Did you know the parking lot behind Sylvester used to be an old tennis court? Or that in the 1970s, there were few women on the faculty? Over the years, Principia College has undergone changes both bold and subtle. It has encountered trials throughout its 102 years as an institution and has become accustomed to adapting.
Almost as steadfast as the College itself are the faculty that have witnessed the growth of Principia over the past few decades. Spanish professor Duncan Charters, who has worked in the College’s languages and cultures department for just over 40 years, explained his reasons for wanting to come teach at Principia. “I was taken out to dinner by a small group of faculty members who were enthusiastic about their work but totally honest about the problems they were also seeing,” he said. “I felt I would enjoy working in a community of Christian Scientists who were honest about facing issues, and not just looking at everything through rose-colored glasses.”
This inherent principle of honesty when facing challenges in education has instilled itself within the Principia community. “That is one thing that hasn’t changed,” said political science professor John Williams, who graduated from the College in 1976. “Turning back to Mrs. Morgan’s vision about what education could be.” Founder Mary Kimball Morgan’s outlook on education at Principia College was to show the students that they already possess the capability to accomplish the things God calls them to do.
The College injected Mrs. Morgan’s view in its education policy since the beginning and thus was ahead of the curve with now modern-day teaching techniques during a major educational change in the United States. “[Teaching] has changed phenomenally,” Williams said. “The old style of teaching was the premise of ‘you’re an empty beaker, and my job is to fill you up with knowledge.’ My view of education is, ‘you’re completely full as the nature of a child of God.’ My job is to help all of us, myself included, unshackle the chains of mortal mind, the limits we put on ourselves.”
Williams continued, “And I believe college teaching around the country, at least in my disciplines, reflects that. We believe in such things like experiential and student-centered learning. Prin started making that change in the mid- to late-1980s, which was 30 years ago, and the education system [in other major universities] did not start talking about that until 10 years ago.”
Other ideologies that have changed within the realm of education at Principia include the nature of the student. “Students could take notes on lectures and give back the content on exams without really being engaged with the assigned readings and the critical thinking that is a prime goal of a college education,” Charters said.
Williams said that when he was a student at Principia, “We didn’t ask lots of questions of our faculty members. We just came in, did our work, and demonstrated our competence.” This view of the collegiate-level student is now considered by most to be antiquated and out-of-touch with the college classroom in today’s society. The general trend is that students are being the active communicators in the classroom and asking the professor directly about the assignments that are at hand.
Principia strives to dedicate itself to the religious principles of the Christian Science, but the way those principles have been manifested on campus has changed. Many aspects of the College’s practices have been questioned and subject to change in previous years. “There has always been debate about whether the ‘rules’ of Principia’s intentional community are helpful or restrictive to the individual and collective demonstration of Christian Science,” Charters said. “To what extent can the CSO be responsible for representing Christian Science as Church on campus, and to what extent does the Principia administration have this responsibility?”
Regarding the use of Christian Science on campus, Charters said there were two positive structural changes that have affected the enthusiasm and participation of students. “One was the simple change of having Sunday School in the dining room at 10:30 a.m. rather than 9 a.m., along with the later adjustment of having the church service at 10:45. The other significant positive change was having one CSO meeting on Tuesdays during the day at a specially-designated time.”
The result of these changes has led to a more consistent attendance in Christian Science services from the community as a whole and what many see as a comfortable atmosphere where students and faculty can share metaphysical thoughts that lead to individual growth.
Business professor Linda Bohaker attended Principia as a student from 1979 to 1983, and has worked at Principia College since 1995. When describing the effect that Principia has had her own life, she said, “I often say that college is the time when an individual is figuring out who they are, what they value, and how they want to contribute to the world. Principia provided the right environment for me to do just that. Being in a Christian Science community was a great support for my own study and practice of Christian Science, including the moral commitments I wanted to uphold in my life.”
Charters said Principia College has significantly affected his life, too. “I have seen coming to my thought and experience some of the most challenging claims about the worst characteristics in human behavior, and the beliefs in their persistence. However, I am now far more confident that there is nothing that cannot be overcome through a better understanding of Love,” he said, “along with the fact that there is no separation between the expression of God’s love and intelligence.”
If students at Principia don’t take away from their experience the individual growth in Christian Science or educational skills that match those from other top-ranked liberal arts colleges, they surely will be able to say they have been taught by professors who have experienced firsthand the major changes in the institution of education over the decades.
When asked what changes he thinks should occur in the near future, Williams said, “We are the masters of our own future. If Christian Science is truly the revelation and modern expression of primitive Christianity, which is universal, and our commitment is to serve the cause of Christian Science as an educational institution, we must be universal.”
When asked about any additional information or advice he had to the students of Principia College today, Charters said, “Principia is the perfect laboratory for finding your values and putting them into practice. You can deal with all the problems in human relationships, academics, organization of priorities right here and now, and because so many before you have been able to do this. Don’t neglect any opportunity to prepare yourself fully for a life that will touch others for the greatest good you are able to contribute.”