Sunday, February 7, 2010

31 January 1966: Students Propose Own Plans for Hampshire College

Okay, this one is a few days tardy (I've been busy with other matters), but better late than never. It's an episode that deserves to be better known.

From the Amherst Student, 29 Jan. 2003, Issue 14:
This Week in Amherst History: Hampshire College is Born, January 31, 1966
By Tim Danner, Staff Writer
Thirty-seven years ago this week, The Student outlined a plan drafted by a group of Amherst and Smith students for the social and educational system of Hampshire College, which would begin admitting students in 1970. The plan was a response to "The New College Plan," first proposed in 1958 by faculty of Amherst, Smith, Mount Holyoke and UMass.

The student proposal followed in the experimental footsteps of Hampshire's original conception, pivoting on a "village" structure where five separate hubs, or villages, would serve as "educational as well as social centers." Not only would these villages be self-sufficient, as students were to clean and repair their dorms as well as create their own social rules, but they would also be the sites of seminar and group-style courses.

The school would also include a general "education center" common to all students. This center would house a "comfortable and relaxed" library, sitting rooms, a coffee shop, and a gym. Committee member Eric Reiner '66 stressed the non-traditional aspect of the education system, saying, "We want to eliminate the administration as an obstacle between the students and the faculty-which we feel it is here [at Amherst]."

Some faculty members of the Hampshire College Curriculum Committee greeted the plan with praise and excitement. Amherst Professor of Psychology Robert Birney said of the student plan, "This kind of document is extremely valuable to anybody planning a college, and it's too bad we don't have a fistful of them."

I, too (on good days, at least), wish we had a fistful of them. Problem is, when we have them, we sometimes ignore them. Hampshire College—which likes to describe itself as a continually "experimenting" institution—is in the midst of many changes, complicated by the fact that they need to be implemented in an environment of new fiscal constraints. One constant of Hampshire change (if that's not a total paradox) has been the intensive involvement of students in all aspects of that process: from formal participation in governance to informal influence through exhortation or protest. It is on balance one of the great strengths of our system.

Several years ago, for example, we revised our first-year program and distribution requirements in hopes of making the process clearer and facilitating student progress through the system. For a variety of reasons, the ideal was not fully implemented. Students in particular felt that the pendulum had swung too far back in the direction of tradition and mindless mechanics versus innovation and substance. They formed a curricular "re-radicalization" group, calling for a revision of the system. To be sure, a good percentage of their suggestions inevitably reflected a kind of uninformed utopianism, which glorified a golden past that had never existed (not unlike the idealization of the Anglo-Saxon world prior to the imposition of the "Norman Yoke" in the ideology of the English historical and Common Law tradition). Still, they had a point, and most of the student activists and their efforts were well-informed and serious. They cared about pedagogy, they did their figurative as well as literal homework, and they worked within the system by joining the appropriate bodies and taking their institutional responsibilities seriously. The more they became involved, the more detailed and pragmatic their proposals became. In no small part thanks to this new student initiative, we now stand poised to debate (and, most of us expect, adopt) a new system of distribution requirements that retains the best of the current system while restoring some of the flexibility and innovation that we had inadvertently discarded.

So, how did we do the first time around?

The "village" concept endured. The housing units are not quite the centers of learning that people once envisioned (that takes place overwhelmingly in classroom buildings, not least because we discarded the tradition of having faculty "masters" live in the residential colleges), though student-initiated courses and similar collective learning activities to seem to be on the rise again.

Actually, that's another interesting point: Hampshire College and the town of Amherst resemble each other in many ways: both believe in the village center model, which they at times ahistorically idealize. Both are dependent on small and excessively narrow revenue streams (tuition in one case, residential property taxes in the other). Both are admirably committed to a deeply participatory democracy that at its best is a point of pride and at its worst degenerates into an ideological and unwieldy hyperdemocracy that privileges (or at the least tends to yield) process over results.

As for the idea that "students were to clean and repair their dorms"? I'm not sure what they were smoking back then. Repairing?! Even cleaning is a utopian fantasy (checked out your child's room lately?). Some things never change.

Regarding that educational center with "comfortable and relaxed" [sic] library, sitting rooms, coffee shop, and gym? Well, they all exist, after a fashion, but most components were substandard and all are now antiquated, and the whole manages to be less than the sum of its parts. No one has ever described our library as "comfortable and relaxed." A decade ago, faculty, students, staff, and outside experts took part in a series of symposia: the aim, as ambitious in its democratic character as in its desired result, was to re-envision the relation between library resources and social space in the emerging digital age of the twenty-first century. We got quite far in this process, and even generated an ambitious architectural program and model. The idea was to make this combined educational and social center the embodiment of our core values: the practical and symbolic "heart of the campus." The project was featured in a major capital campaign—and then dropped out of sight. I guess we thereby inadvertently did make a statement—just not the one we intended.

It was an outstanding idea, and it was and is worth pursuing. But how to get from here to there? My suggestion: get the students involved.

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