The story is set in 1953 on the campus of Wellesley College, a conservative women’s private liberal arts college. Ms. Katherine Watson joined the faculty to be an instructor in art history. As a progressive female professional she was struck by the dogmatic culture of the campus and by the conservative views and attitudes of her students showed toward learning and life. She used her teaching to awake people’s mind and to influence her students’ choices for their future professional and family life. I really enjoyed the character of Katherine Watson as portrayed by Julia Roberts. Many of the issues raised by the movie occupied my mind for several days.
Education. What is the goal of education? To learn knowledge? All those Wellesley girls studied their syllabus well and were fully prepared for class. But they did not know how to apply what they learned to assess new problems; they could not think and analyze on their own. Sounds familiar? Sure, the movie was set in 1953. But we still see this memorize/test/forget pattern in our kids today. The ultimate goal of education has to be to learn how to learn on one’s own, learn how to think, and learn how to apply learned knowledge to solve new problems.
Opportunities for women. Currently more than 50% of college students are female. Many women go on to obtain advanced degrees after college. Women work at all kinds of professions and at all career levels. We share house chores and childcare with our spouses. And we think this is only natural and fair. We have taken many things for granted. Yet back in the 1950’s college door was only opened to the fortunate few. In the elite Wellesley, the girls were taught that being a good house wife was their No. 1 priority in life. Yale law school would only admit five female students at the time. Seeing all these, I can’t help marveling that we have come a long way.
Life’s value. The value of a piece of art is often determined by people other than the artist herself. But who’s to say about the value of one’s life? It seems that only we ourselves know whether we live a happy life or not, whether the choices we make are sensible, and whether the compromises we make are worthy. There is no fixed formula to determine this. In the movie, one of Ms. Watson’s students, Joan, was accepted by Yale Law School. But she decided to give up that opportunity and move to Philly with her newly-wed husband. Katherine was stunned by her choice and tried to convince her that she didn't have to give up law school to be married. But Joan decided it was her own choice to make; she believed that being a house wife didn't mean she’d give up her education and intellect. There is always a balance between career and family life. In fact, a recent Accenture poll suggests that balancing work and family life is a No. 1 priority for most people. I know many people who have compromised better career opportunities for their family. They are happy and they are productive. And eventually hard-working earned them other opportunities. We make doors open for us through our work and capabilities.
Change. Katherine Watson’s progressive ideas about education and women’s choices may not seem too novel now, but back in the 1950’s her ideas were considered rather radical. Even though she whole heartily tried to help her students, her ideas were rejected by many. And the school hierarchy was dead against her unorthodox teaching. At the end, she had to leave Wellesley. Change is never easy. It takes courage, it requires tactic and patience, and it relies on timing. What should one do to push for a change for the better? One step at a time, move forward steadily, and convince others, one at a time, to join your effort.