Menu
Share
Share this story
Close X
 
Switch to Desktop Site

Hampshire -- a radical alternative

Some universities churn out 700-page course catalogs in their search for comprehensiveness and balance. Hampshire College takes a very different approach. Instead of a "hard-bound, hidebound" course list that remains virtually changeless year after year, Hampshire lists its relatively few courses in a tabloid newspaper that is a brand-new edition each semester -- and is rewritten and updated like any other newspaper up to the final deadline before publication.

The Hampshire view, coming from a place where one economics professor boasts of the college's invigorating air of "intellectual chaos," is that traditional universities offer what only appearsm to be a wealth of choice. At other "teaching factories" the apparent choice between hundreds of courses obscures the fact that all of these courses are based on the assumption that "the American way of life" is basically sound.

About these ads

Hampshire reformers like Herbert Bernstein, a physics professor, believe they can offer a true choice for the student, a genuine alternative -- a means of confronting and overcoming the "tremendous danger of having their quest for knowledge converted to a product, weapon, or technology of destruction and dehumanization."

Bernstein's own background is "straight" . . . and impressive: Columbia, University of California at San diego, and Princeton's Institute for Advanced Study. His specialization is theoretical physics, but his interest in science-policy issues has involved him as a consultant with a number of government and private institutions.

He is committed to correcting the situation whereby "excellent physics somehow leads to bombs and nuclear plants" -- but sees this commitment as "humanizing, not radicalizing."

He hopes his work with students will lead them "beyond just being interested in getting a job, so that there is the human impulse in all their work, knowing that it should be for the good of all, whatever field they are working in."

David Smith, a professor of English and American studies at Hampshire, knows just how restrictive and "career oriented" courses elsewhere can be for both students and faculty. Before joining hampshire when it opened in 1970, he was director of Indiana University's graduate program in American studies and a professor with full tenure (meaning he had a guaranteed job for life).

Now he works happily under hampshire's faculty-designed contract system, which requires constant review of each teacher's performance as the basis for reappointment. And he works hard to make sure his courses are redesigned each year to meet the changing needs of students and the latest challeges facing society as a whole.

Professor Smith makes sure his own course descriptions in the catalog don't lock him into anything. For his American studies seminar (an advanced course with limited admission), the catalog states that texts "could include Crevecoeur , Tocqueville . . . Nash's 'Wilderness and the American Mind,' Ann Douglas's 'The Feminization of American Culture' . . . Geidion's 'Mechanization Takes Command,' . . . and so on."

About these ads

When I sat in on his seminar, the topic was Wendell Berry's book "The Unsettling of America," dealing with the social and psychic impact of turning the human-scale farm into a multinational industry.

One of his students, Dawn, instantly established the fact that Hampshire classes are different. She opened the discussion with a blunt question: "Has everybody read Berry?"

Students elsewhere seem to observe the old Ivy League rule that reading should be saved for the night-before-the-exam cram session -- or that at least if you have read the material, you shouldn't admit to this lapse from preppiness. But the 11 young women making up Proffessor Smith's seminar had all read the book and were ready to trade lively criticisms, some of it directed at the book, more at a society that has contradicted its supposed reverence for both the land and women by raping both.

Discussion was sharp -- but with time to slide open the glass doors for the dog that disappeared toward the surrounding timbered hills and with time to knit , because Liz and Megan and Jan and the rest took no notes. Instead, they pursued the developing ideas, convinced by the Hampshire system that what matters is not a notebook full of neatly organized facts but the ability to confront new questions in new ways.

So there was lots of scope for personal feeling and individual experience to enter the discussion, which helps to explain why Hampshire encourages students to take time off from college for work experience and requires evidence of service to the college or the larger community.

The penetrating dialogue, mixing Berry with the students' own insights, was also a good illustration of the advice from Erich Fromm which seems to set the tone for Hampshire: that good "flows from the blending of rational thought and feeling. If the two functions are torn apart, thinking deteriorates into schizoid intellectual activity, and feeling deteriorates into neurotic life-damaging passions."

As the class rolled on, terms were defined. Conservatism is "the dogmatic effort to maintain the status quo" and is "based on faith and trust in tradition." To a woman, the students welcomed the fact that "our professors are challenging the status quo, and are challenging our capitalist system in every respect. . . . They are asking their students to ask ethical questions about their work."

The issues start with nuclear power, feminism, and ecology. Ellen said, "There is pressure here to be radical." Liz added, "I have the urge here to be involved, but it is easy to be sucked in, and that can be dangerous. It has to be a personal effort, you have to know it deep inside you."

Hampshire, these students feel, helps make it possible to be involved deeply and constructively. Hampshire's radical, critical questioning of society and its institutions has "given kids the chance to see the system they are inside." Sukie says she has learned now that "the people who are coming out of the Ivy League colleges really are running this country."

The result of the alternative education at Hampshire, says Megan, is that "I don't think that there are many people who will leave here and plug into big corporations."

Faculty members I spoke with hope that Megan is right.

Ann Woodhull, a biology professor, says, "I will be very interested to see how they do 10 years out" -- still in the future for this young college.

Miriam Slater, a professor of history, on the basis of studies she has seen for other institutions, guesses that "students haven't been changed by places like Harvard. They have become perhaps more educated and informed, but I don't think they have changed their critical stance."

She hopes hampshire will have more of an effect, and she sees some indications already: "Our students, for instance, are involved in the Alaska school system, or when they work for the government they work in socially conscious areas. But I don't how know they end up ultimately. . . ."

For Ann Woodhull, Hampshire's radical educational programs result in "students being more actively engaged instead of passively consuming, which translates into political activism in many cases. Being critical of materials also translates into looking at our society in a different way."

Professor Slater explains that "under- graduates here talk about the tension between the student activist and their scholarly lives. . . . I hear a lot more students here grappling with the problem of handling that tension, which is never ultimately resolved: Do I go and demonstrate at New Hampshire or do I go to Washington for my internship, do I serve out the jail sentence and miss a couple of weeks of school. . . ."

This historian says that the way the Hampshire curriculum is designed "would be considered extremely radical" -- but explains that perspective and balance are guaranteed by three particular devices:

* Five-college cooperation, which allows Hampshire students to take courses at nearby Amherst, Mount Holyoke, Smith, and the University of Massachusetts.

* Hampshire's interdisciplinary approach, whereby any particular subject is viewed in terms of the effect on society as a whole.

* Team teaching, which requires teachers to work closely with experts in other fields.

This combination allows Professor Slater to work with her colleagues to develop particular areas of current interest, knowing that if a student needs a specialized course in 17th- century studies, for instance, it can be found on a neighboring campus.

One result at Hampshire, she explains, is that "we're doing a comparative-culture course on family structure in China, Europe, and the US. We each have to read all the material, because we are not going to teach seriatim, we are going to teach together, and we each have to know the material, how does it fit in, what are the links. We know there are links with the European experience, but how far do they extend to China?"

For Professor Woodhull, Hampshire's greatest contribution to a new way of looking at the world may be in the natural sciences: "Many academic subjects have been considered value-free, but that is not true, and it is not true in science any more than it's true in social sciences. One of the aims of the sciences at Hampshire College should be to acknowledge that there are values, and decisions based on values, in science all the time."

She sees the relevance of questions raised by science courses at Hampshire reflected in the rush for copies of "Meltdown at Montague," a book written here two years go about the hazards of nuclear power plants. It was a prophetic book that became very popular after the Three Mile Island incident proved that nuclear accident can happen.

Hampshire's rejection of the traditional division of education into narrow disciplines such as history, economics, physics, and biology frees Professor Woodhull to raise broad feminist issues in her courses, just as it frees the historian to deal with the social implications of quantum mechanics.

Robert von der Lippe, a sociology professor and acting dean of the faculty, says that individual packages of courses are worked out for each student to point him or her in socially -- rather than just personally -- profitable directions.

"One of the things that you do in negotiations with each students is to say, what kind of balance is there to what you are learning, have you seen the critical liberal or leftist view, if you are coming at it as a conservative," he explains. "If you are coming at it as a leftist, are you seeing the critical rightist- conservative view?

"The same thing happens in the interviewing with faculty. We will talk to faculty about the major trends that are going on in that faculty member's discipline, and we become concerned if we find out there are real holes that person has, whether they are left, right, or center -- and more often it is not political."

This process of avoiding holes or bias begins with faculty selection and is closely tied to Hampshire's overall interdisciplinary approach.

"When we are talking to potential candidates," Professor von der Lippe says, Hampshire looks for "the larger perspective on a problem, because we'll know that when we hire a faculty member that person is not just going to teach sociology; that faculty member is going to be involved in an interdisciplinary school in a college that is supporting these kinds of demands both on its students and on its faculty. Therefore there is considerable demand from the beginning for them to have flexibility, to be able to recognize if a student isn't getting the right balance, the right perspective, the right background."

Part of that essential perspective appears to be the Hampshire view that college, like the world at large, should not kid the student into believing there are simple yes-no answers or that students can be neatly graded and packaged for the world of commuter careers.

So the Hampshire student emerges with questions -- and an uneasy understanding that, as one student put it, "It is going to be very hard to go into a system that says that you are supposed to standardize, neutralize, objectivize. It's not just that I have learned to be critical of all that, but that I have a sense of myself and of my work which will make for a hard confrontation in terms of graduate school and earning a living."

Yet Hampshire College is making no apologies. Instead, its faculty see its role as preparing Hampshire students to deal with "the oppressive nature of society," and with a society "which has brought you the bomb and nuclear power."


Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.