Learning

We went to our college reunion not long ago (my 19th, her 20th). I hadn’t been back since my graduation, so of course things were different: there’s a new science center, an arts building, and what would have been considered heresy in the early 90s, a sports complex. Things were also the same: the dorms with their not good for anyone’s back twin mattresses, the lawn in front of the main administrative building, the pillow room in the library. It was strange to see a place I hadn’t seen in nearly twenty years and still have it feel known. We walked into town — Bronxville is a very small, very snobby town in Westchester — and had burgers at the tavern where we sometimes went as students. Same location, new ownership.

Aside from the dinner and dancing (no one was more surprised than me and how much we danced) what I liked best was the new art building. It was open, as there had been an alumai/i show and reception the day before. There were photographs, paintings, and drawings from alums five to fifty years or more from graduation hanging in the gallery space.

Being nosy, we poked around and found most of the studios and workspaces open. Some still had leftover materials lying around and leftover art pinned up to moveable walls. I loved this space. I’ve always loved provisional spaces, places where imaginative work that I didn’t quite understand happened.

paint spattered stool

I found myself thinking that if I had it to do over, I’d do an arts third. At Sarah Lawrence, you could devote one-third of your time to art, or to theater. These weren’t necessarily single classese but an accumulation of efforts that in theory added up to the same workload as a seminar: you took three of those, and most of them lasted all year. (I spend a third of my time each year in fiction workshops, and most of the time another third in literature, with some anthropology and history thrown into the mix.) I was interested in an arts third as a undergrad but I was also scared, not believing I was an artist and believing that with the fiction workshops I was already full on my quota of classes that were probably never going to lead to a job.

As we kept poking around the space, checking out every floor and seeing which doors were locked and which were open, I realized the best part of a liberal arts degree is that it doesn’t matter so much what specifically I studied in college; I can take my arts third now if I want to. I can make it up myself, or with friends, with books and galleries and museums and the internet. Liberal arts degrees are good for teaching you how to learn. At least, mine was.