Dethroning the Course: Has Hampshire’s Experiment Failed?

Melanie Chitwood

From its conception, Hampshire’s goal has been to challenge conventions of higher education and to explore new modes of teaching and learning. Unfortunately, over the past forty-five years, the curriculum has shifted towards a more traditional course of study, comparable to other small liberal arts colleges.

Hampshire’s founding philosophy, outlined in The New College Plan, depends upon the idea that the average college student is capable of far more independent work and thinking than the typical undergraduate education expects. Everett Hafner, the first dean of the school of Natural Science, suggested the school’s curriculum should include, “modes of teaching which emphasize independent study.” Yet, despite this heavy emphasis on independent, student-centered learning, Hampshire’s current curriculum requires students to participate in virtually no independent studies prior to Division III.

Division I examinations were, at one time, the foundation of Hampshire’s emphasis on independent study; to pass Division I, each student was expected to complete an independent project (exam) in each of the (then four) interdisciplinary schools. While many faculty supported Division I examinations as projects completed outside of course-work, some faculty challenged this concept almost from the beginning; in 1984, the Educational Policy Committee (EPC) decided to formally recognize course-related projects as a means for passing a Division I examination. Currently the EPC is bringing up new revisions to Division I every meeting and not making any decisions to change the current system.

The Division I examination process went mostly unchanged from 1984 to 2002, when Hampshire College’s faculty approved a new First Year Program. The new Division I program required students to take one course in each of the five schools of thought (later this policy would change to course work in four of the five schools), as well as three additional faculty-evaluated courses, all to be completed in the first two semesters of enrollment. This system is still in place today.

According to a 2003 article in The Climax, the goals of the new Division I requirements were two-fold. First, to decrease the number of students who leave after their first year by convincing them of the connection between academic engagement and success at Hampshire. Second, to make Hampshire more attractive to prospective students who may want an alternative education, but feel they need more structure than what the old system offered.

The current Division I system, according to The Climax, “inherently limits the amount of independent work a student can pursue through their first-year classes, and it does not seem to allow for students to initiate independent work outside of classes for their Division I portfolio.” Independent study is not explicitly listed as an option for Division I electives.This is not coincidental; in that very same Climax article, Sue Darlington, the then Dean of Advising, is quoted, saying that the intention of the plan is to “change the culture on campus so that students realize the importance of coursework.”

I asked Darlington about this quote recently, and she said, “... what I had said was taken out of context. I’m afraid I cannot now, 13 years later, explain that context… I have always been in favor of independent studies, as long as they are designed closely with faculty supervisors… I also think that my quote is not against the quote you raise here from the New College Plan. Stating that coursework is important is not the same as saying it is ‘the unit of knowledge.’”

While her assessment is fair — emphasizing the importance of coursework does not necessarily negate other forms of learning — the current Division I program does undermine Hampshire’s central goal is to “develop and sustain a style of life which will make it habitual for students to work together in groups, and individually, without constant recourse to the faculty” (From The Making of a College, Longsworth & Patterson) by inherently limiting the amount of self-directed, peer-based, or informal learning students can participate in (for credit) during their first year at Hampshire.

To be fair, the new First Year Program may have saved Hampshire. In the year before the program was implemented (2001), 45% of students left after their first year. In 2014, only 18% of students left after first year. While correlation does not prove causation, it does make sense that providing more structure in Division I might help students adjust to Hampshire’s pedagogy and find encouragement in academic success during their first year.

Still, no self-study has been conducted to determine whether the first year program is adequately preparing students to complete independent projects in Divisions II and III.  In response to the changes to Division I, Re-Radicalize Hampshire wrote:  

We believe this institution has been losing its way by slowly becoming less and less unique through reducing its commitment to independent work. Our protest is born of genuine care and love for Hampshire College. The latest Division-1 development has nearly eliminated independent work from the structure in the First-Year Program, without replacing it or encouraging it elsewhere in the Hampshire divisional system prior to Division-3. Without such preparation, will students have the skills and experience necessary to meet the demands of independent work of Division-3? What is happening to the expectation of independence of thought on which Hampshire was founded?

Re-Radicalize Hampshire’s questions have gone unanswered for over a decade. This spring, Hampshire will graduate its tenth cohort of Division IIIs who experienced the new Division I requirements. Were we better prepared than our predecessors for the challenges of Division III? Did we receive the education that we were promised? Is Hampshire still the innovative and experimental institution it was founded to be? Is the college still challenging conventions of higher education? Are we, the students, still “capable of far more independence” than our current system teaches and demands?

In a 1974 article in Change, two members of Hampshire’s first class, Peter Bloch and Nancy Nylen, reflect on Hampshire College’s struggle to stay true to its innovative educational model amidst pressure to conform to more traditional aspects of liberal arts education. Bloch and Nylen argue that Hampshire College has the frustrating task of finding a middle ground between conventional patterns and objectives of undergraduate education and “experimentation with new perspectives on learning.”

As Hampshire continues to grow, it is important to assess how well we inhabit that middle ground. In the words of Bloch and Nylen, “We hope the forces that push Hampshire into a more conventional mold can be resisted, so that the students who follow us can have experiences as fruitful and rewarding as ours.”

If you believe that Hampshire should continue to resist that forces that push it toward a more conventional learning environment, contact our student EPC representatives, Dalton Lewis (dcl12) and Grayson Sweeney (jgc12). EPC makes space to hear from the student representatives as this committee affects us, the students, the most.

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