Sunday, April 3, 2011

Hey, Mom! Hampshire College is Totally Unique! In fact: more unique than the 9 other "most unique" colleges in the US!

I was of course delighted to see that  Best Colleges Online ranked Hampshire College the #1 entry among "10 U.S. Colleges That Are Totally Unique":
The search for the perfect college can be overwhelming, but also a lot of fun. Finding schools that mesh with your personality, study habits, educational preparation, and expectations for adventure is satisfying in a holistic sort of way. These schools take that philosophy to the next level. From colleges that cater to students in a particular field like engineering to universities that promote personal enlightenment as much as academics, these are some of the most unique colleges in the U.S.

Hampshire College: Located in Amherst, MA, Hampshire College allows its 1500 students to design their own curriculum. Favoring customized programs instead of "off-the-shelf" majors, Hampshire organizes students into three levels of study rather than categorizing students as freshmen, sophomores, juniors or seniors. Division I introduces students to basic principles and ideas in highly specialized classes, allowing them to experiment before settling into a concentration in Division II. Division III challenges students to complete an individual project and even teach and mentor other students while taking graduate-level courses.
A bit of hyperbole or missed nuance here and there, but basically a sound, accurate description. Fine with me.

However, some readers took umbrage at the piece on the level of language usage rather than content, as such.

Interesting, where the lines diverge.  What bothered me was not "totally unique," and instead: "most unique." The objection is the same, but the aesthetic or vernacular is different.  I myself was willing to give "totally unique" a pass, on the grounds that this was a popular site using a colloquialism: That's, like, the way we talk nowadays.  And who knows? here in New England, we might even—IMHO—be "wicked unique." I could live with that, too. In other words, "totally" here serves as a form of emphasis, rather than as an adverb to be taken in the literal sense.

The underlying issue, of course, is that some regard any modification of "unique" as anathema on the grounds that either something is unique or it is not.  Merriam-Webster's guide to usage predictably and provocatively accepts both the absolute and modified forms as historically justified as well as commonplace. I can understand that on one level. However, it's a bit slippery for my taste, given that "unique" has a clear origin and meaning—according to the Oxford Etymological Dictionary: "sole, alone of its kind." Merriam-Webster's examples (above and beyond the fact that a published author's [mis]use of a term does not necessarily justify it on any other grounds) are not totally compelling. More to the point, perhaps, we have other words that serve just as well for the comparative but not for the absolute. Why not just substitute "distinctive" or a similar traditional modifiable term for the absolute case? Personally, I suspect (though cannot prove) that a lot of modern language slippage is due to a desire for informality and convenience: although both "unique" and "distinctive" are Latinate terms, the former is more familiar and easier to pronounce (in the sense of: speak; fewer syllables, simpler use of the mouth and facial muscles).

None of this is anything to fight and die for, but when we have one word that is reasonably circumscribed in meaning, and a plethora of others that can convey the alternative sense, why do we feel so compelled to blur the distinctions?

Anyway, come to Hampshire, and we'll teach you how to write as well as think.

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