The '60s live on in rural New England

August 18, 2000

Long-haired students in colourful loose clothing and bare feet navigate a campus of brick and precast concrete buildings papered with handmade notices advertising poetry slams and lectures on such topics as the prospects for disarmament. Some are adorned with peace signs.

One-third of the student body has just returned from a demonstration in Washington, where several were arrested.

This is no flashback to the 1960s. But Hampshire College in rural New England is perhaps a throwback. What distinguishes the college is not only the iconoclasts it attracts, but the thing that has been drawing them here for exactly 30 years this autumn - a radical model of interdisciplinary education based on the University of Sussex and other British universities founded in the 1960s.

It is a model that is suddenly back in vogue in the United States. As careerism and the high cost of tuition drives more students to design their own areas of study, many mainstream universities are discovering interdisciplinary education. "I read the competition's brochures and they've found the truth," said Hampshire president Gregory Prince, Jr.

Hampshire was created from four neighbouring traditional universities, appointing a committee of faculty to do nothing less than re-examine liberal arts education. "It is a widely held conviction among liberal arts faculties," the committee's report read, "that our students are capable of far more independence than they exercise in present college programmes."

The committee proposed a new school based on Sussex, whose "emphasis on educating individuals for contemporary life and problems" they admired.

In 1965, a wealthy philanthropist donated money for the college, which opened in autumn 1970. "When people say it was an exciting adventure to start a college, that is true," said Raymond Coppinger, a Hampshire professor of biology. "Everything was happening at once in those days. The emergence of the women's movement, civil rights, all of these things were incorporated."

What really set Hampshire apart, however, was its means of education, an individualistic system without academic concentrations, examinations or even departments.

Instead there are five schools: cognitive science; humanities, arts and cultural studies; natural science; social science; and the catch-all school of interdisciplinary arts. Hampshire students study in at least three of these five schools, by either taking courses or conducting independent research towards a project, which can be a written paper, a film, an art exhibition, a performance or some other final product.

Students mix academic disciplines in extraordinary new ways. They have combined genetics and philosophy to study human gene therapy; biology and technology to develop new technological means of composting; physical anthropology and geology to learn what teeth tell us about nutrition.

"In the real world, things don't follow a catalogue of courses," said Leslie Cox, a member of the Hampshire faculty. "They are a mix. Students can see that an interest of theirs doesn't have to be a single academic subject."

But Hampshire is not suitable for everyone and about one-third of students drop out - compared with the national average of about 26 per cent. Students who do graduate are not assigned conventional letter grades, but instead a transcript of achievement running to 25 pages - compared with the two-page transcripts that accompany grades from traditional US universities.

Dr Prince said he sees Hampshire as an ideal. He wants to "Hampshirise" US higher education. "It's what education ought to be. The energy of the 1960s is preserved here."

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