Sweet Briar College: An End Of An Era

Sweet Briar College is a woman only educational institute in the rural western region of Virginia, what is known as a liberal arts college.  The administrators have announced that it will close at the end of the academic year, citing the financial challenges faced by the college with the decline of admissions.  Its fate may have been different had it been located near or in a larger city or had been a member of one of the seven sisters in New England.  I recall that Mills College, another liberal arts college that admits only women has the good fortune to be situated near near Oakland, California, and thus in a stronger position for survival.  Still, one wonders what will become of so many of the private colleges which tend to lack the additional resources as sports programs and wealthy alumni.

For many centuries, education was the province of men.  That is, men with sufficient financial resources to acquire such knowledge.  Men of wealth and power secured tutors for their male children, and a few of the female offspring tagged along in the education game.  Sons of laborers, of craftsmen, of farmers had neither the spare time nor the need for education.  Their fate was the practical world of building, farming, and manufacturing crafts.  And from the farms and cities would come men for armies, a necessary employment where the value was placed on physical education, learning not the art of war, but its survival on the battlefield.  The woman’s place was in the home, giving birth to children, their care and raising, and the keeping of the house.  Death from childbirth was the most common affliction, the second was an early death from the hard physical labor.  For the poor man, he might hope to live to the ripe old age of forty or forty five, as farming and common labor was very strenuous work, often fusing the vertebrae in several places.  But for the ruling class, the wealthy, life was good.  Sons were educated and sometimes the daughters.  And if their estates were not plundered by invading armies, foreign or domestic, or rebellion of those whose labors insured the comforts of the ruling class and the wealthy, they could hope for a longer life.

Civilization and societies change through the centuries.  Financial status still imparts a difference to educational opportunities.  From the common elementary schools to boarding schools to exclusive private academies and then into some sort of university system, we saw education take a different shape.  Women made gains but never enough.  The sons were sent to the universities or into apprenticeships.  Daughters were either sent to “finishing” schools to polish their eligibility for marriage or worked around the house until married.  Indeed, marriage was the only way a woman left the house of her father and then it was for the house of another man.  If one was a farmers daughter there really wasn’t difference between the two.  But for those daughters of wealthy men, well, life was different.  Marriages were arranged and love seldom entered into the bargain struck between two families of means.  Jane Austin really put the state of women on notice, regardless of station, high or low, the woman had to make the best of her situation through marriage.  And this has not changed until the last few decades when the marriage imperative has been questioned and almost, but not quite abandoned.

When I was in high school, it was the goal of almost every girl I knew to become married.  Yes, some wanted to go to college but even then it was more for the opportunity to marry well and a college educated husband was a good catch.  During the last hundred and fifty years we have seen the establishment of women’s colleges such as Smith, Sarah Lawrence, and the like.  Some famous and most prestigious and many far less so.  We have also seen women push open the doors of state colleges and universities for acceptance as well as many of the private colleges.  Even VMI, the Virginia Military Institute, a men’s college specializing in the training of men to become officers in the military, has been opened to women.  The private women’s colleges filled a niche for those women who were more serious about acquiring an education without the competition from men or for men, for that matter.  The campus was a safe haven from unwanted male advances and harassments.  The public and private coed universities and colleges have always seen more than their share of unruly males attempting to become socialized to a normal standard.  Fraternities and sports teams are the last bastions of male childhood.  Of course we have observed that women, having been exposed to much of the excess of male behavior have been compelled to prove themselves the equal of their male peers.

But for the last three decades, women have outnumbered men in admissions and graduation from these four year educational institutions.  And the number of women instructors, professors, and the like has been steadily growing.  The other development is that the non instructional staff at these educational institutions has more than outstripped the numbers of those who actually teach.  Perhaps this may be the reason why higher education has become so expensive.  And it may be why, as an institution, it is sowing its own seeds of destruction.  Soon the question of what constitutes a necessary education will be taken up in the public forums not by discussion by academics but by the needs of business and answered with relevant employment.  One may pursue a degree in the philosophy of religion, but what good ii it?  What are you equipped to do as a living?

The other problem is that the cost of higher education has become prohibitive.  If a man or woman spends $200,000 for a four year liberal arts degree, what is the payback, a job at McDonalds supersizing an order?  One may obtain a degree in law enforcement, a rather dubious degree, and apply to become a policeman.  But, like firemen, there aren’t that many openings and with the coming depression, the likelihood that a graduate can obtain employment in that field and at a far reduced wage means that the student loans will take that much longer to repay.  The idea that every child should go to college, the supposed seat of higher learning, also created the idea that we can pay for all this learning through debt, that is, paying for it with our future earnings supposing we have any.  Well, a liberal arts degree will produce a well rounded individual and we know that society appreciates such individuals.  It’s just that economically, they aren’t in demand.  You should have double majored with a more practical degree such as engineering or science.  You see, there is no direct correlation between education and economic need (well, correlation is not causation either, so little point to the argument).  The fact of the matter is, with a university degree, one either learns a trade such as engineering or accounting, or one learns something about judgment and decision making such as business.  The rest is wishful thinking.

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