hand not having rigid core curriculum requirements allows students to more freedom to study either a.) things outside of core or degree curriculum requirements or b.) not have to study things that they would otherwise find “useless,” “boring,” or, dare I say it, “too hard.”  That last bit may be too harsh, I don’t know, but if every student can basically invent his or her own education you lose some of the common experience and meaning of being “educated.”

After the information session middle daughter and I wandered around campus a little more on our own.  After taking a photo of her with the statue of Matthew Vassar in front of the Main Building we took time for lunch.  On our way home we more or less disregarded the GPS and took the Taconic State Parkway north to I-90.  It may have been longer than going back to I-84 but, even with the overcast and rain that followed us all the way home, I think we’ll go that way again – that is, if we have the occasion to go that way again.

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