When I first read that Hampshire College’s new president was “inviting a partnership” to keep it afloat, I was startled but not surprised.
Hampshire has been long known as the quirky, hippie, artsy liberal arts college in the western Massachusetts woods. Developed via a consortium of four other colleges (Amherst College, Mount Holyoke College, Smith College and the University of Massachusetts), Hampshire has always been the poor cousin. Like the New School for Social Research, where I matriculated as a philosophy graduate student, Hampshire has been eternally underfunded and run on a skeletal budget, relying on its faculty and staff’s dedication and commitment to the alternative, progressive pedagogy espoused since the college’s founding in 1965.
I was a faculty member at Hampshire for 14 years. There, I developed my identity as a political philosopher and public writer on national security, the war on terror and Islamophobia. There, I found challenging and supportive intellectual camaraderie among brilliant, committed colleagues who espoused a broad, interdisciplinary curriculum. Hampshire’s list of illustrious and accomplished faculty has included James Baldwin, Yusef Lateef and Jerome Liebling, among many others.
I discovered students who were refreshingly thoughtful, refusing to be satisfied with a conventional education. They were fearless in challenging their faculty members’ and classmates’ presuppositions. This is how my first book came about: from a political philosophy course on the social contract that was continuously challenged by critical students. My students asked about race, colonialism, the absence of recognition for male and female nonwhites, the contradiction between the notion of equal rights, and the fact of slavery. They required me to address these contradictions back when it was unheard-of to do so.
The same questions had occurred to me in graduate school but were afforded little merit even at a progressive place like the New School. Those questions still niggled as I taught my courses at Hampshire, but we -- my students and I -- were afforded an intellectually supportive space to consider them, even as I insisted that my students seek better, more rigorous ways to exhibit their findings.
The distinctiveness of Hampshire’s curriculum needs to be considered carefully: students are required to create their own interdisciplinary concentrations (majors). Hampshire’s approach is predicated on inquiry-based learning where students contend with immediate concerns and long-term objectives, with new ideas and a demand to understand the history of those ideas, while anticipating what the future might look like. This means that knowledge is not merely received but rather explored and digested through various methods: photographic, agrarian, scientific, poetic and dramaturgical, among others. This curriculum requires wrestling with ideas, as well as self-reflection, and anticipation of unexpected obstacles. It cultivates critical thinking and ethical reflection in the deepest sense imaginable.
As an immigrant kid who went to public schools, I was initially skeptical of what seemed to be a fairly self-indulgent education. Yet I knew that many respected academics sent their children to Hampshire instead of elite Ivy League schools. They were in on one of the best-kept secrets of postsecondary education: students were given unprecedented attention from faculty members, nurtured and carefully guided in their intellectual and political interests to become powerfully smart and critically thoughtful, broadly read citizens of the world. Graduates have gone on to become journalists, immigrant rights lawyers, inventors, novelists, scientists, professors, actors, social entrepreneurs, community organizers, doctors and engineers.
Inefficiency, Not Cost-Effectiveness
Yet as remarkable as my time at Hampshire was, my colleagues and I were unrelentingly exhausted. We were encouraged to teach specialized courses and to develop new ones. Students needed faculty members to serve as frequent advisers as they finished the various levels of education, from individual and distinctive interdisciplinary concentrations to the Division III senior capstone project that has been part of Hampshire’s graduation requirements.
Moreover, since its inception in 1965, Hampshire has assessed students’ relevant skills through narrative evaluations rather than grades. Faculty members write such evaluations for students as they progress through the educational tiers to help them reflect on their studies, develop deeper questions and further complicate their thinking and skills. To do justice to each student’s work, those evaluations must have detailed comments on various aspects of the project.
This innovative approach often resulted in extreme workloads. Often faculty members would find themselves writing pages upon pages of course evaluations, concentration evaluations and senior capstone evaluations -- sometimes in excess of 100 to 150 pages each year. This work did not account for the enormous time devoted to faculty-governance commitments or the various extracurricular programming that faculty members would engage in: bringing speakers to campus, raising money for those speakers and taking students on topic-related trips -- whether to The Hague to witness the tribunal for a war criminal; to Cuba to learn about arts, culture and politics; or to the U.S.-Mexico border to learn about immigration patterns.
All of those activities -- intensive interactions between and among faculty members and students, narrative evaluations, fascinating extracurricular programming, vigorous faculty governance -- are crucial to the exciting intellectual, cultural and political environment that gives Hampshire its spirit. But all of this commitment is difficult to sustain on a shoestring budget. It also means scarce resources -- in terms of both time and money -- are available to support the faculty’s intellectual life and research, which are nonnegotiable in this epoch of competition for students.
And therein lies the rub: Hampshire’s model is effective precisely because it is not efficient. Inefficiency -- not cost-effectiveness, in the form of careful attention, reflectiveness and conversations unhampered by time restrictions -- leads to some of the best education in the country. Inefficiency requires more money, not less, but for good cause: nurturing young minds and sustaining the education of worldly and thoughtful citizens, which requires the nurturing of faculty minds and lives, as well.
So, unlike the contemporary trend among postsecondary educational institutions, Hampshire’s incredible educational model flies in the face of a neoliberal, cost-effective business model of education. That latter model measures its economic sustainability through metrics that are designed to assess the pedagogy or curriculum but tell us little about whether students have evaluated their positions critically or understand the world differently.
The other four colleges in the consortium should understand their obligation to uphold Hampshire as a vital intellectual partner, where their own students take classes and flourish. I hope that a merger will not succumb to calls for cost-efficiency, or a “leaner” educational model by paring down faculty and staff members -- and as bad -- curtailing the rich interdisciplinary curriculum.
If it does, then Hampshire will be forced to forfeit its singular gifts and place in the academy, and the world will be much poorer for it. I fervently hope that Hampshire can continue to exist in its distinct way and thrive among sympathetic partners.