In the gentle light of the Berkshire hills, Williams pursues a bold ambition: To provide the finest possible liberal arts education. If the goal is immodest, it is also bracing: Elevating the sights and standards of every member of the community, encouraging them to keep faith with the challenge inscribed on the College’s gates: “climb high, climb far.”
Williams is fortunate to have extraordinary resources, but its strength derives above all else from the quality of its people.
Williams students rank with the best in the country; the rigor and competitiveness of the College’s admission standards place Williams in the company of only a handful of other institutions. Over the past thirty years especially, Williams has both strengthened its academic profile and actively recruited a student body that is markedly more diverse in many dimensions, including race, national origin, and the educational and socio-economic background of its families.
The strength of the student body today is the product of the College’s resolve to search as widely as possible for students of high academic ability and great personal promise. Diversity is not an end in itself, but a principle flowing from the conviction that encountering differences is at the heart of the educational enterprise—differences, certainly, of ideas and beliefs, but also differences of perspectives rooted in the varied histories students bring with them.
As both an educational and social imperative, Williams is committed to welcoming talented students irrespective of their financial resources, and it is therefore a central institutional priority—unwaveringly supported by all parts of the College community—to maintain the policies of need-blind admission for domestic students and of fully meeting a student’s demonstrated need. And, recognizing that of those to whom much has been given much may properly be required, we ask all our students to understand that an education at Williams should not be regarded as a privilege destined to create further privilege, but rather as a privilege that creates the opportunity and responsibility to serve society at large.
Williams seek to capitalize on their character as a residential college by placing great emphasis on the learning that takes place not only inside the classroom, but outside as well, where students can strengthen mind, body, and spirit by participating in athletic teams, artistic performances, political debates, religious and volunteer groups, and nearly one-hundred-and-seventy extra-curricular organizations. They also urge students to see their college as a laboratory in citizenship. To an unusual degree, Williams gives students primary responsibility for creating and governing their own community, whether as Junior Advisors (chosen by fellow students to live with and mentor first-year students), or as guardians of academic integrity through the student-led Honor Code.
Recruiting top talent from a wide variety of institutions, Williams asks its faculty to accept a distinctive—and unusually demanding—combination of challenges: to be exemplary teachers, productive scholars or artists, and active partners in running the institution. Well supported by the College through research funding and a generous sabbatical program, Williams faculty are leaders in their fields—recognized nationally, and often internationally, for the high quality and significance of their scholarly and creative work. They also embrace the chance to shape their college, serving in a civic spirit on an array of committees, and as senior officers of an institution that has long prized shared governance and collaborative decision-making.
But it is the teaching gene that especially defines Williams professors. They devote sustained attention every year to assessing the quality and freshness of the curriculum, and to crafting pedagogical approaches that help nurture in their students a passionate pleasure in the life of the mind. Faculty members invite students to become partners in the process of intellectual discovery. That partnership becomes visible in every classroom, where students are expected to contribute rather than consume; in the challenging setting of Williams tutorials, where students take the lead in explaining what is interesting and consequential about that week’s assignment; and in the College’s ambitious programs to engage students directly in faculty research.
But the classroom and curriculum are only the entry points. Professors at Williams want to know not only what their students think, but how they think and who they are. They want to know students in all their dimensions—to learn their histories and hopes, to advise them on matters personal, as well as academic, to see them as complex individuals who deserve attention and respect.
Faculty and students together, learning with and from each other in a community whose intimacy of scale fosters close personal and intellectual relationships; where concern for the needs and ideas of other people is not only an educational, but an ethical, imperative; where the values of engagement and decency fundamentally shape the educational process: These are the ideals to which Williams faculty and students aspire.
They have strong partners. Williams is blessed with an enormously talented administrative and support staff; they keenly understand the College’s mission and devote their energies to advancing it. Williams alumni are fiercely and intelligently loyal, contributing generously of their time, experience, and resources. Far from insisting that the College remain as it was in their time, alumni encourage Williams to reinvent itself for each new generation. Williams’ trustees (all of whom are currently alumni) provide discerning strategic direction and careful stewardship of the College’s assets. While the board is fully engaged, it keeps its focus on large policy issues and long-term decisions.
Williams is fortunate, too, in their location. Surrounded by communities that enthusiastically support and participate in its educational project, Williams is at home in a town rich with cultural resources. The College strives to be a responsible citizen and employer, and contributes both expertise and resources to numerous local initiatives. The natural beauty of the Berkshires makes the College especially conscious of the urgent need to address—through teaching and research, and through the daily operations of the College—the environmental problems that threaten an increasingly fragile planet.
That is who they are, and this is what they aim to do: To develop in students both the wisdom and skills they will need to become responsible contributors to whatever communities they join, and the richly textured inner lives that will make them rigorously self-reflective, ethically alert, and imaginatively alive. Public and private purposes, as it were, harmoniously nurturing each other. Toward these ends, certain principles and values shape their sense of mission:
- Their purpose is not to offer specialized or professional training, but to develop in their students strong writing, speaking, and quantitative abilities, as well as analytical and interpretive talents, tested in relation to a wide range of issues and disciplines. They embrace the liberal arts claim that a broadly educated person will be more capable of adapting to the particular needs of the professions and of public life than a person narrowly trained in singular subjects.
- Their curricular requirements aim to negotiate the crucial balance between breadth and depth. They combine an appropriately liberal distribution of each student’s course choices across the curriculum with some measure of control over the methods and subject matter of at least one field. While fully recognizing the important value of disciplinary approaches and the departmental structures that support them, they have welcomed and participated in the academy’s growing emphasis on inter-disciplinary learning as a way of understanding the inter-connectedness of ideas, and as a bulwark against the fragmentation of knowledge.
- Through the increasingly global reach of their curriculum, as well as the diversity of their campus community, they seek to develop in students the capacity to see beyond the limits of their own experience. So many of the world’s problems—from racism, to sectarian and nationalistic violence, to everyday forms of disrespect—stem from a failure to imagine our way into the lives of other people, a failure to understand the beliefs and contingencies that shape their lives, a failure to hear the stories that other people are trying to tell them. A liberal education alone cannot solve the world’s problems, but it can help to open minds and deepen human empathy.
- Their curriculum is as varied, up-to-date, and forward-thinking as the contemporary world requires, but they also want to strengthen their students’ curiosity about, and respect for, the past: for the story of how people before us have responded to challenges different from—but analogous to—their own, for the story of where human beings have been, what we have achieved, and how we have failed. They want to resist the tendency to see our historical moment as so much more complex and dangerous than those experienced by earlier generations that we fail to think of the past as something that calls to us with an urgent, or admonitory, or even sympathetic voice.
- They want, too, to lean against the growing culture of simplification, where intricate issues are boiled down into fiercely held “positions,” where counter-arguments are seen as irritating distractions from clarity, where “points” have more power and visibility than the thinking that produced them. They want instead to inspire in their students the confidence to be undaunted by complexity, and to embrace it in ways that will prove valuable to them and to society at large.
- They aim to encourage students to develop a personal stance toward learning and knowledge, and to make judgments that put their beliefs and values on the line. They want them to have the courage of their convictions, but at the same time, to seek out criticism of their own ideas, and to appreciate the virtues of personal and intellectual humility.
These values and ambitions will serve as beacons into a future when the College will continue to encounter, and continue to welcome, changes in their demographics, curriculum, approaches to what and how they learn. To remain a vibrant institution that both reflects and leads the society of which it is a part, Williams must always adapt and grow, and be prepared—as we tell students they too must be prepared—to respond in an agile, nuanced way to needs and challenges we cannot yet anticipate.
In summarizing this college’s mission, they can turn to the eloquent words spoken by Williams President John Sawyer ’39 in his induction address in 1961:
The most versatile, the most durable, in an ultimate sense the most practical knowledge and intellectual resources which [students] can now be offered are those impractical arts and sciences around which a liberal education has long centered: the capacity to see and feel, to grasp, respond, and act over a widening arc of experience; the disposition and ability to think, to question, to use knowledge to order an ever-extending range of reality; the elasticity to grow, to perceive more widely and more deeply, and perhaps to create; the understanding to decide where to stand and the will and tenacity to do so; the wit and wisdom, the humanity and humor to try to see oneself, one’s society, and one’s world with open eyes, to live a life usefully, to help things in which one believes on their way. This is not the whole of a liberal arts education, but as I understand it, this range of goals is close to its core.
So it was more than a half-century ago, and so it remains today.