Capabilities is in Walker’s DNA

By Ned Edwards, Director of Walker’s Capabilities Approach Program

“The moment came when I wanted more freedom of expression and action, and the opportunity to create something of my own…I took a chance that I might learn how to manage a school from having one since I learned to teach by teaching, and secretarial work by doing it.”

– Ethel Walker Smith, “A History of the Ethel Walker School at Lakewood, New Jersey”

The above words were among the first I encountered when arriving on campus last summer. They were on a slide Sarah Edson, Interim Dean of Faculty, showed as part of a presentation on the history and mission of The Ethel Walker School. And they confirmed what I had already suspected: that the Capabilities Approach Program is destined to succeed and to set the school apart for many years to come.

When it comes to stories of the founding of our institutions I always listen carefully. These stories, no matter how ancient or old fashioned they may seem, have a unique power to define an institution’s mission and values into the future. Furthermore, the institutions that are adept at understanding and sharing their founding stories tend to be healthier and more successful in accomplishing their mission.* What I heard from Sarah was that the Capabilities Approach Program is a natural extension of Walker’s mission, and embedded in Walker’s DNA.

If you have spent any time reading about the Capabilities Approach by the Nobel Laureate Dr. Amartya Sen, you know that it is a complex and wonderful philosophical approach to human flourishing. It combines Aristotelian philosophy, social and economic justice, Rawlsian viewpoints, and Sen’s colleague, Martha Nussbaum, brings important feminist perspectives to the approach to make it especially important for women around the globe. This interweaving of traditions and concepts stimulates the philosopher in me, providing hours of joyful reading and questioning and theorizing.

Yet at the same time, there is a very practical side to the Capabilities Approach that is much easier to comprehend. Ethel Walker Smith verbalizes this side simply and beautifully when she said, “I wanted to create something of my own…,” “I took a chance…,” and “I…learned by doing it.” These three actions: creating, trying, and doing, reflect the agency, autonomy, resilience, and functional mastery the Capabilities Approach seeks to impart. These are also the qualities we want every Walker’s girl to carry with her at graduation.

We want Walker’s girls to be lifelong learners who are willing to take a chance, and to try something new. If they fail, we want them to realize that failure does not define them, it merely offers an opportunity to try again in a different way. We want them to be intellectually astute, but also have practical skills and hands-on experience that increases their intellectual power exponentially and puts them on a level playing field in the classroom as well as the boardroom. We want to see what they can accomplish when they reach their full potential, all they can be and do, when cultural, economic, and gender barriers and mindsets are removed.

Ethel Walker Smith founded a college preparatory school in a day when finishing schools were the norm. She wanted her students to be able to create futures of their own, to expand their possibilities and opportunities, to allow them to flourish. The Walker’s Capabilities Approach Program is an extension of her vision, increasing possibilities and opportunities for girls into their futures. The philosophical underpinnings of Dr. Sen’s capabilities approach give us the framework, the vocabulary, and the roadmap, but it was already in our DNA.

*Ned Edwards, The Role of Cosmogonic Myth and Metanarrative in Defining Institutional Identity, doctoral dissertation, Hartford Seminary, 2004.