I’m reading through the Colorado College Summer Bulletin.
I am gobsmacked to realize I am within days of hitting 50 years since I left Oregon to embrace Colorado College and its groundbreaking / unusual / weird Block Plan, then only in its second year. My mom, a schoolteacher and single parent, said she could only afford for me to go three inches away from home on the Rand McNally Atlas. I studied every college that met the geographical parameters, attended the CC recruiter’s meeting in Portland, and applied to just one.
Thanks to a generous scholarship from the Woman’s Educational Society, loans, and a part-time job at Tutt Library shelving government documents (primarily the incredibly boring newsprint version of the Congressional Record), I was able to attend CC.
Today I am overwhelmed by memories. I am struck for the millionth time that I didn’t learn anything at CC. Make that I didn’t learn any THING. Rather, I learned to think. I watch “Jeopardy” regularly and I’m depressed at how few questions I can answer — oops, I mean how many answers I can question. Where do these people put all this information? My brain is full of process. There is little room for factoids.
I remember moving into Loomis in 1971, having arrived with one little red Samsonite suitcase. My grandpa’s old footlocker with my alarm clock, purple Madras bedspread, and orange towels wasn’t delivered for another week. I was certain I’d be best friends with my roommate, as we both submitted comprehensive forms detailing our interests. I only found out later that her mother had completed hers. She was very nice, and she promptly disappeared to the Beta Theta Pi fraternity house.
I soon made my first friend, visibly also from my part of the country (Seattle), and we formed the NWPLS — the Northwest Pale Legs Society. Unlike our rugged wingmates who sported golden tans, we landed at CC with what we called typing paper white skin. (Clearly this was before computers.) We spent hours studying on the roof of Loomis, trying to turn brown before the long, lazy Colorado fall ended, and scrambling to rehook our bras when the Zoomies from the Air Force Academy flew overhead on their training missions.
And so it went for the Class of 1975. Social circles expanded as did our values and abilities to address complex problems. “What if…” became the CC theme, along with the hockey team’s Pi chant – “E to the X, D-Y, D-X. E to the X, D-X. Secant, tangent, cosine, sine… 3.14159!” We thought we Tigers were terribly clever, not realizing this chant was fairly ubiquitous across liberal arts schools in the 1970s.
“What if…” still drives me. I am struck by President L. Song Richardson’s first article in the Bulletin, where she refers to Professor Emeritus Glenn Brooks explaining that “the Block Plan wasn’t something that was fully conceived when it began — they just jumped in, tried things out, and improvised.”
Isn’t that life? We just jump in and try things? When my son was born in Denver, the spunky little Irish nurse put a washcloth on my newborn as the cart was out of diapers. I was dumbfounded. “You can DO THAT?” She laughed. “This is parenting. Improvise.”
I am convinced that the Block Plan’s immersion theory of education actually better prepared me for real life than a traditional college curriculum would have. Life is immersion. We are absorbed by joy, sorrow, or even monotony, for a minute, an hour, a day. Then the life event passes, we get a block break or a nap, and we dive in again. The Block Plan teaches us to be fully present to the moment, to yield completely to the challenge, to get lost in it.
Another article in this issue of the Bulletin features Assistant Professor Natanya Pulley as she used collages to create her way through the worst of the pandemic. She looks for “anything that gives me a chance to fail and start over or try new things.” She embraces what she calls “low stakes processes” where being able to work with “whims and half-baked ideas is a gift we can always give to ourselves and one another.”
This is also the message of the Block Plan. Jump in, try things out, improvise, embrace whims and half-baked ideas. Who knows what our ovens will produce?
I visited the college a few years ago and was enthralled to visit Packard Hall. It was constructed the year after I graduated; unlike today’s senior art majors, my own art studio had been my dorm room in Montgomery Hall. What a change since I studied painting with Jim Trissel and Bernard Arnest and printmaking with Mary Chenoweth! I introduced myself to the student security guard and announced proudly, “Class of ’75.” She was polite but looked at me as if I was really old, and I suddenly realized I sort of am. I have had a dynamic and unpredictable lifetime, longer than some of my peers, built on the values that were explored and concretized at CC.
I jumped in, I tried things out. I made mistakes, learned new things, and have tried to nudge our world to be a bit kinder than it was when I first became a grownup at CC. I read the Bulletin and shake my head in delight at how many women are college administrators, at CC’s carbon-neutral commitment, at the fresh new faces of the young people who will become themselves in this new Class of 2025.
Has it really been 50 years?
Donna Dwigans/Liewer Cohen ’75
I attended CC in the late 1970s. I’m “senior” and on my way out. But I have a 6-year-old granddaughter. When I read between the lines of the new president’s message, and some of the accompanying articles in the most recent issue, I have to wonder whether the college has lost a view of its primary mission. I have always thought that the primary mission is to teach the students skills of critical thinking that will enrich the rest of their lives and the lives of those with whom they work in their careers.
What I read suggests an emphasis on what I would describe as social engineering — inculcating an objective that has nothing to do with critical thinking, but rather focuses on outcomes that, in the current-day vernacular, embody “equity,” “diversity,” “equality,” and, in an overriding sense, not achievement, excellence, or intellectual accomplishment, but indoctrination in a preferred imagination of the state of the world.
This seems like the antithesis of critical thinking. In fact, it preempts that very essence of education. If CC is to remain true to its spirit of innovation, it appears there is an opportunity to return to the roots of the educational mission, resist the pressure of a social agenda, and stand tall once again.
Rick Berlet ’68