Marcia Sells ’81, P’23 returns to her performing arts roots as the Metropolitan Opera’s first chief diversity officer.
There’s something about Barnard College that makes its influence far exceed its relatively diminutive footprint. Maybe it’s something in the air, in the water — or, perhaps, in the unique atmosphere in which generations of ambitious women have recognized each other’s greatness and mentored those who followed them. Regardless, the College’s faculty and alumnae consistently have an outsized impact on their chosen fields.
Call it “the Barnard effect.” It’s not inevitable: Though the endowment at our beloved little College on a hilltop has grown more than 60% since 2008, it has always existed separately from Columbia’s billions and remains less than half the size of those at peer institutions. And yet the Barnard effect proliferates across fields and throughout history — and is particularly notable in three disciplines.
In anthropology, Barnard women helped found the entire discipline and continue to do paradigm-shifting scholarship.
In psychology, Barnard students and faculty have changed the way we view children’s development and potential.
And even without a full-fledged creative writing program, Barnard has launched so many extraordinary authors that their collective works could constitute a thorough survey of modern American literature, minus the men, of course.
What’s the secret? Stanford psychology professor Carol Dweck ’67, world-renowned for her research on human potential, says, “I know ‘intellectual curiosity’ is kind of a cliché.” But she, like so many others, “learned so much of it at Barnard.”
Upending Traditional Views
It’s not a stretch to say that the entire discipline of cultural anthropology was born at the College. Columbia professor Franz Boas, who taught regularly at Barnard, was the first scholar to posit that Western European culture wasn’t the apex of civilization but rather one of many global cultures, none superior to another. His most prominent intellectual descendants were a trio who attended his classes or taught with him at Barnard.
"All my best students are women,” Boas confided to a friend in 1920. Two of those students, Margaret Mead ’23 and Zora Neale Hurston ’28, became pivotal figures in the creation of an entire field of study — and, by some accounts, an entire perspective that continues to constitute a progressive worldview to this day.
Mead, most famously in Samoa, and Hurston, in the American South and the Caribbean, conducted imperfect but seminal fieldwork that both depicted a distinct moment in time as universally representative of a culture’s inner workings — even as their presence affected change in those cultures — and established the notion that our own ways of being aren’t automatically the best ones. This radical reimagining of what counts as an acceptable way to view the world could only have been thought up by a band of precocious misfits at a place like Barnard, says Charles King, chair of Georgetown University’s government department and author of a recent book about the founding of cultural anthropology, Gods of the Upper Air.
“If you were told that women were inherently suited for some tasks in society but not others and [that] there was an inherent female disposition or female weakness that was clearly biological, but here you were surrounded by people who were accomplished and talented and bold and took up space in the world,” King says, it “seemed to confound the existing social theory you’d been told.”
They weren’t just smart academic women in a world not built to house them; they were outliers in others ways as well: Mead, along with graduate student (and, later, professor) Ruth Benedict, the third member of Boas’ cohort, had romantic relationships with both men and women, and Hurston was the first black student at Barnard — and the only one during her time on campus. Their outsider status meant they cast a critical eye on their own culture, King notes, and self-reflection became one of the great gifts of the field they co-created.
“One of Boas’ great lessons that he was teaching all these folks in a seminar room at Barnard was ‘Follow the data,’ ” King says. “If you have a theory of human society that seems to be confounded by the observations that you as an open-eyed social scientist bring to the world, then you have to throw away your theories.”
The Barnard anthropology legacy continues to this day, wherever our alumnae land and on campus as well. At Princeton, Professor Rena Lederman ’73 has shifted how scholars think about informed consent in research involving human subjects in a variety of disciplines. Her work highlights the fact that research practices like sociology or anthropology and those such as lab sciences are very different forms of inquiry and should be treated accordingly. Another alumna, UC Berkeley professor Aihwa Ong ’74, created the notion of “flexible citizenship,” which describes the ways that “flexibility, migration, and relocations, instead of being coerced or resisted,” she says, “have become practices to strive for among affluent people who seek to relocate their families and capital in advanced, liberal economies.”
Back in Morningside Heights, faculty members Paige West and Nadia Abu El-Haj have explored how Westerners’ preconceptions and misconceptions influence how they understand and interpret other cultures, generally with harmful results. Though at first blush they appear to be doing work that eschews Barnard and Columbia’s anthropology lineage, their critiques carry on Boas’ tradition of upending the power imbalances that forged the day’s conventional wisdom.
Unlocking the Doors of Child Development
For generations, Barnard alumnae have gone on to do groundbreaking work advancing our understanding of children’s development and their ability to realize their full potential.
Take psychologist Anne Anastasi, who, like Hurston, graduated in the Class of 1928. She went on to receive the National Medal of Science for her work on the structures of aptitude and personality
by tests. (Anastasi credited her interest in the field to her Barnard mentor, Harry Hollingworth.) Early in her career, she concluded that we all marinate in an inescapable stew of upbringing, genetics, and environment — that nature and nurture can’t be disentangled. That realization led her to believe that it’s impossible to test innate knowledge or talent. She popularized the idea that there’s no way to create a test that lacks cultural bias, an idea that remains vital to considering whom standardized testing helps — and whom it doesn’t — for things like admittance to a selective high school, or whether a personality or diagnostic test accurately assesses what it purports to make clear.
Carol Dweck, currently the Lewis & Virginia Eaton Professor of Psychology at Stanford, is another example of the Barnard effect. Dweck developed the idea of “growth” versus “fixed” mind-sets. A person with a fixed mind-set believes that they have a finite amount of intelligence, and being faced with something that challenges their skills makes them shy away from obstacles. Someone with a growth mind-set believes that everyone can, with learning, develop their abilities. Faced with a challenge, this person will work to meet it. Dweck’s research has found that praising children’s effort rather than their intelligence can motivate them to seek challenges and show more persistence. That research is being applied in classrooms and homes around the world.
As a Barnard student, Dweck first experienced what it felt like to be in an environment where everyone recognized one another’s potential. “You’re never a low person on the totem pole,” she says. “You have the faculty committed to teaching you, inspiring you, interacting with you.”
Another Barnardian who has advanced the field of child development is Adriana Galván ’01, director of the UCLA Developmental Neuroscience Laboratory. She uses neuroimaging to learn about how and why teens’ emotional systems develop before their rational decisionmaking does. This year, that work earned her the National Science Foundation’s Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers.
If we are to achieve a richer culture, rich in contrasting values, we must recognize the whole gamut of human potentialities, and so weave a less arbitrary social fabric, one in which each diverse human gift will find a fitting place.
Finding Their Voices
Though Barnard has never had a full creative writing major — there’s currently a concentration within the English Department — that hasn’t stopped the College from churning out paradigm-shifting authors for generations. From Zora Neale Hurston, who used her anthropology fieldwork as source material for her seminal novel Their Eyes Were Watching God, to Erica Jong and Ottessa Moshfegh, Barnard is a place where fledgling writers find their voice.
Indiana University English professor emeritus Susan Gubar, who has authored foundational scholarship on women’s literature, underscores that point: “Those women are immersed or can immerse themselves in one of the most vibrant literary scenes in America.” She notes, by way of example, that not only did Hurston have the intellectual life on campus at her disposal; she was also able to become deeply involved in the Harlem Renaissance, in full bloom a short trek from the Barnard gates. “The small college on the one hand was a huge influence,” she says, “and the larger literary culture of New York was a larger energizing force."
According to Professor Mary Gordon ’71, a longtime steward of the department’s creative writing flame, the reason is pretty straightforward: Barnard pays attention to women, even though, “in the literary world, it is the male voice that is the default setting,” she told The New York Times back in 2007. The article in which she’s quoted called Barnard “something of a literary hatchery, like London’s Bloomsbury Circle or the 1920s Paris of Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Joyce, where a certain confluence of talent, ambition and what moderns would call networking generates an astonishing literary crop.” But the common denominator is that Barnard writers inspire one another both by example and by maintaining a connection to the College and a devotion to mentoring those who come after them.
Art gives us the opportunity to have clarity as well as hope that we might be able to survive a situation, or hope that we can find a way out of it without too much more injury to ourselves.
Gordon, herself an accomplished novelist, teaches creative writing seminars that are highly prized by aspiring novelists. (Ottessa Moshfegh ’02, whose 2015 novel, Eileen, was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, took the seminar in 1999. Mary Beth Keane ’99 took it in 1997; she went on to win a Guggenheim Fellowship for her fiction, currently teaches at Barnard, and in August, her novel Ask Again, Yes won the Tonight Show’s Summer Reads vote.)
Ntozake Shange ’70, a feminist playwright, poet, and novelist, was an influential scribe of black women’s rage at structural inequality, which she conveyed in genre-bending works of engrossing power. Later in her life, she regularly visited campus, and she donated her papers to Barnard’s archives because she credited the College with her emotional and intellectual development.
Erica Jong ’63 forever expanded what was considered possible for women’s writing when, in 1973, she published Fear of Flying, an explicit and entertaining romp about a woman’s sexual liberation. She traced her incisive pen to her years at Barnard: “I felt that Barnard had given me so much — had given me confidence in my writing, which I desperately needed.” Jong endowed the Barnard Writing Center in 1996.
Edwidge Danticat ’90 was the youngest author ever nominated for a National Book Award. She has written more than 15 books and has emerged as a strong moral voice on the plight of Haiti post-Hurricane Matthew. “The fact that writers like Zora Neale Hurston, Thulani Davis [’70], June Jordan [’57], Ntozake Shange, Erica Jong, Cristina Garcia [’79], among others, had been Barnard students made writing seem much more attainable as a career for me,” Danticat said this year.
There is no agony like bearing an untold story inside you.
Jhumpa Lahiri ’89 won a Pulitzer Prize for her very first published story collection, Interpreter of Maladies, which, in pristinely lyrical prose, articulated the intergenerational tensions that arose when Bengali immigrants raised American children. She, too, has paid it forward by teaching writing at Barnard.
It’s no surprise that Barnard elicits loyalty from its alumnae; it makes sense to love the place that taught one how to take flight. But the fact that these involved, generous women are also trailblazers across fields creates a positive feedback loop of excellence that has endured for generations. It shows no signs of slowing. The Barnard effect is here to stay.
Kira Goldenberg is a journalist and communications professional in New York City.
Illustrations by Lincoln Agnew