Best Kept College Secrets

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The Evergreen State College – Olympia, Washington

The Evergreen State College – Olympia, Washington

Throw out every idea you have ever had about a state university. Evergreen State College is the State of Washington’s public Liberal Arts College, established in the nineteen sixties in response to what seemed creeping emphasis on the pre-professional, semi-vocational, intellectually arid experience found by many students in their college years. The state set aside a thousand acres of stunningly beautiful forest along the coastline of Puget Sound, adjacent to Washington’s capital city, Olympia. From the start, the Evergreen State College was intended to be entirely experimental and non-traditional, and that founding impulse remains at the heart of the distinctive and remarkable experience that is Evergreen.


The campus is characterized as “suburban” which is an absolute misrepresentation. Yes, the drive from central Olympia probably takes about fifteen minutes, but once the visitor has entered the college, time and space seem to dissolve. Douglas Fir, Western Hemlock, Cedar, Grand Fir, Big Leaf Maple, Red Alder, Black Cottonwood, Bitter Cherry, and Pacific Madrone stand close to every by-way and building. The college has been committed to sustainability from the start and has worked hard to maintain this second-growth forest as a living resource of the community. The campus is an island of green serenity in a loud, fast-moving world.

Two elements of the design of the campus, aside from the lush greenery, are noteworthy and eminently reflective of the college’s mission. The first is in the administration of residential life. All the usual amenities and services are provided; resident advisors help cushion the transition to college life, and social events happen with regularity. The differences are these: The dorms are named “A”. “B”, “C”, and “D”. There was a movement to call them Gryffindor, Hufflepuff, Ravenclaw, and Slytherin, but times have changed, and the sleek cement structures remain simply alphabetical in their identity. Assignment to a room as a freshman is somewhat more complex, however, in that Evergreen is sensitive to personal issues in ways that most private colleges are not. Allergen free and quiet options are available to freshmen, and even greater range is available in the subsequent years. For example, what had been called the “gender-neutral” apartment style residence is now known as “Rainbow Fort”. The description of the residence speaks to the enlightened policies of this state school:

Safe-space housing for students who identify as: lesbian, gay, bisexual, pansexual, queer, questioning, transgender/ gender non-conforming/gender queer, and/or intersex, as well as committed allies. This housing is designed to promote personal growth and community-building within a safe and supportive environment. Gender is not used as a designation in making housing assignments here.

The other manifestation of the responsible leadership taken by this college came with the building of the Longhouse and the design of the ethnobotanical garden. The Longhouse was designed as a Northwest Coast Longhouse and specifically intended to provide a space in which thoughtful exchange could bring sensitivity to issues of cultures in a pluralistic community. Then Longhouse is a meeting place, and a cultural center promoting indigenous arts and cultures, and also acting as space of welcome and hospitality. Evergreen offers a Masters of Public Administration Tribal Concentration degree – a program designed by the college with the assistance of the The Northwest Indian Applied Research Institute (NIARI)

Students who have completed the program include staff and faculty with tribal affiliations including, among others: Apache, Colville, Kootenai, Makah, Native Hawai’ian, Port Gamble S’kallam, Quinault, Rocky Boy Cree, Salish, Skokomish, Snoqualmie, Suquamish, Tulalip, and Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians.

Although the curriculum is not organized around departments and majors, one set of studies is carried out through Native American and World Indigenous Peoples’ Studies.

The Longhouse stands as a warm and welcoming statement of respect for the indigenous people of the Northwest and as a resource for a community dedicated to responsible inquiry.

OK, now to the curriculum.

There isn’t one. Not in the conventional sense.

There are no students along for the ride at Evergreen. The individual is responsible for the collaborative success of each seminar. No passive note taking in a large lecture hall. Students draw up and Education Plan with the help of academic advisors, and take one course at a time in order to allow ideas and perspectives to emerge from many sources. I’ll identify some of the seminars shortly, but it is important to note that professors are very much involved in the creation of the courses, working collaboratively from the start. That collaboration of teachers from very different disciplines helps to create the vibrant exchange that is at the heart of an Evergreen seminar.

How does a student get a grade after all that?

Actually, no grades are given. Upon the completion of a seminar, students carry out a self-assessment and met with faculty to discuss academic progress. The result of observation, the self-evaluation, and the discussion is a one-page evaluation that becomes the student’s academic record.

Some of the most fascinating reading I have done has been in perusing the description of seminars at Evergreen. This volume is not large enough to offer a fair sample, so I will simply offer three that struck me as particularly interesting.

American Stories was a seminar that suggested that the participant examine history and culture by immersing themselves in stories. One of the required texts, Thomas King’s The Truth About Stories, begins with the warning – “Stories are wondrous things. And they are dangerous.” Other texts included: Lydia’s Open Door, White Noise, Enrique’s Journey, The Things They Carried, Housekeeping, Sula, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, O Pioneers!, Semiotics, Democracy in America, The Age of Innocence, The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, and This House of Sky.

How about Order and Chaos?

“There must be chaos in one’s heart to be able to give birth to a dancing star.                                                                                           Nietzsche

Great developments in science and the arts—in fact all creative work—often occur at a tense juncture between the poles of order and chaos. How have artists and scientists have creatively tried to make sense of their world?

Greeks and Romans to Shakespeare and Moliere, opera, non-western performance, and other great traditions in music, dance, and visual art culminating in the work of Anton Chekhov. Greek astronomy (the Venerable model) and pantometry through the innovations of Copernicus, Galileo, Newton and Darwin. Brecht, Beckett, the advent of moving image, and other developments in science and the arts. Credits may be awarded in History of Science, Classical Astronomy, Theatre History, Performance Studies.

The reading list, as you might expect was equally divergent:

Beckett, Samuel. Waiting for Godot

Frayn, Michael. Copenhagen

Harmon, Katharine. You Are Here

Kushner, Tony. Angels in America

Rosenthal, Jeffrey. Struck by Lightening

Sondheim, Stephen and James Lapine. Sunday in the Park with George

Stoppard, Tom. Rosencranz and Guildenstern Are Dead

Zukav, Gary. The Dancing Wu Li Masters

Finally, Music, Math, and Motion. As expected, the description pulls the student almost immediately into collaborative inquiry.

The composition of music and the analysis of sound, using scientific methodology, creative insight, and contemporary technology, will be the intertwined pathways of our program. We will address subjects such as music and sound, rhythms and pulses, harmonics and resonances, the physical, geometrical, and psycho-physical bases of sound, acoustics and vibrating systems.

A composer/musician and a mathematical physicist will collaborate to offer a common sense, accessible and deeply engaging introduction to these subjects for interested non-specialists. Our math and physics will be at a pre-calculus level, though students may do research projects at a more advanced level if they choose. Interdisciplinary projects could include electronically creating music from physical formulae, analyzing the behavior of sound in different environments, or other ideas. This program is designed for those who find their art increasingly mediated by technology, for those who seek artistic outlets for their science, or for anyone who desires to understand the interweaving of art and science.

Student work will be evaluated through assignments such as homework, workshops, exams, performances, compositions, general participation, written and oral reports, and seminar essays.

Obviously, Evergreen State College is not for everyone, and many who find their way here have tried to satisfy their intellectual curiosity at another institution before realizing that Evergreen would allow them to plan their own education, find like-minded and very interesting collaborators, and place them in one of the most extraordinary campus settings in the world.

Fun? Sure, and the usual kind. Lots of activities and clubs, but much of the energy of the place is in the seminar. Students are connected with their own education and rave about the experience. One student described it as, “a learning buffet – almost too rich!” They also talk about the music scene in Olympia and the relative proximity of Seattle, Portland, and Mount Ranier. Should the description of a college in which inquiry is absorbing and an organic garden is a mecca, and a Longhouse suggests inclusive respect cause you to think that Evergreen students are all cut from the same cloth…think again. There is no typical “Greener”. Most are socially conscious and environmentally aware, but the diversity on this campus is real.

How much does it cost to go to this hot-bed of intellectual exchange? A resident of California will pay $21,000.00 and an out-of-state student will pay 31,700.00 for tuition, room, board, and fees.

In recent years, The Evergreen State College has received approximately 1725 applications and has accepted approximately 1656 in order to enroll a class of 496. Reported scores for the middle 50% of enrolled students have ranged between 510 and 640 on the Critical Reading subtest of the SAT and between 460 and 580 on the Math subtest. ACT scores for the same population have ranged from 21 to 26.

Students enrolled at Evergreen are 56% female and 44% male. Roughly 61% are White/Non-Hispanic. Approximately 52% are from the state of California.

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