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Liberal education equally as important as traditional classes

By Eliza Jones

I’m taking a 400-level seminar this semester with English professor Steve Evans on Black Mountain College (BMC). BMC was a short-lived but impressively innovative institution of progressive education that was established in Asheville, NC in 1933 by an ex-Rollins College professor named John Rice. The college was a fleeting — though courageous — endeavor, ultimately closing its doors in 1957, but the ideas, art and thinkers who came out of the college have made impressions on our world that we still feel today.

At first glance, everything about the college sounds delicious, an idealistic and sophisticated form of student-directed learning at its finest: no required courses, no standardized tests, no established curriculum. Students and teachers conversed together like colleagues, cooked meals for one another, ate together. Indeed, rather than think of education as something outside of a student’s regular life, Rice sought to remove the distinction between the two. He believed that learning and life are intertwined and essential to one another. Intellectual and manual labor should not be separated. Good students are good thinkers, and good thinkers make for compassionate and responsible citizens of the world.

It wasn’t intentional, but this semester I’m also taking — in addition to Evans’ seminar — a mixed section class that is focused around the 11th annual Camden International Film Festival (CIFF), which takes place every fall right here in Camden, Maine. One of the class requirements is that we attend the entire festival. By the end of the semester, after months of peer and professor review, the goal is that everyone in the class will have produced some form of documentary, in whatever media we choose — film, music, poetry, prose, photographs and art.

The festival occurred this past weekend, from September 17-20. It was three and a half days of watching and discussing documentaries. It was an incredible experience, a complete immersion into an exciting behind-the-scenes world of storytelling and art, talent and culture.

We watched films in the Camden Opera House, in the Rockport Opera House, in Rockland’s Strand Theater. The crowd all weekend is eclectic; older gentlemen in collars and cashmere, young indie 20 somethings, couples, artsy college students, scruffy college students, one crying baby. I’m a student at UMaine, adrift and rejoicing in the middle of it all. I’m grateful that my school offers access to such an amazing and rich experience, one that seems to me to indeed be redolent of something I could have expected at BMC.

I don’t think that I can rightly call my seminar class on BMC or my class on CIFF examples of progressive education. But I do know that we are lucky here in the UMaine community to have access to such rewarding and inspiring opportunities as these two classes. I certainly won’t ever forget some of the facts that I’ve had to memorize over the years as a student: multiplication tables, dates in American history, the names of British Romantic writers. But I will also never forget the goosebumps I got one night last weekend when a crowd of strangers rose to their feet in the Camden Opera House on a hot night in September in support of a filmmaker and an artist who had the courage to make a very brave film.

Two days after the festival and I am faced with the question of how I can take what I learned and witnessed in Camden and turn it into a story of my own. Two days after the festival and four weeks into my BMC seminar, and one thing that I am certain of is that every student should experience this type of learning at least once in the course of his or her education. I think that getting out of a classroom and experiencing life — talking with strangers, being curious, stepping outside of our comfort zones — is immeasurably vital to the enrichment of our minds — whether we are students of college or students of life.

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