Sarah Lawrence: Experiment in Individualism

Progressive Educational System With No Grades, No Exams, No Lectures Gives Way to Moderation

Fifteen miles north of New York hidden in a peaceful residential section of east Yonkers, Sarah Lawrence College quietly continues the experiment in progressive education that it has carried on since its inception in 1928.

About one hundred freshmen enter its gate annually--perhaps drawn by the notion that Sarah Lawrence is the college for the artist, or the intellectual, or the Bohemian, or the debutante. Perhaps what appeals to them is Sarah Lawrence's reputation as a haven of femine individualism.

The partial truth of each of these stereotypes is easily recognizable even to the casual visitor, but only one of these generalizations seems to gain the unanimous recognition of faculty and students: Sarah Lawrence is devoted to the individual, and individualism is its most cherished attribute.

In an effort to treat the student as an individual, Sarah Lawrence has developed its progressive educational policy, a policy that makes it almost unique among woman's colleges. No reported grades, no examinations, no lectures, and no required courses--these are the extremes towards which the policy gravitates. Until very recently, all four extremes were realized.

This year for the first time a few lecture courses, with enrollments of 20-40 girls, have been instituted, and every sophomore and junior is required to attend one of these. The rationale for the modification is that some students will benefit more from a lecture than from the small classes that form the mainstay of the system. An expansion program which will result in the addition of 150 students without a corresponding growth in faculty threatens to force continuing deemphasis of small classes.


A system of faculty reports takes the place of a conventional grading system. These reports--they vary from a paragraph to a page in each course--are sent to the students twice a year but not to the parents. Slightly less detailed reports are sent to the graduate schools to which some of the girls eventually go. The principal virtue of excluding grades is that the students tend to equate success with the accumulation of ideas rather than with the accumulation of good reports.

Aside from the lecture requirement, there is an "exploratory" course now that must be taken in freshman year. Its similarity to General Education requirements indicates that Sarah Lawrence has surrendered some of the radicalism of which it is so proud. A student's curriculum is planned on an individual basis by the student herself and an advisor, known as a "don." It is this catering to individual needs that forms the core of the Sarah Lawrence philosophy. The don, whose chief function is academic guidance, also serves as a sympathetic ear for all the student's problems, though their psychiatric role is underplayed.

Ninety per cent of Sarah Lawrence classes contain fewer than fifteen girls. Again the purpose is to administer to individual needs. While there is an occasional reluctance among the girls to speak out and risk making mistakes in these classes, the general result is a free-flowing discussion, which suffers from excessive digression more than from inadequate response.

Sarah Lawrence students take only three courses which, with rare exception, meet only once a week. In addition there is a weekly half-hour conference with each instructor, similar in may respects to Harvard's individual tutorial system. In this way, the instructor can be expected to learn and fill the requirements of each student, giving in effect a different course to each conferee. As with Harvard tutorial, examinations are rare and most faculty members conscientiously avoid them. Term papers, traditionally referred to as "contracts," are expected of each student.

The system has its dangers. A student never learns by the convenient signpost of grades just where she stands, and a complaint heard often is that, "I never really know how I'm doing." Also, as one member of the administration pointed out, "At any other school, an A ends matters; here without marks you can't win." If a girl responds correctly to these discomforts, the results can be very gratifying, for the quest for knowledge will outlast the final session of the course. There is a risk, however, that the student will lose her way without the tangible incentive of a good mark.

Small classes too have their hazards. Students often cannot take a desired course because of strict limitation on enrollment. With fewer than ten students in the average class, there is a disquieting pressure to participate, and the result may be an excessive premium on verbosity. Translated into a pressure to contribute, however, this discomfort too can be intellectually beneficial. The educational policy proves immensely valuable to those that can adapt to it, but the transition from high school is difficult. Some girls never quite make it.

Debutantes in Dungarees

Academic individualism may be the college's conception of its most singular characteristic, but to many outsiders, Sarah Lawrence remains a school of debutantes. This view is encouraged by the fact that Sarah Lawrence's tuition--$1820--is the highest in the nation, and little more than 10 per cent of the student body receive scholarships from the college. The theme of gracious living was emphasized in a recent spread by Harper's Magazine entitled, "Sarah Lawrence: for the Rich, Bright and Beautiful." However, while it is true that the girls are well represented in Eastern social registers, the presence of the debutante contingent seems to leave the atmosphere of Sarah Lawrence unaffected.

The erroneous impression of a finishing school for budding socialites is strengthened by the physical plan of the college. A tiny twenty-seven acre campus decorated at spots with red geraniums, gives Sarah Lawrence an aristocratic appearance which grates sharply with the bluejeans that are a favorite mode of dress.

Another feature of the campus is the modern Students Arts Center, used by singing, dancing, and drama groups. The arts form a major part of the average Sarah Lawrence girl's life, and for many girls, art is more than an extracurricular activity. While literature is the most popular field of concentration, visual arts, performing arts, and music rank fairly high on the list. At any time of day, a visitor can enter Reisinger Auditorium and expect to see some sort of impromptu performance.