LEISURE» THE GOOD LIFE
George Bernard Shaw knew what he was talking about. “Youth is wasted on the young.” Our college years exert a long shadow, recognized only in adulthood. I studied at the Women’s Christian College (WCC), Chennai, and Mount Holyoke College, Massachusetts, US. Both of them changed my life and made me who I am today.
I went to Mount Holyoke in the late 1980s as a raw, giddy 20-year-old, eager to escape the stultifying embrace of a large Indian family. The college took me in, and did everything that a great educational institution ought to. It opened my mind, and palate; challenged my beliefs; encouraged me to try new things; and allowed me to lick my wounds in private. I went from not knowing anything about the women’s movement to defining myself as a feminist. I switched majors from psychology to sculpture and went to graduate school for a master’s in fine arts (MFA). The fact that I didn’t graduate with an MFA degree is another story, and something that I look back on with pride.
If you are a reader of this newspaper, it is that time of year when your daughter, niece, godchild, or family friend is thinking about college—perhaps here or abroad. I would like to make a case for women’s colleges as an option for young women. Going to a single-sex educational institution is not for everyone—men, for instance, cannot. But it will change an 18-year-old girl’s life for the better. It certainly did so for me.
What studying at a women’s college does is remove that entire male-female dynamic that shapes how girls behave in classrooms; the one that forces young impressionable girls to act and appear less smart than they actually are, lest they be viewed as undesirable nerds by the male objects of their desire.
Times have changed, you will say. Today’s girls are confident and don’t seek male approval. And what kind of a stupid paradigm is that anyway—where a young woman measures her worth by how popular she is with the men? In return, let me ask you to remember your high school and college years, when appearing attractive to the opposite sex occupied a significant amount of mind-space.
In the classroom, being around men robs young women of their natural drive and ambition; and renders them pliant and non-assertive. This is not the case when you are amid a group of women classmates. The playing field is levelled and you can be as in-your-face and aggressive as a start-up. You don’t have to play nice; to “be cool”. Read Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn to find out how a cool girl can go wrong.
During my classes, I didn’t miss men; not one single time. I missed having men around during happy hours and ice-cream socials; but not in the classroom. Freed from the distraction of good-looking males and how I could make an impression on them, I was able to focus on my studies. It was liberating.
In the US, Mount Holyoke is part of the “seven sisters”, or the “female Ivy-ies”, as they are sometimes called. The others are Smith, Vassar (now a co-ed institution), Bryn Mawr, Wellesley (hotelier Priya Paul is a trustee and an alumnus), Barnard, and Radcliffe (now merged with Harvard). They are a loose association of traditionally women’s colleges that offer a liberal arts education in picturesque surroundings.
In India, we have tons of women’s colleges. Besides my own WCC, there is Lady Shri Ram in New Delhi, Sophia in Mumbai; Loreto in Kolkata; Ethiraj in Chennai, to name just a few. Those of us who went to women’s colleges know their benefits. Our colleges made us confident. They allowed us to enjoy the company of men without being threatened by them.
Good educational institutions are exquisitely attuned to the needs of their students. They know when to prod and when to pull back. Professors, particularly student advisers, listen to what their students are saying—and equally important, not saying. They pay attention to non-verbal cues. They keep office hours and have freewheeling, off-the-cuff conversations in the corridor. Good colleges guide in the old-fashioned sense of the word, where the teacher or guru not only passes down knowledge and skills, but an entire way of being. Through role play and encouragement, faculty and staff teach young women to be assertive, to speak up; to stop second-guessing their thoughts and opinions.
My view—from personal experience and from watching other adolescent girls—is that women have many voices in their heads that tell them how to behave. They have a mortal fear of being judged. They hate confrontation. A good teacher can drown these voices. A good college can alleviate the desire for approval that women have; the self-correction that they engage in all the time. In ancient India, the guru pretty much took charge of the student, not just in the intellectual sense but also in the holistic sense. They taught their students a new way of looking at the world; of processing choices. This happens at every great educational institution, but women’s colleges are particularly attuned to that specific demographic that they cater to: young women.
It is for this reason that you should urge your daughter or niece (assuming that she is inclined) to consider a women’s college.
Shoba Narayan self-corrects (and star-gazes) all the time. Write to her at email@example.com