The Conversations of Knowledge:
Teaching and Learning the Pitzer Way
E.E. cummings’ poem, “anyone lived in a pretty how town” is magical and has always been one of my favorites to teach. One of the reasons I enjoy the poem so much is that it functions on at least two levels of interpretation: Traced in nine stanzas is the existence of the whole of humanity as well as an intimate look at the relationship between two individuals. The line that begins the eighth stanza in the poem, “all by all and deep by deep,” resonates with me most when I think of Pitzer College as it serves as an apt description of what we strive to achieve in our educational objectives: interdisciplinary perspective, intercultural understanding, concern with social responsibility and the ethical implications of knowledge and action, breadth of knowledge, understanding in depth, critical thinking, formal analysis and effective expression.
Accepting the notion that the world is a seamless whole greater than the sum of its parts challenges the traditional ways in which knowledge has been categorized within higher education. To consider the work of departments of history as separate from that of departments of English as separate from departments of anthropology as separate from departments of physics is a comfortable fiction: comfortable and comforting—and misleading—because it segments the conversation of knowledge into separate traditions of manageable expertise and isolated language, avoiding the messy demands of developing the skills of interlocution. Since its founding Pitzer has challenged the traditional and outdated epistemological order through our focus on interdisciplinary study and the formation of field groups rather than departments. As we all realize in the course of our life’s journey, existence, ultimately, is not divisible.
Pitzer will challenge yet another tradition of higher education’s longstanding model of teaching and learning when students move into our new residence halls in fall of 2007. These new residence halls will provide students with a fully realized experience of the seamless whole that is the heart of Pitzer’s mission. “We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us,” said Winston Churchill, and it is our hope that the buildings by their very nature will teach us about sustainable living afforded by Nature.
Our educational objectives frame students’ intellectual pursuits long after they become alumni. I recently received an e-mail from one of my former Pitzer students, Shoni Blitstein ’05, who wanted to update me about his Fulbright Fellowship year in South Korea and to place his experience in a larger context: “My Fulbright in Korea is going beautifully. This year is the first time I have ever truly experienced Asian culture. From a social and anthropological point of view it’s humbling. The historical landscape of this part of the world is truly immense. . . Korea is different, even uncomfortable at times. However, I can feel the changes that are occurring within me. . . .
“This is the first extended period of prolonged difficulty that I have ever had to face. It is not the work or the culture or the relative intellectual and physical isolation that creates this challenging environment but all of them acting together as a great hand that has slowly but completely bulldozed my sheltered, happy, little garden. Sounds tragic? It’s not. This experience is putting some dirt in my treads.”
The elements of the world hit us all at once, pull at us from one hundred poles. How do we prepare ourselves to be equal to the challenge, to welcome and embrace the chance to be bulldozed by experience? I think that living and learning the Pitzer College experience of disciplines without boundaries is a wonderful start, and the best preparation for getting some good dirt in your treads.
Laura Skandera Trombley