When Kenyon College founder Bishop Philander Chase first smoked the ham (smoked the what?!?), he had no idea what he was getting himself into. It was the late 1820s and the location was Gambier, Ohio. The dinner Bishop Chase held that night for the handful of young men recently enrolled at this, the Bishop’s fledgling college, would be the first of many intimate meals taken on this Midwestern hilltop. Today, 1,600 students from all over the world inhabit Kenyon, and as any current student will proclaim, intimate meals on the hilltop continue.
Kenyon, one of the strongest small liberal arts colleges in America, is a place where tradition and innovation constantly renegotiate their boundaries; a place where a professor of classics can attain the rock star status not seen since life in Ancient Greece; a place where “learning in the company of friends” is not only reality, it is a bona fide credo.
Nearly eighty percent of students at Kenyon come from outside the state of Ohio. A roommate is more likely to hail from Boston than from Cincinnati. Students at Kenyon are an eclectic group, and the college does an excellent job of providing for its unique community. A vigorous and varied social life exists on the 1,000-acre campus, which stretches throughout the rolling hills and quaint farm towns of Knox County, Ohio. The city of Columbus sits forty-five minutes to the south, offering up the closest urban experience for students. And while taking advantage of the art museums, good ethnic food, and international airport located in the city is always tempting, Columbus is not a place students go on even a weekly basis. Students happily call the town of Gambier their home. Campus life is self-contained, and Kenyon is committed to funding the kind of intellectual and social activities that effectively pierce the serenity of the mid-Ohio calm.
Thoreau would have loved this place. Instead of using Walden Pond for leisurely walks and self-meditation, students make do with the nationally recognized Kokosing River and the surrounding Kokosing Valley, which serve as the natural centerpiece of Kenyon’s strong environmental science program. To boost the quality of science research and instruction available to its undergraduates, Kenyon recently constructed a multimillion dollar science complex on campus. Both the natural surrounding and the man-made facilities that now exist demonstrate a strong commitment to science education at Kenyon. This has led to a host of multimillion dollar research grants from the likes of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and the National Science Foundation, intended to promote collaborative research among students and faculty.
But of course, labs are not for everyone. In that case . . . there’s always English. Nearly thirty percent of Kenyon students call the English department home, and for good reason; Kenyon’s literary tradition dates to the 1940s and 1950s, when Kenyon served as the birthplace of modern literary criticism. The father of this movement, poet and critic John Crowe Ransom, as well as other imposing figures in the literary world, such as Peter Taylor ’40, Robert Lowell ’40, and E. L. Doctorow ’52, all figure prominently in Kenyon’s contributions to modern literature. One of the many legacies of this storied group of English giants can be seen in the Kenyon Review, one of the nation’s foremost literary journals, known throughout the world for publishing the next generation of literary figures well before major publishers lavish them with book deals. The real plus for students is that the Review hires a number of interested students to assist with the publication of the journal. As one may imagine, this is a coveted position for any student seeking a future in the world of writing, and it’s available only to Kenyon students.
As a liberal arts and science college dedicated to the intellectual and personal stimulation of undergraduates, Kenyon works hard to ensure that students are happy. In doing so, the institution places an emphasis on hiring staff and faculty who are committed to the college well beyond their standard nine-to-five work day. Kenyon faculty and staff members can often be seen attending football and basketball games with their spouses and children on the weekends, leading extra study sessions in the evenings prior to midterm exams, and attending the myriad lectures, concerts, and panel discussions held for students throughout the year. If Kenyon is about anything, it is about engagement on that most personal of levels: the human level.
Kenyon is an institution where tradition still holds a coveted place in the hierarchy of things. The college does its best to ensure that matriculants understand that they are part of something bigger and more profound than themselves. Kenyon does pomp and circumstance very well. Kenyon maintains its modern sensibilities, but it does not mind being old fashioned if the reasons are warranted. It blends what it had with what it has. It constantly reminds students that life is not about having the right answers but about asking the right questions. It will turn the eighteen-year-old mind inside and out until it has been thoroughly cleansed of everything that it thought was true.
Kenyon is not a place for intellectual sponges. Do not attend a class just to soak up a professor’s thoughts from the back of the classroom. Do not think that the dictionary, the thesaurus, or the lab coat are anathema to an education. Hiding is not an option. Be prepared to speak up. Be prepared to attend dinner in the home of a professor. Come equipped to argue over the finer points of things like Western values, nanotechnology, and the 2008 election. And don’t worry, you’ll find someone who knows a little about them all . . . guaranteed.
It is a place where students engage the community in an attempt both to add to it and to leave their mark. Kenyon celebrates the individual, and it encourages everyone to live an examined life. The Ohio calm will allow plenty of time for contemplation, relaxation, and maturation. Kenyon wants students in the classrooms and the laboratories by day and in the lecture halls, concert halls, and theatres by night. Kenyon is a place where putting forth great effort will meet with great reward. It remains a place where the students, the buildings, and the weather constantly change, but where the questions people ask do not. Kenyon College is a small place that likes to think big.