Hope for Hamilton College · 27 October 2006
By The New Criterion--10/27/06
Regular readers will recall that over the years we have had some reasonably tart things to say about Hamilton College, the elite liberal arts institution in Clinton, New York. Back in 2002, there was the affair of Annie Sprinkle, the "post-porn" ex-prostitute-turned-performance-artist who had been invited to campus to instruct students in the use of sex toys and other extracurricular arcana. At the end of 2004, there was the affair of Susan Rosenberg. This former member of the Weather Underground, one of the most violent of the radical anti-American groups of the 1960s, had served sixteen years of a fifty-eight-year prison term when Bill Clinton commuted her sentence shortly before leaving office. She was invited to Hamilton as an "artist- and activist-in-residence" to teach a seminar called "Resistance Memoirs: Writing, Identity and Change." Then, of course, there was the notorious affair of Ward Churchill, the "ethnic studies" professor who had compared the victims of the 9/11 terrorist attacks to Nazi bureaucrats: who better to invite to Hamilton to address the students?
As we noted at the time, associated with all of these essays in pedagogical irresponsibility was the Kirkland Project, a bastion of rancid left-wing activism at Hamilton. In the wake of the nationwide scandal over Ward Churchill, the Kirkland Project finally reaped some of the obloquy it deserved. The college, together with the protagonists of the Kirkland Project, engaged in some ostentatious soul-searching. The result was a long-winded report and, in place of a change of heart, a change of name to-it is almost too good to be true, but it is true-the Diversity and Social Justice Project. There you have it: slightly repackaged sclerotic anti-American leftism-that is to say, business as usual in academia.
The clock is ticking on those moribund purlieus, however. Things are undoubtedly bad in academia, but lately rays of hope have been peeking out over the landscape at more and more campuses. We think of the Madison Center at Princeton University, which under the guidance of Robert George has created a vibrant institution- within-an-institution to which students and scholars are flocking, much to the chagrin of the politically correct professoriate at Princeton. We think of the fledgling Center for the American Founding at Amherst College, which under Hadley Arkes promises to end one-party intellectual rule in the People's Republic of Amherst. Mirabile dictu, the latest piece of good news comes from Hamilton College, where a small group of dissenting faculty, disgusted with the pedagogical Stalinism that had taken root there, have countered with the creation of the Alexander Hamilton Center for the Study of Western Civilization. Announced last month, the new center is dedicated to promoting "excellence in scholarship through the study of freedom, democracy, and capitalism as these ideas were developed and institutionalized in the United States and within the larger tradition of Western culture."
It is clear that the organizers of the Hamilton Center put a lot of thought into its intellectual ambitions. In general, we have a certain allergy to "mission statements"-framing them is generally an invitation to vacuousness-but the mission statement of the Hamilton Center's charter is a welcome exception. The new center, we read,
proceeds under the premise that the reasoned study of Western civilization, its distinctive achievements as well as its distinctive failures, will further the search for truth and provide the ethical basis necessary for civilized life. The [Center] aspires to create an educational environment of the highest standards in which evidence and argument prevail over ideology and cant… . Thus, for a serious liberal arts college, no more vital understanding of diversity exists than that which would promote intellectual diversity. The proper ends of education imply variegated approaches to the acquisition of knowledge and to the cultivation of intelligence. A liberal arts graduate, properly trained, should possess not only an enhanced capacity to distinguish between career and the good life, but the ability to manage with honesty and dignity the often conflicting claims imposed on adulthood by nature, society, and environment. The great books of Western civilization conserve a distinctive intellectual and spiritual tradition.
When was the last time you saw something like that coming out of an American college or university? Imagine: aiming to foster "the highest standards in which evidence and argument prevail over ideology and cant." Isn't that discriminatory? Aren't all arguments, at bottom, ideological? What is "evidence," anyway, except the favored rationales of the ruling class? Et cetera, we need hardly say, et cetera.
One of the most thoughtful aspects of the Hamilton Center's charter is the way its framers have endeavored to ensure that the Center not fall prey to the usual academic bureaucratic imperatives. An "advisory council," made up of "at least twenty distinguished scholars and public intellectuals," will ensure that the Center is constantly exposed to fresh ideas from outside the ranks of the Hamilton faculty. Such outside influence is anathema to most academics, of course-the reigning assumption in the academy is that public accountability is tantamount to a violation of academic freedom-but here, too, the framers of the Hamilton Center's charter offer a refreshing objection, welcoming public scrutiny and rejecting "as dangerous the pretense that campus life should be immured from the outside world."
We suppose it goes without saying that even the prospect of such an alternative at Hamilton College sent the college's bien pensant faculty-that is, all but a handful of the faculty-into paroxysms of fear and loathing. As an editorial in the student newspaper noted, the Center "has already generated a campus stir… . Our overwhelmingly liberal campus generally finds this offensive and has formed an opinion about the Center without very much information." Committee X rushed to raise questions about how appointments would be made while Committee Y demanded to know where its funding would be coming from. Members of the Diversity and Social Justice Project-what a pathetic lot!-wasted no time in attacking the Center and "expressed broad concerns about the degree of influence of outside groups on the governance and programs" at Hamilton.
The Alexander Hamilton Center for the Study of Western Civilization, we predict, is a harbinger of good things coming and to come on American campuses. On the occasion of the announcement of the Hamilton Center's creation, its first director, the historian Robert Paquette, spoke of his intention "to build an edifice that will stand the test of time and serve as a beacon light for scholarship and high standards among this country's elite liberal arts colleges." As of this writing, the Hamilton Center exists primarily as an ambition. To become a reality, it will require funding. Some of that money should come from Hamilton College. Some will have to come from the public. If you want to make a difference in higher education, skip the usual check to your alma mater's alumni fund: such donations are generally a vote for a discredited status quo. Send your check instead to the Hamilton Center. Not only will your money really make a difference, it will make a difference in the right direction.
Founded in 1982, The New Criterion is a lively, monthly review of the arts and intellectual life.