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Freshman arrive in force, tackle big issues

An embarrassment of riches might well describe this year’s freshman class.

With inquiries up slightly and attendance at campus "open houses" up nearly 8 percent, applications remained well above 5,000 for the third year in a row. At the same time, the yield rate–that’s the proportion of admitted students who choose to enroll–jumped an unprecedented 5 percent, with the result that Skidmore once again welcomed many more freshmen than expected. (No problem: a few extra sections of Liberal Studies 1, a few extra parking spaces painted into the shoulder of the loop road . . . .)

Members of the Class of 2003

Also on the rise were freshman SAT scores, up 15 points from last year. In addition, the class is more gender balanced, with the highest proportion of men in nine years, and more diverse, with the most students of color in College history. The class again includes four winners of Filene Music Scholarships and five recipients of the new Porter Scholarships in math and science.

And all that fresh brainpower was put to work right away when, divided into small discussion sections, the class began the Liberal Studies 1 course by grappling with issues raised in the summer reading assignment, Edward Larson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Summer for the Gods: The Scopes Trial and America’s Continuing Debate over Science and Religion. A truly interdisciplinary work addressing everything from social and cultural history, to politics and the mass media, to genetics and natural selection, the book is an ideal springboard for the wide-ranging explorations of LS 1.

A freshman looks into joining the Dynamics singing group during the "student clubs fair" on the first day of classes in September.

In the group assigned to Professor of Economics Sandy Baum and LS 1 tutor Daniel SanGermano ’02, students engaged in spirited arguments about democratic rule, the American South in the 1920s, and the power of "media circuses." On the issue of public education and freedom of religion, the comments went like this:

"The Scopes trial was kind of like Kansas deciding this summer that evolution wouldn’t be part of the state exams any more. They put it in terms of not ‘forcing’ teachers to teach it, but really it’s an attack on free ideas and learning. That’s a scary prospect."

"But what about people who prefer to take a spiritual view of our origins and place in the world–what right do the schools have to tell them they’re all wrong?"

"You’re doing them a favor by teaching them also about science."

"What teacher ever demands that you believe in this or that idea? We’re capable of considering several ideas and deciding for ourselves what to believe."

"But no education is going to teach all sides of any issue. To some extent, the teacher chooses what to include, what to spend more time on, what to skim over . . . ."

"If you’re going to include Genesis-based creationism as a theory, you have to include Buddhist and other religious creation theories."

"But the public school system shouldn’t teach any religion! That’s for church or synagogue or Sunday school."

"Can’t some federal law override the Kansas school board?"

"The residents of the state pay the taxes and should have the right to decide what’s taught in their public schools."

And so it went, touching on issues of majority rule and individual dissent, the increasing heterogeneity of America and the speed of social change, even the distinction between factual evidence–such as fossil dinosaur bones–and theories, provable or not, that may explain that evidence.

It seems a lot to cope with on the first day of classes, but the freshmen better buckle up: they’re just getting started. The rest of LS l takes on "Ways of Compre-hending" and "The Complex Mind" (with readings from psychologists Freud and Skinner, philosophers from Aristotle to Sartre, poet Pablo Neruda, and many others), "Human Adaptation" (including DNA pioneers Watson and Crick), "The Social Context" (theologian Tillich, thinker Thoreau, economists Adam Smith and Karl Marx), and "Human Agency" (from novelist Virginia Woolf to activist Malcolm X).

Good thing the new students’ early schedule also includes a few breathers, like ice-cream socials, dorm gatherings, and chances to join campus clubs and teams. But judging from the first day of LS 1 discussions, these freshmen are already in fighting trim and show no signs of flagging. —Sue Rosenberg

Photos: Phil Haggerty, Emma Dodge Hanson '93


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