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What’s New at Frisbee U.
By Chip Brown
The New York Times
Hampshire College was born 20 years ago this fall in an apple orchard
in western Massachusetts. As the many journalists who described its
infancy were wont to say, the school had a silver spoon in its mouth
and a Frisbee in its hand. It was a college that gave no grades, had
no departments, and didn’t offer tenure to faculty members.
Academically, students were free to do whatever they wanted. The year
it opened, Hampshire was one of the hardest schools in the country
to get into.
If the question mark had not existed, Hampshire would have invented
it. The heart of the curriculum was asking questions: students learned
“modes of inquiry.” The new philosophy was summed up
in the motto Non Satis Scire, To Know Is Not Enough. The poet Archibald
MacLeish spoke to the hope surrounding this “new departure”
in education when he delivered the address at Hampshire’s
inaugural convocation. “I think,” he said, “we
may be present at a greater moment than we know.”
Now, two decades and 5,000 alumni later, Hampshire finds itself
one of the last of a breed. Its survival alone is something of an
accomplishment. Experimental colleges have retrenched or vanished.
The University of California at Santa Cruz has modified its curriculum.
New College in Sarasota, Fla., merged with the state university.
Nationwide, the trend is toward fewer electives, more structure.
Bestselling books like “The Closing of the American Mind”
blame the experiments of the 60’s for the decline in academic
Does Hampshire instill anything traditional methods do not? It’s
always hard to measure the value of educational method, but the
nature of Hampshire’s program makes assessment doubly hard.
When students have such a large role in their own illumination,
how much do you credit the college?
As one of the guinea pigs in the experiment, I’ve always
thought a good argument could be made that the social aspect of
Hampshire – the shock-the-parents coed bathrooms, group living
in the “modules” and the obligation to cook, clean,
and fetch groceries from the Mixed Nuts co-op every week –
had as much impact on undergraduate experience as the interdisciplinary
curriculum and “modes of inquiry.” But maybe not. And
maybe even wanting to measure the worth of an education is wrongheaded,
born of a consumerist mentality that views the mind’s development
as product refinement. In any case, this spring I packed a couple
of Frisbees in the car, assumed a mode of inquiry, and drove up
to the orchard in Amherst to revisit the experiment, such as it
was 20 years ago, and such as it is today.
It used to be that we were taller than the trees. Now the saplings
that line the blacktop driveway are robust oaks. I wandered around
in the reverie of an April morning. The land sloped west toward
a valley full of chopped-out cornfields and renascent pasture. Students
drifted in and out of the library. Book cache, television studio,
cliff face for instruction in rappelling it is still the eye of
the college. The basement bulletin board was a montage of campus
life unchanged by time: panic-and-stress workshops, film festivals,
poetry readings, for-sale signs, notices of missing pets (Simon
the cat had disappeared from Module 54).
For a school with little respect for tradition, much seemed the
same. The old Frisbee field had been replaced by a warren of solarheated
arts and academic buildings, but Ultimate Frisbee was still the
reigning sport, as it was in the early 70’s, when Hampshire
had one of the best teams in the country. The Dionysian spirit was
alive and well in the unofficial “clothing optional”
floor of Merrill House. The “Trip or Treat” Halloween
party had made its way into college guidebooks.
Backpacks and sneakers, blue jeans with holes in the knee, a certain
scruffy air: students look the same, too, though today, 70 percent
come from public school and 30 percent from private – the
reverse of 1970. The campus is still predominantly white, despite
the college’s expressed commitment to a racially and ethnically
diverse community. At $20,240 a year, a Hampshire education is one
of the dearest in the country. Nearly half the students receive
some sort of financial aid from the college.
Clothes, intellectual positions and even behavior are governed
by the code of the “politically correct,” which is to
say antisexist, antiracist, antihomophobic, antispecist, One of
the unforeseen aspects of Hampshire turned out to be how sexually
uptight the place was, even in the anything-goes atmosphere of the
early 70’s. And some of those inhibitions endure as students
sacrifice spontaneity to project correct behavior. No one would
undo Hampshire’s commitment to feminist values, which has
produced on-site day-care facilities and positions of power for
women, but all that right thinking can sometimes have puritanical
A photograph by Jerome Liebling, a Hampshire professor, of the
naked torso of his baby daughter – part of Liebling’s
impressive exhibit in the library gallery – had recently come
under attack in an anonymous letter in the student paper. The writer
argued that because a child cannot consent to having her genitals
photographed, the picture constituted child abuse: “God help
me if I see anymore child pornography condoned on this campus again.”
“Sometimes it’s hard to be a heterosexual male here,”
said Halstead York, who was having breakfast in the dining hall
with his friends Jeri Chittick, Rebecca Drury and Elizabeth Rosenthal.
“Students are trying so hard to be open-minded they’re
close-minded,” said Jeri.
“A lot of the issues I believe in,” said Rebecca. “I
consider myself a feminist, but people on campus don’t think
Despite the social climate the students were all happy about Hampshire.
“I’ve learned a lot here,” said Jeri. “How
to ask questions, how to get away with doing what you want to do.
You learn that you should say what you want to say. You learn that
on papers you should get comments and not just a 92 and ‘put
in more commas.’”
“I took a class at UMass and nobody asked questions,”
said Elizabeth. “Nobody cared about the reading. They asked,
Are we going to be tested on this? It was like a big high school.”
“I went to a class here and the teacher said, ‘Why
do you want to take this class?’ and I had to figure out why,”
said Jeri. “You have to stand up for yourself.”
“I wish there were more of a conservative streak,”
It’s almost impossible to convey the fervor of the early
years. “Nothing was ever so much fun,” recalled Francis
D. Smith, who was hired in 1967 and served as the college’s
dean of Humanities and Arts. “This was an ova, from the egg,
from the beginning.” Hampshire was the child of four prestigious
institutions in the Connecticut River valley: Smith, Amherst, Mount
Holyoke and the University of Massachusetts. A committee of educators
from the four college consortium had been kicking around the idea
of a new college since the 1950’s. They foresaw an explosion
of knowledge no traditionally structured curriculum could adequately
cover. Educating might be cheaper and more effective if students
were taught to teach themselves. Harold F. Johnson, a lawyer and
wealthy Amherst College graduate, read about the proposed “New
College” in an alumni bulletin, and decide to put up $6 million.
The Ford Foundation made a large grant. Franklin Patterson was hired
as the college’s first president in 1966, and went to work
drafting Hampshire’s bible, “The Making of a College.”
He overlaid the curriculum reforms from the 1958 “New College
Plan” with the pressing social, political and intellectual
concerns of the day. The college should help counteract the alienation
in American society, strive to humanize technology and be a force
for social change. Patterson’s teenage son designed the insignia,
the 10-leafed Hampshire tree. Ground was broken on the library,
and Hampshire set about recruiting faculty and students.
“We didn’t know if anybody would come,” recalled
Charles R. Longsworth, the founding vice president who succeeded
Patterson as president, and who had helped draft the final plan.
They needn’t have worried. Hampshire was hot. S.A.T. scores
were not required. Candidates brought their creative work to their
admission interviews – everything from light shows to loaves
of bread. Some 2,000 applicants vied for 270 places. An amazing
97 percent of students accepted actually matriculated.
Jim Johnson tried to transfer to Hampshire in 1971 but was told
the college didn’t take transfer students. Undeterred, he
drove to the campus with a portfolio of silkscreens and prints,
wangled his way into the dining hall, and converted one wall into
an art gallery. HE even sent out invitations, including one to the
admissions office. He got in. “They could have just as easily
had me arrested,” he recalled.
Professors were equally excited by an institution that did not
want to regiment them in departments or dictate what they had to
teach. Hampshire received a thousand applications for 50 faculty
positions. The physics professor Herbert Bernstein, then a fellow
at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Princeton, read about Hampshire
in the Whole Earth Catalog and was so intrigued he offered to work
for nothing. He was hired, at a salary of $1.
At first, everyone knew more about what Hampshire wasn’t
than what it was. “There was this feeling of excitement and
anticipation that something really great was going to happen, but
you didn’t know what it was,” said Kim Shelton, a documentary
film maker who was part of that pioneer class. “You had the
feeling of being on an expedition with all these really great people.”
What emerged was a kind of graduate school for 18-year-olds. Instead
of grades, students got written evaluations. Progress was measured
by passing a series of exams in three “divisions.” In
Division I, students had to demonstrate a grasp of modes of inquiry
in each of the college’s four “schools”: Humanities
and Arts; Social Sciences; Natural Sciences, and Communications
and Cognitive Science.
For Division II, students had to organize their course work and
research around a particular theme. Someone interested in weaving,
for example might jump off into an exploration of the chemistry
of dyes; write a paper about the religious implications of weaving
in aboriginal societies; work up a computer-based experiment in
pattern recognition; or perhaps compose a sonnet sequence abut the
joys of being a Luddite. Instead of majors, there were concentrations.
And the final exam – the Division III project – was
the equivalent of a thesis defense. As the college tried to establish
methods and standards, it was in a quandary about how to evaluate
popular personal-growth courses like “Dimensions of Consciousness.”
“We’d want to get evaluations of students’ work
in and the answer would come back, ‘You don’t evaluate
personal growth, you recognize it,” recalled Richard L. Muller,
the dean of the school of Communications and Cognitive Science.
There was a lot of what was charitably called “creative floundering,”
which led to an attrition rate of 40 percent – lower than
the national average, but well above the rate at other schools in
the valley. Some Hampshire students sauntered around with an air
of preppy entitlement that irked faculty, but by and large the quickly
showed that they were interested in doing serious work, and they
held their own in classes at the other four colleges. (The five-college
consortium was the most important legacy of Hampshire’s sponsors.)
They earned reputations for being talkative in class (perhaps to
a fault), quick to make use of a professor’s office hours,
and intent on adapting the course to their needs.
“IN my experience, Hampshire students are different from
the rest of the students in the valley,” said Benjamin DeMott,
an Amherst professor who served on an advisory committee during
Hampshire’s gestation. “The ones I’ve taught seem
much more interested in an independent way in their own education.
There’s no notion that a teacher is there to inspire or entertain.
The teacher is a resource who has some information to impart. The
teacher becomes a kind of coach. When I have one of these kids in
my classes, I’m impressed.”
Hampshire’s darkest hours came in the early 1980’s.
A number of faculty members had noticed a shift in the mid 1970’s,
when for the first time students seemed more conservative than teachers.
By the mid-1980’s, applications plunged to where the college
was admitting 1 applicant to every 1.23 who applied. The lower caliber
of student added to criticism that standards were lax. Hampshire,
which depends on tuition and fees for 80 percent of its $24 million
budget, was finding its efforts to attract new students hampered
by stereotypes about Frisbees and drugs. The college came off badly
in a widely publicized story about a student who’d written
his thesis on the aerodynamics of the Frisbee.
After much discussion, the college decided to make a “commitment
to quality.” It cut the number of students from 1,200 to 900.
The board of trustees resolved to operate at a deficit, spending
some of the small endowment of $10 million. To combat the hippie
image, Frisbee photographs were declared verboten in official publications.
“We knew we were taking an enormous risk,” recalled
Adele Simmons, who recently left after 12 years as president to
head the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation in Chicago.
“I would go to bed at night planning the phone call to the
president of UMass to talk about merging.”
Almost immediately things turned around. By last fall, Hampshire’s
enrollment was back over 1,200 and the applicant pool for a class
of 350 students was over 2,000.
Today, there’s more structure than meets the eye. There are
filing deadlines. Exam days. An advising center. “We know
more about what we’re doing now,” says Nancy Lowry,
dean of the School of Natural Sciences. Students have to pass all
Division I exams before they can go on to Division II. In a major
break with the original vision, students have been given the option
to complete two of their four Division I exams by taking courses
instead of doing independent projects.
As always, a lot of weight falls on the faculty adviser to keep
the students pointed in the right direction. It’s clear now
that teaching students to teach themselves entails more, not less
work for the faculty. The 11-to-1 student-faculty ratio is not low
enough, and students often have to cajole overworked faculty members
onto their exam committees – a hurdle that some shy young
people have a hard time leaping. Since there is no tenure, faculty
members are often embroiled in controversies over the reappointment
of their colleagues forced to make tough decisions whether to renew
the contracts of good teachers who lack scholarship and good scholars
who can’t teach. A Humanities and Arts professor who wasn’t
reappointed sued the college, charging discrimination; the threat
of litigation now keeps some faculty from making candid appraisals.
Hampshire’s affable new president, Gregory S. Prince, arrived
last fall from Dartmouth, where he was an associate dean of faculty.
At 51, he has the golden shine of a Cheever character before everything
goes to hell. Every Monday, he meets with students over breakfast
in the dining hall. He invited me to sit in.
And so it was that the president of the college was sipping orange
juice while a student harangued him about Becky the Tumorous Horse.
“Greg, I don’t understand why Becky was taken from
the farm center,” said Karin Bond, the spokeswoman for a delegation
of three grimfaced students. “Why was Becky removed?”
Prince explained that his wife had removed Becky to their family
farm in New Hampshire, where the horse could be cared for at no
expense to the college, and that it had been a college-wide decision
to put the rest of the horses up for sale and phase out the costly
“Greg, you’re wife has definitely wanted that horse
from the moment she saw her,” said Karin.
“Karin, that just isn’t true,” said Prince, explaining
again that his wife was providing care for Becky at no expense to
the college, etc. etc.
“What’s the difference in expense to the institution
between raising horses and raising sheep?” Karin shot back.
Her complexion was getting pale. She began to weep. The other students
at the table shifted uncomfortably.
“This is what I wanted to do with my life, Greg, and you’re
taking it away from me!” She cried, banging the table with
her fist. She began to shout. “Why can’t I have this
program when I SPEND $20,000 A YEAR TO GO TO SCHOOL HERE!”
“That’s a different question, Karin,” said the
president. Karin sobbed for a while. Eventually it seemed there
was nothing more to say. Prince looked dejected. The breakfast had
never gone worse, and to add insult to injury an alumnus was gleefully
“Anyone else have anything on their mind?” said Prince.
He turned to Jill Davidson, a first-year student with a bandanna
on her head. “’Why are you here this morning?”
“I’m embarrassed to say my father wanted me to come.
He heard students could have breakfast with the president.”
The vaunted “new departure” has not changed the face
of higher education, but Hampshire’s example has not gone
“Though much of the bubbly countercultural experience of
Hampshire has troubled me, I’ve always defended the college
– all the more so now that everybody is running scared,”
said David Riesman, the Harvard sociologist and author who wrote
about Hampshire in “The Perpetual Dream: Reform and Experiment
in the American College.” “Hampshire has been influential
– one of the most visible examples of an experimental curriculum
on the East Coast. I see it as extremely helpful.”
Riesman cited Hampshire’s exceptional record in science education.
At most colleges, including Harvard, students fade away from science.
At Hampshire, more graduate with an interest in science than enter
with one. Hampshire was one of the first colleges to offer an undergraduate
program in the cognitive sciences – the rubric for a forward-looking
amalgam of philosophy, psychology, neurobiology and computer studies.
Alumni are perhaps the best testimony of the effectiveness of the
Hampshire method. Eighty percent of Hampshire graduates are accepted
into their first choice of professional or graduate school. Twenty
percent own their own businesses. In Hollywood, where Hampshire
alumni have been nominated for nine Academy Awards, there is something
called the Hampshire mafia, which includes the documentary film
makers Ken Burns, whose five-part Civil War series is scheduled
to run on PBS this September, and Robert Epstein, who made “The
Times of Harvey Milk.”
But a number of graduates from the early years feel they have gaps
in their education. One survey found many rued the lack of history.
Another deficiency became known to my parents as the Moliere problem.
The Moliere problem first reared its head one Thanksgiving when
Moliere’s name came up, and I, with my degree, made the mistake
of saying “Who’s Moliere?”
“Who’s Moliere?” said my mother, looking like
she’d just put her finger in a wall socket. “Who’s
Moliere? Twenty thousand dollars of college tuition and you don’t
know who Moliere is?”
What can I say? I was reading Faulkner. I was on a Faulkner binge,
and might still be if I hadn’t come down with mononucleosis.
Getting students to monitor their enthusiasms – to give up
sweets and study something they’re not particularly interested
in, for the sake of a balanced diet – is still a problem Hampshire
is working on.
The progressive agenda of 1970 is still before the college in the
form of multiculturalism. Hampshire recently adopted something called
the “Third World Expectation.” (The new departure in
jargon establishes requirements but calls them expectations.) It
is “expected” that courses and exams, whether in lighting
design or physics, will include some discussion of how the issues
under consideration bear on the third world. Every teacher I talked
to welcomed the idea.
By such means, Hampshire hopes to enlarge the perspective of students,
and foster a sense of community. And yet the very qualities that
make students successful at Hampshire are an ability to go it alone,
to work independently. The contradiction of the college has always
been that a student is pulled one way by the philosophy, which prizes
community, and another by the structure, which emphasizes self-reliance.
Hampshire is not a community of people holed up in a big ivory tower;
it’s 1,200 ivory towers.
“No one shares the same body of knowledge,” says Anton
Mueller, a book editor who graduated in 1981. “Everyone is
an expert on a topic, but there’s little basis for common
discussion, so sitting in a class can be frustrating.”
Much of Hampshire’s initial popularity came from the idea
that faculty and students were involved in the making of a college
– that there was indeed a college to be made. Hampshire’s
goals and structure were still forming. Would it be just a trendy
factory, training people for the Information Age? Or could it offer
a fractured society the model of a Utopian collective, where one
person’s success didn’t depend on another’s failure.
Today, the Utopian visions have faded. Students sit on the board
of trustees and the faculty reappointment committee, but have no
part in the making of a college. The college has been made.
If Hampshire’s aspirations are not so grand, neither are
they so grandiose. “The goal of a Hampshire education is to
elicit the best in students – to help them develop artistic
and intellectual creativity,” said Olga E. Euben, the former
admissions director who is credited with bringing Hampshire to the
90’s and who is now retired. “These are individualistic
values, but they incorporate a social and moral political sense.
Even when Hampshire graduates are doing banking, they are doing
it with a twist.”
“I don’t know what you really learn at Hampshire,”
says Jim Johnston, who has given up staging guerilla art shows in
favor of composing and film producing, “but what you’re
left with is an attitude about life, a willingness to take chances.”
Toward sundown my last day at Hampshire, I hiked into a field beyond
the apartments of Enfield House to pay my respects to an old sugar
maple. I think of it as the living version of the leafy insignia
on the Hampshire letterhead, for I once spent a night in its branches.
There were about a dozen of us, all members of David Roberts’s
“The Literature of Great Expeditions” class. Roberts,
now an author and magazine writer in Boston, had put his class up
a tree to simulate the ordeal of Maurice Herzog, who led a French
mountain-climbing expedition that he wrote about in “Annapurna.”
It would have been colder to sit on snow at 22,0000 feet, but maybe
not as uncomfortable as being wedged on belay 60 feet up in the
crotch of a maple. Hardly anyone slept; the temperature sank into
the teens. Some of us would be picking splinters out for weeks.
And yet all of us were overtaken by a sense of fellowship. A joke
would come from one of the perches, laughter would sweep the limbs,
and then the sounds of the night would rush in again, binding us
all in the charged silence of a flock. I can’t say I learned
anything indispensable that night (I could have spent it with Moliere
instead), but I have never forgotten it, and so perhaps I did. The
grass at dawn was stiff with frost. As we limbered up for the descent
to earth, one of the bivouackers who was an exchange student from
Amherst spoke up. “I’ll have to tell people the best
time I ever had at Amherst was at Hampshire,” he said. The
whole tree laughed, and then everybody went home.