Guest columnist Alex Kent: Tear down Hampshire College to rebuild it

  • Hampshire College graduates Sofia Arnold, left, and Kai Shabaka applaud during a speech by Jonathan Lash, who is the retiring president of the college, during commencement in 2018. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO/jERREY ROBERTS

Published: 2/27/2019 8:40:30 AM

It will be a sad day if Hampshire College is forced to close its doors, a process that seems to have already begun.

The college has been a valued leader in alternative approaches to higher education, offering project-based studies, divisions instead of class years, written evaluations instead of letter or numerical grades, creative approaches to campus life, and so on.

For nearly 50 years, Hampshire has opened students’ minds and promoted broader thinking about the world and its challenges. But now, as Hampshire faces an uncertain future that may or may not end in merger with another institution, it’s time to think of a new and bolder mission for the college.

I say, tear it down and rebuild it. Not the physical structure of the campus; those buildings are too numerous and valuable to fall to the wrecking ball and bulldozer. No: define a new purpose and new methods for a Hampshire education. I envision a school that recognizes students’ needs and matches those needs to the realities of the job market, both now and in the foreseeable future.

As part of my work, I visited two manufacturing plants a couple of years ago. One factory builds forklifts and the other fabricates power plant gas turbines. The plant managers at both facilities said they struggle to find workers with the skills, qualifications, and temperament to operate advanced tools to build technically-sophisticated products.

These plants are squarely located in the heavy industry sector, and they would seem to be worlds away from a small liberal arts college and its courses in liberal arts and sciences. And yet, a college and a factory have much to learn from each other. The factory demands discipline and application in the making of things, while the college calls for creativity and a deeper understanding of the social implications of the things that are made. The factory and the college need one another.

I think Hampshire College should be rebuilt as a place where students can learn real-world skills that are firmly grounded in studies in the humanities, social sciences, mathematics, physical sciences, and engineering theory.

At this reimagined Hampshire College, students could learn basic skills needed by electricians, welders, HVAC technicians, plumbers, software developers, designers and installers of photovoltaic systems, and so on. Some of these are traditional “trades” while others represent new and rapidly-expanding technologies.

Colleges have typically implied or expressed a condescending attitude toward these jobs. They have preferred to prepare students for more academic and intellectual pursuits. For example, if a college student is going to learn anything about welding, the acquisition of those complex skills might be incidental to creating metal sculpture as part of a fine arts program.

The newly-minted bachelor’s of fine arts graduate might use those skills to weld together the hull of a ship, but such an outcome would be more by accident than by design. Why not get a solid grounding in welding as a profession, secure good, well-paid employment, and then use those same skills for artistic creation?

A reimagined Hampshire College would be rigorous and demanding of its students and faculty. The college would insist that all its students build a firm foundation in the liberal arts. Students should become conversant in literature, history, the arts, mathematics, and the sciences.

They should be aware of the world’s great philosophical thought. They should be brought to an awareness of injustice, racism, sexism, colonialism, environmental depredation, and the complex systems of oppression that continue to hobble human evolution and wreak irreparable harm on the world we all share.

That kind of education should be a non-negotiable cornerstone of a Hampshire College education.

At the same time, students would be asked to identify a set of skills that they will work hard to acquire. The new college would need infrastructure to support this aspect of undergraduate education: Machine shops, advanced computing facilities, chemical and biochemical training laboratories, facilities to mock up assembly or processing lines.

The goal of a Hampshire education would be to produce students who are truly well-rounded members of society who can design, build, and maintain tools and products for the betterment of humanity. Graduates would be immensely attractive to employers because they have real-world, urgently-needed skills that are coupled to a deep understanding of how best to apply these skills.

Why is this important? Because whether one is an electrician, a software engineer, a community organizer, or robotics technician, it is vital for every working person in society to have a higher view of their role in society and what can and needs to be done to improve the world.

Lofty goals? Surely. But these are goals that must be embraced by every sector of society if the human race is to survive and not destroy the world we share.

Currently, Hampshire College stands on a financial precipice. Where would the funds — clearly an immense amount of capital — come from to retool the college? A strategic partnership with another education institution is a possibility, but I think that a better approach would be to connect to the corporate world. (In this connection, the college would need to set aside its apparent aversion to anything that smacks of “corporations.”)

The college could partner with deep-pocketed tech players like Google and Amazon. But it should also approach manufacturers like Ford, Boeing, United Technologies and others who need highly-skilled employees.

And don’t leave out the trade unions: Plumbers, carpenters, electrical workers. The unions have a major stake in ensuring a constant supply of tradespeople and new union members. Strong trade unions populated by skilled and well-informed union members are foundational to strong democracy.

And partnerships like these could go a long way to reducing Hampshire’s legendarily high tuition, making the college more affordable to more students.

Remake Hampshire College into a pipeline into all these areas of employment. Send into the workforce highly-skilled people who are equipped to think deeply about the meaning of their work to themselves and to the world at large.

This is how the Hampshire College of the future can help build a better world.

Alex Kent has been an Amherst resident since 2001.

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