College can be a bore -- the endless textbook readings, crowded lecture halls and multiple choice tests that force students to memorize rather than synthesize (and wonder if they're really getting what they're paying for). But it doesn't have to be that way.
Scattered across the country are colleges where an actual education is paramount, and obtaining that education is often a rigorous and inventive process. We call them "non-traditional colleges," and they're places where students call the shots.
Take the Evergreen State College in Olympia, WA. Opened in 1971, Evergreen State supports a culture of academic experimentation and interdisciplinary learning in which students focus on one program each quarter, from Zoology to Maritime Studies to Astronomy. Students can also make use of the 38,000-sq. foot farm and 1 1/2 mile beach on campus to enhance their studies.
On the other side of the country there's the College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor, ME. The school has just one major for its 300-odd students, human ecology. But that's not all the college offers. Each of its 30 full-time faculty members are human ecology experts and skilled in other fields; students study with them history, writing and math. Prior to graduating, seniors must complete an in-depth project; it's up to them what form it takes.
The final-year project is also part of Hampshire College's core curriculum. There, an education is split in thirds: First, students take core classes in five "Schools of Thought," and then they choose a subject to focus on and complete at large-scale project in that area. Like at the College of the Atlantic, students have complete freedom with the final capstone work.
At Bennington College in Vermont, students map out their college careers through a series of essays that act as benchmarks of their progress. Students first write about their academic interests, then outline out any questions and goals they have in relation to what they want to study. After that, students create their own curricula. The final essay is self-reflective in nature.
The strength of some schools lies in their specificity. The two campuses of St. John's College -- one in New Mexico, one in Maryland -- are grounded on the great books of the western canon. Students take classes in Ancient Greek, French, math and more, but all comes back to the Great Books. Over the four-year program, students read everything from the Illiad to Heart of Darkness to the Articles of the Confederation. The college says that the Great Books are "at the heart of learning" and are "among the original sources of our intellectual tradition."
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