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Learning Environment

rokojo's picture

Walking in Morris Woods, I felt strongly the passage of time. I felt the interconnectedness of life and death. I felt a connection between myself and those who came before me, a connection that in reality, doesn’t exist. The environment in which we exist has a powerful ability to foster a connection between us and those who came before us. Although it changes like we do, it is something that has existed long before any of us and will exist long after we are gone. This type of shared connection to the environment is extremely powerful. I realized I have been able to experience this shared history with women going back hundreds of years in part because of the work of Bryn Mawr’s founders, Joseph Taylor and Carey Thomas. However, it is worth noting that although Bryn Mawr was designed with intentions of equality for women to achieve an equal education, its environment is flawed in many ways. Therefore, it is important when connecting to the past to consider that although the past may have been shared, there were those who were excluded from

The rocks beneath our feet were formed millions of years ago. I learned recently that the same rocks that lie beneath our feet form the walls of the buildings in which we live and learn. These rocks have been around long before anyone lived in the area, long before Joseph Taylor decided to build a school for Quaker women. The buildings of bryn mawr were designed with a very specific goal in mind. Early on the buildings were designed modestly as a “Quaker woman”, simple and modest. The purpose of these buildings were to provide Quaker women with a private place to live as well as a place to gain an education. The buildings could be viewed from the outside community but were simple in design. However, when Carey M Thomas became president, she rejected the modest Quaker designs and goals. She wanted to take the college in a different direction. Taylor saw the college more as a place where Quaker women could be instructed in a Quaker environment. However, Thomas wasn’t as connected to the Quaker ideology. She had ideas for a place where wealthy white women could achieve academic excellence. She rejected the idea of Quaker modesty. She didn’t simply seek to create the best women’s college, but rather one of the best colleges in general. What became of the architecture of Bryn Mawr under these two presidents were stone buildings that were highly academic, based on the architecture of oxford. “As the visible sign that truth had no sex, the Bryn Mawr campus gave no clue as to the gender of its student body.” (Horowitz, 13). These buildings were constructed based on other colleges at the time taking ideas from both women's colleges and all male institutions. In walking the halls of Bryn Mawr, its design as a place of learning above all else is evident. “Nothing about Bryn Mawr suggests a home. Smith's President Seelye linked domestic forms and scale with women's college residence in the cottage. But domesticity in all its forms was anathema to Carey Thomas...The college that she envisioned had nothing of home.” (Horowitz, 13). This rejection of the traditional role of women are shown not only by the presence of the academic and prestigious in the architecture, but also by the lack of the domestic. Its lecture halls and classrooms are very traditional, set up in a very structured and proper way. However, this style, although equal to the environment men learned in, left others out.

At the time, colleges were designed with the idea that learning takes place in a certain type of environment. It was good that these schools sought to offer women a place to learn equal to the ones available only to men, however in its adaptation of the established system of higher education, women’s colleges like Bryn Mawr also adopted their classism, racism, and elitism. To say that learning only happens in a certain type of environment, one that looks like Bryn Mawr, is to deny those who lack access to this environment. Those who lack the income to achieve a higher education will have a much harder time accessing this type of environment. To say that learning can only occur in a certain type of space is to deny the idea of everyone’s ability and right to learn and achieve an education. In reality, learning can occur anywhere. You can achieve an education without a classroom. The design of Bryn Mawr and other schools like it also created an idea of who attends schools like this, who has a right to an education. Those who didn’t have access to this environment were uneducated by default. This system of exclusion not only prevented the spread of knowledge from these institutions to a wider variety of people, but also dismissed the idea that there is merit to interacting with and learning from people different from you.

It may not have been part of Taylor’s plan, but Bryn Mawr college is designed in a very shut off way. It is enclosed on all sides by buildings in a way that limits interaction with the outside world. In this type of environment, it is clear when someone present doesn’t belong. You get used to seeing the same people without much variation. On one hand, this type of closed off environment creates a space where people feel comfortable and are able to focus on their studies without outside distraction. However, it also limits the ability of people to learn. When people aren’t exposed to a wide variety of other people and ideas, their scope of learning is limited. Being exposed to new environments, like I was when I went into the woods, is a great way to gain a better understanding of the world we live in. If we limit our learning environment, we limit our learning.


Anne Dalke's picture

So I was confused by your opening paragraph, which says that “I have been able to experience this shared history with women going back hundreds of years,” that “I felt a connection…that in reality, doesn’t exist,” and that “it is important when connecting to the past to consider…those who were excluded….” Explain?

Then you shift to a review of the design of the college, drawn largely from Horowitz’s writings, with a comment about the exclusionary nature of the education originally imagined here. This is pretty straightforward.

Your final paragraph emphasizes this (great!) point: “If we limit our learning environment, we limit our learning.” But your evidence for this claim is the “exposure to new environments” that you yourself had when you went into the woods. This brings us back nicely to your opening paragraph. Only that paragraph was so confusing that I’m not sure what I’ve been brought back to: is it a shared history, an illusory connection, or a reminder of exclusion? And (if any-or-all of these) what exactly is the new environment here, if your experience is one of connection with the past, however problematic?