Education for what? Views at two colleges

MONDAY morning. Outside, the granite buildings of Ohio State University glint in hard sunlight. Students stream up and down High Street, the main drag through this part of Columbus.

Here, inside Scott Hall, freshman Molly Armstrong elbows her way through the crowded stairway and says over her shoulder: ''If you want to get to know your professors here, you can. I had one class last quarter where the teacher knew my name. But this quarter, with two or three hundred kids (in a class), there's no way.''

Walk around Ohio State's sprawling, 3,243-acre campus and you get a quick collage of mass education. The sheer glut of teaching and learning in this institutional Mixmaster is staggering. And students praise the school for its munificent diversity, which gives them the most, if not the best, of everything.

Almost every student you talk to here speaks with a good deal of praise about the place. After first-year adjustment problems, they seem to get swept up in the immensity of Ohio State, with its 40,000-plus student body.

Not that immensity doesn't bring problems. Dealing with OSU has made at least one senior, Jonathan Sokobin, ''more cynical about bureaucracy.''

''This school is a monolith,'' he says. ''The university wants to put you through a meat grinder, because that's the easy way to deal with you.''

Molly Armstrong has spent the last year learning to negotiate such challenges.

The 19-year-old freshman takes her seat in the raked, amphitheater-style classroom with about 50 other students. The professor, a dark figure in the near-distance, starts writing on a light-projection table and ripping through pre-calculus math problems.

''I don't want the cosine of alpha. I want alpha. So what do I do?'' she asks. Then, without waiting for a reply, she moves ahead. One student in a peaked cap and glasses talks nonstop to a friend. Neither of them has the slightest idea of what the professor is saying, and she seems oblivious of them, too.

Molly Armstrong, on the other hand, takes down all the problems, whispering the answers to herself.

''I think I'm getting a good education,'' she muses later, gazing out her dorm window with its view of the giant OSU stadium.

''It doesn't come easy, though. You have to fight for it. I love the classics and ancient history. Deep down, I'd like to be here just to learn. But you begin to feel like it's a race against the clock.''

While they may not all put it the same way, most students interviewed for this article seem to share her sentiments.

''It's all for a piece of paper at the end,'' says Craig Vander Veen, an architecture major. However, he also acknowledges, ''. . . You can't get it without learning a lot.''

People like Marisol Rodriguez and Janice Henderson, both juniors, speak of college more as a place to become acclimated socially and to get the credentials to help one move into the marketplace than as a place to learn.

One who talks about ''knowledge for the sake of knowledge'' is Elizabeth Park , a senior majoring in astronomy. She knows that the field she is entering offers few jobs and little pay, but she says the pursuit of knowledge is a reward in itself.

The more common, pragmatic view, however, can be heard from people like Jonathan Sokobin, who works to pay for his education. Mr. Sokobin earns part of his keep by tutoring OSU athletes, whom he calls the school's ''budding revenue earners''; today he is in an upstairs lounge in a Tudoresque building, while downstairs - waiting their turn - sits part of the brawn that keeps this university on the nation's scoreboards.

Sokobin sizes up his reason for being at Ohio State, rather than a private school, in one word: ''Price.''

''It's costing $5,000 (a year) to go here,'' he explains, ''as opposed to $10 ,000 at a private institution. And I'm getting a good education. Besides, I don't think I could have stood the pressure at a place like Michigan (State University),'' where the competition in the economics department is much keener, he says.

The bearded, affable economics major argues that the output of money and effort translates into something more than a ticket to a plusher lifes tyle.

''Whatever subject you bring up, I want to be able to hold my own,'' he says earnestly. ''So I've taken courses like music and medieval and Renaissance studies.

''But after all, there is more to life than liberal arts.''

IT takes about 45 minutes to drive from the Ohio State University campus in Columbus to the remote, picture-post-card town of Delaware, home of Ohio Wesleyan University. But you might as well have crossed the Mojave Desert on foot, so great is the educational distance you've covered.

Partly, this has to do with size.

This school has always been one of those private, liberal arts enclaves where one could come to escape the institutional immensity of a state college. But the enrollment dropped steeply in late 1981, when the ''Selective Guide to Colleges'' by Edward B. Fiske, education editor of the New York Times, rated Wesleyan a low academic-achiever with high-octane partying every night.

This brought a crackdown on alcohol here, and the drop in enrollment has left a number of classes small and some others empty.

All of this leaves professors here time to do things like team-teach and pay close attention to the students in their classes. The results seem to be paying off, and there's no better way to measure the payoff, as well as the school's basic philosophy, than to talk with students like Craig Hackworth, one of Wesleyan's super-achievers.

Mr. Hackworth is a walking advertisement for this school and the educational amenities one finds at small liberal arts colleges in general.

Hackworth, a good-looking senior in wire-rim glasses, is majoring in zoology and chemistry, but he spends more time talking about his course on literature and thought in ancient Greece. ''One reason I have a humanities minor,'' he says , as he strolls with this reporter across the university's gracious, quiet campus, ''is that a professor told me not to take just 'gut courses.'

''I've learned more (about the reasons) I'm learning, here. People have opened up my eyes. I'm trying not to be the close-minded, cutthroat premed student. I think, if I had it to do all over again, I'd major in humanities. . . . It makes me appreciate my world a little better. I'm already starting a library. ''

Hackworth has a reasonable model to work from in the school's own library, just off the main campus. You get the feeling this building occupies the intellectual, if not the geographic, center of this school.

In an age when such places are often called ''resource centers'' and seem to be dedicated to the stockpiling of data, Ohio Wesleyan's library is the kind of institution that mounts exhibits on Handel, Schopenhauer, Dante, and Walt Whitman. There are pieces of furniture from Whitman's house on display. One can see aged scores of Mozart and Liszt. In one corner, the books and artifacts from St. Augustine, Luther, and other religious thinkers stand clustered together.

This shrine to the achievements of the past seems almost archaic compared with the stripped-down, all-business look of many school libraries. But the students I talked with here gave the impression that their minds were nourished by such quaint notions as knowledge for the sake of knowledge.

''I went from kindergarten through 12th grade in Centerville, Ohio,'' muses Amy Fenton, a junior majoring in fine arts with a minor in theater. ''I spent a lot of my time bored. I feel I got straight A's and did nothing. By high school graduation I felt stagnant.

''When I first came to college, I was starved,'' she continues, pulling on a milkshake in the school's eatery. ''And then it was like gluttony.

''This school is teaching me a way of approaching life that is rational and broad, and - because I can explore the classics - I feel like I see life in a much more (seasoned way).''

There may be more than schoolgirl enthusiasm to what she says.

A Latin class in one of the school's quaint, semi-Gothic buildings teaches vocabulary by way of the graffiti in ancient Pompeii. The professor expects, and frequently gets, lightning reflexes in conjugating verbs. But he also takes the time to roam from student to student in his 32-pupil class (one of the largest on campus) finding out what they are thinking and why.

Tomorrow: high schools.

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