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What’s New at Frisbee U.

By Chip Brown

The New York Times
June 10,1990

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 standards.

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 overtones.

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 I am.”

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,” said Elizabeth.

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 research program.

“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 scribbling notes.

“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 unremarked.

“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.