Sections Supplements

Not Just Knowing, but Doing

Hampshire College Thrives by Letting Students Take Charge
Aaron Berman

Aaron Berman says Hampshire College requires students to take an active role in deciding the course of their education — and, in turn, their future.

“If we look back at the history of our country, the things we celebrate are outside the mainstream,” a graduate of Hampshire College said — a man who has a better feel for American history than most.

“Much of the world operated under a tyrannical model,” he continued, “but Americans said, ‘we will govern ourselves.’ So, too, Hampshire asked, at its founding, the difficult questions of how we might educate ourselves.”

The speaker was the noted filmmaker Ken Burns, one of Hampshire College’s earliest graduates, who has produced landmark documentaries on the Civil War, baseball, World War II, and American jazz, just to name a few subjects.

He began learning his craft at a college without majors, grades, or — at the time — a proven track record. Almost four decades later, it has the latter, as well as an impressive roster of graduates who have gone on to outside-the-box careers in such diverse fields as science, medicine, engineering, aeronautics, literature, music, and film.

Alas, if you prefer majors and graded papers, you still have to look elsewhere.

Hampshire College, a small campus located on Route 116 in Amherst, just north of Atkins Farms, was born of an idea. In 1958, the presidents of Amherst College, Mount Holyoke College, Smith College, and UMass Amherst appointed a committee to rethink the traditional practices of liberal arts education.

The committee’s report contained many of the ideas that became the foundation for Hampshire’s unique academic framework upon its opening in 1970 — among them, an emphasis on each student’s curiosity and independent motivation; close mentoring relationships with faculty; and broad, multi-disciplinary, often outside-the-classroom learning.

“In many ways, we’re an elite, liberal-arts college,” Hampshire’s president, Ralph Hexter, told BusinessWest. “In other ways, we’re like many businesses. The onus is on the students to be self-directed in their work. I often say we ask students to be the entrepreneurs of their own education.”

Hampshire College boasts several household names on its alumni roll, including Burns, movie actor Liev Schreiber (Scream, The Manchurian Candidate), and nonfiction author Jon Krakauer (Into the Wild, Into Thin Air).

But plenty of lesser-known names are doing important work outside the mainstream, like Justin Carven (class of ’00), who founded Greasecar Vegetable Fuel Systems, an Easthampton-based company that converts diesel engines to run on vegetable oil; Paul McCraven (’74), a banker who helps develop at-risk urban areas into economically thriving communities; and Roberta Uno (’75), who founded New WORLD Theater, an Amherst-based stage that produces and presents dramatic works by and for people of color.

Examples such as these, said Hexter, are not just careers, but answers to needs — the kinds of problems that students on this progressive-minded campus think about every day.

Not Enough

The Latin motto of Hampshire College — non satis scire — means, simply, ‘it is not enough to know,’ Hexter explained. “The implication is that we need to go beyond knowing to doing.” That means taking charge of one’s own education from the first week onward — in an academic framework so uncommon that it could give traditionalists an allergic reaction.

Students work toward a bachelor’s degree by completing three levels of study known as ‘divisions.’ The first, Division I, typically covers the first three semesters. During that time, students complete eight courses, including at least one from each of the school’s five interdisciplinary schools, and work with faculty advisers to develop a plan for the rest of their college career.

“Our goal in Division I is to expose students to a broad array of opportunities at the college,” said Aaron Berman, vice president and dean of faculty. “The courses we offer first-year students actually resemble junior-senior seminar courses, rather than ‘introduction-to-whatever’ courses. We want these courses to have an inquiry-based model of education.”

He used an example from his own teaching field, history. A typical Division I course, he said, won’t cover huge swaths of American or world history and solely require students to regurgitate other historians’ work. Instead, he will focus on a specific topic — World War II, for instance — and start to develop in students the writing tools and research skills needed to be their own historians.

“We throw a lot of different kinds of assignments at them,” he said. “For instance, early on in the course, I’ll ask them to go to one of the libraries in the Valley and look at two or three consecutive issues of any newspaper or magazine published during World War II. They can use anything they want — photos, ads, even comic strips — and based on that source and nothing else, I want them to tell me something about American society during that period.

“It requires them to do what historians do — look at primary sources, determine what they mean, and tell an audience what they mean,” Berman continued. “It gives them a sense that history is put together by real people, and I think it makes them better critics of what they hear and read.”

In Division II, which runs through junior year, students develop a plan of study for their concentration by developing, along with faculty sponsors, an individually tailored program of courses, independent work, and often internships and field studies. Many students go overseas at some point in this process, to places as far-flung as India, China, and Latin America.

“Division II requires students to be more active in their education,” said Berman. “They’re not just deciding a major; they have to be an agent in their own education, and they have to be able to explain it to others.” Students must file a contract for their study plan with their faculty advisers, and that contract may be revised over time as their interests evolve.

Senior year is Division III, during which students complete a major independent study project centered on a specific topic, question, or idea.

“People tell me that Hampshire College taught them to do what they had no idea how to do,” Hexter said. “It’s not just about lectures and passing a course. There are no off-the-shelf majors where you just choose one thing from column A and another from column B. Our students have to define their own learning goals, take the initiative, and put that forward to their advisers.”

In other words, he said, it’s a study model that gives graduates an edge in the career world, as they’ve done more than studied a subject — they’ve already accomplished something in their field.

Speak Your Peace

Berman said Hampshire College offers “something special” in its model, and in turn attracts an eclectic batch of students who are naturally open to new ideas.

“Our students tend to be inquisitive and creative — we tend to draw a lot of students interested in the arts — and they tend to have strong opinions,” he said. “One of the enjoyable things about working here is that the students challenge me. They don’t take your word for it. They’ll ask you hard questions; if you assert something and it doesn’t sound right to them, they’ll come back at you. They’re gutsy. I like that.”

Students across the Five College spectrum have a reputation for being more politically progressive than the typical collegian, but Berman said even minority opinions aren’t stifled. He cited one of his own courses, a study of the history of Israeli and Palestinian nationalism, which is typically a well-attended class filled with students who bring strong opinions into the room on day one.

“But the students are unbelievably respectful of each other,” he said. “I’m not saying they’ll agree in the end and hug and kiss, but they listen. I came into the course thinking there would be a lot of arguments, but it’s kind of hard to fight when you see the perspective from each side.”

That doesn’t surprise Hexter, who believes that allowing each student to have a strong voice only improves the conversation — and the college.

“I feel like the world, more than ever, needs a place where students can be completely unique,” he said. “There’s so much drive for uniformity today that, for me, this college is more important now than it was 35 years ago.

“Some people don’t see the point in putting so much effort into your own program,” he added, “but there are a host of students who want to know why they’re learning something and take responsibility for themselves. I’m always completely overwhelmed by what they accomplish.”

Hexter said he wants to see Hampshire College become more international — both attracting more foreign students and continuing to promote independent studies overseas. But he also sees a shift on the horizon that will impact all colleges and universities.

“I see us having more of a future orientation,” he said. “Education has traditionally been about mastering the past. But the liberal arts has reached a turning point. We don’t want to forget the past, and we want to learn as much as we can from it, but we need to be more future-oriented.

“There are so many challenges for us to solve,” he continued, “whether it’s environmental sustainability or learning to live with one another in a world that’s more diverse all the time because of the movement of people and information.”

In other words, to make the world a better place — and wait for future generations to hand out the grades.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at

[email protected]

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