Losing Our Edge

Last spring, I had the opportunity to help teach the rock climbing course. The class was full, as always, with a wait list to boot. I watched as people of all levels of experience learned to solve problems, think on their feet, and even conquer their fear of failure—and heights. The seniors, and a handful of juniors, were thrilled that they had finally gotten a slot in the class.

This year, the rock climbing class no longer exists, with downhill skiing following suit. It seems that many similar programs—the programs that have made Houghton stand out for decades—are also in jeopardy.

So when my brother, a high school senior, asked me what made Houghton stand out when I made my decision, I had to ask myself—what makes Houghton unique?

It certainly isn’t the faculty to student ratio, at least not anymore. Not only are professors leaving with no one to replace them, but new courses are being actively drawn up to pool students together in one large lecture-based classroom.

It certainly isn’t the location. We may have 1,300 acres of land to use as we please, but we seem to spend more and more of our time indoors. We don’t take enough advantage of our proximity to canoeing spots, or of the woods and their many trails, or even of our incredible ropes course, which has drawn outside groups as well-known as the Buffalo Sabres. These courses seem to be disappearing, and plenty of the student body may be unaware they ever existed.

And it certainly isn’t the liberal arts education that Houghton affords us. One of the traditional tenets of a liberal arts education is the dialogue, which typically requires small class sizes. In the past few years, I’ve taken several courses twice the size of any that my sister, a recent Houghton graduate, ever experienced. Because of this, there is rarely any genuine discussion between students. There is no back and forth. There is no give and take. No viewpoints are meaningfully challenged. Classmates only offer the occasional comment to secure their participation grade, and professors struggle to keep track of so many students.

On top of all this, it has become harder and harder to diversify your studies. The goal of a liberal arts education isn’t to encourage specialization in one discipline or train students for one specific job. Its goal is to learn how to learn, to develop into a better-rounded individual, to become a person who can excel in any position or circumstance. Does Houghton provide that kind of inquisitive atmosphere? When I leave my major to explore other subjects, I feel like an outsider.

Even core programs that are integral to a Christian education are being neglected. These days, it seems almost impossible to find a major—or even a minor—that isn’t on its way out the door. It’s almost impossible to major in history. Sociology is gone. Even the philosophy department is on a weight loss program.

I know that I am just defending the programs that are close to my heart, and that there are others out there that are also hurting or have even benefitted from recent changes. I know I am painting a one-sided picture of the school’s actions. I know that budgets have to be balanced.

But it is hard to feel sorry for the school when I hear the KPAC’s exhaust fans all through the night when we are leading the Highlander Program.

Houghton needs to attract new students, and with higher education for New York residents now being funded by the state, that has become even more difficult.

So what makes Houghton unique? Why should students come here?

We could grow our own vegetables, and place a bigger emphasis on living sustainably off the land this school was built upon. We could take groups of students outdoors to revel in God’s creation and learn about our responsibility to take care of it. We could reach out to our community and prove that we aren’t just another hip, mostly-secular school.

But if we instead continue to slim down our course offerings, supersize our classes, and waste our beautiful campus, I won’t have an answer for that question any more.

Jackson is a senior majoring in communication.

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