Alternate Views

They don't fit in, and they don't mind telling you so. They've been called "mavericks" by their friends, and share a passion for ideas and "impossible" questions. Their dinner-table conversation hums with concepts like determinism and justice, and with citations from thinkers like Nietzsche, Freud, and de Beauvoir. These women claim their own intellectual home: critical social thought (CST), an interdisciplinary program that was officially declared a major in the spring of 1995.

It's not a major for everybody. Of all majors at Mount Holyoke, critical social thought is the most individual, calling for each student to define her academic focus and create her own curriculum. For the student who relishes the idea of spending two years looking deeply and critically into tough questions, the critical social thought program is, in the words of major Lyla Brown '97, the "only choice." She says, "I belong in no other department. I'm interdisciplinary at heart." Under the rubric "Contemporary Religious Discourse in America," Brown is exploring such questions as: What is the appropriate place, if any, of religious-moral discourse in the politics of a religiously and morally pluralistic society such as the United States?

Joan Cocks, associate professor of politics and chair of the program, explains, "Our majors are independent-minded women who think outside the confines of traditional disciplines. They have a clear sense of how they want to structure their own education, and a desire always to get to the root of things."

"The main point about this major," notes Alexa Yesukevich '96, who was sure she was going to be a pre-med biological sciences major when she came here, "is exhilaration. You're always on the brink of understanding, and it presses you to know more. That's really an exciting feeling." Says Cocks, "We want to cultivate in our students and ourselves the desire and the ability to reflect rigorously on why we think and act as we ordinarily do, and to ask where a change in the ordinary is called for." Yesukevich's work springs from an interest in how the West sees itself and how others see it.

"The major offers a lot of leeway to explore," Gretchen Kelso '98 says. "I took what I like to think about--sociology, politics, philosophy, and economics--and turned it into a major." Betsey Brada '97 agrees: "I'm working in religion, politics, and philosophy, looking at how systems of ethics and values are formed and how ideas don't always match what's going on in society. If it weren't for CST, I'd have no way to bridge the three. Critical social thought lets you take questions a step further and one level deeper."

For Jan Fitzgibbons, a Frances Perkins Scholar, the major offers the chance "to include my life in my education." She says, "I've lived through many phases of society and had many questions about what was going on." Her self-designed curriculum includes work in contemporary theology, human memory, the psychology of women, and philosophy.

The major currently has broad curricular guidelines and only one required course, Introduction to Critical Social Thought, although two additional requirements are being considered. Four of a student's courses must come from four of the program's six fields: social and political theory; order and transformation; cultural expression and social reality; class and political economy; race, ethnicity and nationality; and gender and sexuality. "Our interests are so varied and we're all taking different classes. That can be a drawback," notes Fitzgibbons. To provide common ground, majors communicate by email (a message from one reaches all majors) and hold weekly discussions over dinner about their proposals and current events (one recent hot topic was the nature of marriage). Yesukevich says, "In critical social thought, we're all asking questions about the human condition, even if in form we're taking different routes. We're here under the same umbrella."

Critical social thought majors are, according to one professor, "independent- minded with a clear sense of how they want to structure their own education, and a desire always to get to the root of things."

Associate professor of politics Joan Cocks (far left) discusses a point with students in her Introduction to Critical Social Thought course. It examines the concept of self through the "lenses" of competing political and social philosophies, and traces the historical development of critical theory from Plato to the Frankfurt School.

A written proposal is a student's entry into the program--her rationale for choosing the major, the questions she seeks to explore, and her proposed course of study. Each major has two faculty advisers. They and the department chair review each proposal, helping the student narrow her focus and clarify her ideas. Given the program's goal to join philosophical reflection, social analysis, cultural interpretation, and political critique, writing the proposal can be a daunting endeavor. Brown explains, "You keep rewriting your proposal. It's always mutating, because your ideas keep changing, and that's the reason you're in the major. It's not a major that's 1, 2, 3 and you're done."

Mona Ali '96, now enrolled in the Ph.D. program in political economy at The New School for Social Research, would rather not share the thrust of her original proposal. "It was very pretentious," she says with a laugh. Ali coupled a major in economics with one in CST because she wanted to "rethink economics from a critical perspective." Her focus on identity politics incorporated her own multiple identities as a woman of color, a Pakistani, and a Muslim and how those shape the way she views the world. "Having a sophisticated notion of how identity is produced," she explains, "helped my study of economics. I was able to bring back to economics the critical thinking skills I acquired in CST."

Graduates of the CST program (it was a special major until 1995) have gone on to graduate programs in educational policy at Stanford, art history at Yale, public health at Harvard, and law school. One alumna is the education director of the White House Fellows Program, another worked for women's rights in Bangladesh, and still another is a poet and high school teacher. CST majors know that their search for answers to "impossible" questions, and the critical thinking and writing skills that this rigorous quest instills, can lead to exciting--and impossible to predict--destinations.

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