alternative curriculum

Hampshire College

Hampshire College is a private liberal arts college located in Amherst, Massachusetts. It was founded in 1970 as an experiment in alternative education, to be in association with four other colleges in the Pioneer Valley: Amherst College, Smith College, Mount Holyoke College, and the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Together they are now known as the Five Colleges.

The College is widely known for its alternative curriculum, its focus on portfolios rather than distribution requirements, and its reliance on narrative evaluations instead of grades and GPAs. It is known particularly for facilitating the study of film, theater, and the visual arts. In some fields it is among the top undergraduate institutions in graduate-school enrollment: fifty-six percent of its alumni have at least one graduate degree and it is ranked 30th among all US colleges in the percentage of its graduates who go on to attain a doctorate degree (notably 1st among history doctorates), when adjusted for institutional size. Its School of Cognitive Science was the first interdisciplinary undergraduate program in cognitive science and still has few peers.

Hampshire is also part of the SAT optional movement for undergraduate admission.


Hampshire College describes itself as "experimenting" rather than "experimental" in order to emphasize the continually changing nature of its curriculum. However, from its inception the curriculum has generally had certain non-traditional features:

  • An emphasis on project work as well as, or instead of, courses.
  • Detailed written evaluations (as well as portfolio evaluations) for completed courses and projects, rather than letter or number grades.
  • A curriculum centered on student interests, with students taking an active role in designing their own concentrations and projects.
  • An emphasis on independent motivation and student organization, both within and without the college's formal curriculum.

The curriculum is divided into three "Divisions" rather than four years, and students complete these Divisions in varying amounts of time. The administration has recently made efforts to encourage students to stick more closely to the traditional 4 year model by requiring three semesters be spent in Division I, three semesters be spent in Division II, and that Division III be completed in a year. There is at present a student enrolled at Hampshire who has been Division III for four semesters, and is returning for a fifth, which shall make him a 7th Year student.

  • Division I, the distribution stage, requires students to complete one course in each of the five "Schools of Thought" and three other courses, either on or off campus. (Until fall 2002, Division I required student-directed independent projects; the new system, designed with the goal of quicker and smoother student progress, has caused a great deal of controversy on campus.)
  • Division II requires students to complete "two full years" of course work in their selected area(s) of study (which may or may not be traditional academic fields.) Most students combine related subject matter to form an interdisciplinary concentration such as "The chemistry of oil painting." Still, some choose to concentrate in multiple areas without drawing such connections, instead simply concentrating in "Both Chemistry and Oil Painting." Some students, but perhaps the minority, complete an in depth concentration in one field only. Each student is responsible for designing their own Division II in cooperation with a committee of at least two faculty members (who must give their approval). Many students choose a faculty committee whose members represent their own interdisciplinary interests. The Division II requirements also include a community service project and a multicultural perspectives requirement.
  • Division III, the advanced project, requires students to complete an in-depth project in their field of choice (which is generally related to the Division II field). Division III usually lasts one year and is completed while taking few or no courses, but two "advanced learning activities," which might be courses, internships or specific independent studies, and may or may not be related to the Division III, are required. A Division III topic can be a long written academic paper (in which case it is best considered as something between a traditional college's "bachelor's" or "honors" thesis and a Master's or other graduate thesis), but it can also be a collection of creative work (writing, painting, photography, and film are popular choices) or a hands-on engineering, invention, or social organizing project.

The Hampshire College faculty are organized not in traditional departments but in broadly defined Schools - though these Schools function much as Departments do at a traditional liberal arts college. The Schools' names and definitions have varied over the College's history, but there have always been between three and five of them. As of 2005, the Schools are:

  • Cognitive Science (CS): includes linguistics, most psychology, some philosophy, neuroscience, and computer science.
  • Humanities, Arts, and Cultural Studies (HACU): includes film, some studio arts, literature, media studies, and most philosophy.
  • Social Science (SS): includes most sociology and anthropology, economics, history, politics, and some psychology.
  • Natural Science (NS): includes most traditional sciences, mathematics, and biological anthropology.
  • Interdisciplinary Arts (IA): includes performing arts, some studio arts, and creative writing.


Though the college opened to students in 1970, its history dates to the immediate aftermath of World War II. The first The New College Plan was drafted in 1958 by the presidents of the then-Four Colleges; it was revised several times as the serious planning for the College began in the 1960s. Many original ideas for non-traditional ways of arranging the College's curriculum, campus, and life were discarded along the way, but many new ideas generated during the planning process were not described in the original documents.

For several years in the early 1970s, directly after its founding, Hampshire College was among the most selective undergraduate programs in the United States (Making of a College 307-310). Its selectivity declined thereafter, but the school's applications increased in the late 1990s, making admissions more difficult. The College's selectivity in admissions is now comparable to that of many other small liberal arts colleges.

The school has struggled with financial difficulties since its founding, and ceasing operations or folding into the University of Massachusetts Amherst were seriously considered at various points. Today the school is on more solid financial footing (though still without a sizable endowment), a condition often credited to the fundraising efforts of its most recent past presidents, Adele Simmons and Gregory S. Prince, Jr. The College has also distinguished itself recently with plans for the future including a "sustainable campus plan" and a "cultural village" through which organizations not directly affiliated with the school are located on its campus. Currently this "cultural village" includes the National Yiddish Book Center and the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art.

On April 1, 2004, Prince announced his retirement, effective at the end of 2004-05 academic year. On April 5, 2005, the Board of Trustees named Ralph Hexter, formerly a dean at University of California, Berkeley's College of Letters and Science, as the college's next president, effective August 1, 2005. President Hexter was officially inaugurated in a ceremony on October 15, 2005. This appointment made Hampshire one of a small number of colleges and universities in the United States to have an openly gay president.

Some of the most important founding documents of Hampshire College are collected in the book The Making of a College (MIT Press, 1967; ISBN 0-262-66005-9). The Making of a College is (as of 2003) out of print but available in electronic form from the Hampshire College Archives A new edition is rumored to be in progress.

In recent years however the school has taken several steps in an effort to expand the school and attract more academically conventional students. The most significant change was a revision of the Division I program for first year students. Before the fall of 2002, Division I traditionally consisted of four major exams, one in each of the academic departments and/or quantitative analysis. These exams took one of three forms: a "two-course option", where a student could take two sequential courses; a "one-plus-one", where a Hampshire course supplements an outside course (AP score of a four or five, or a summer college class); or a project, which usually consists of a primary or significant secondary research paper, or an art production (a short film, a sculpture, etc.), and which stems from previous coursework. Students were required to complete at least two project-based exams, while transfer students were usually waived one project requirement. In fall of 2002, the new first-year program was started in response to high numbers of second and third year students who had not completed Division I. The new program mandates eight courses in the first year, at least one in each of the five schools. This reduces the required work for passing Division I significantly, as up to 10 courses could be required under the older system.

Current issues


In the spring of 2004, a student group calling itself the Re-Radicalization of Hampshire College (Re-Rad) emerged with a manifesto called The Re-Making of a College, which critiques what they see as a betrayal of Hampshire's founding ideas in alternative education and student-centered learning. On May 3, 2004, the group staged a demonstration which packed the hall outside the President's office during an administrative meeting. Response from the community has generally been amicable and Re-Rad has made some progress.

The Re-Radicalization movement is responding in part to a new "First-Year Plan" entailing changes to the structure of the first year of study in the curriculum. Beginning in the Fall of 2002, the requirements for passing Division I were changed so that first-year students would no longer be required to complete independent projects (see Curriculum above). Though presently a major source of contention, this change is rapidly fading from memory as most of the students who entered into the old plan have graduated or are in their final year. Re-Rad submitted its own counter-proposal in both 2006 and 2007; however, these proposals were not followed, and no follow-up was attempted.

The Re-Radicalization of Hampshire College assisted the administration in launching a pilot program known as 'mentored independent study'. In it, ten third semester students were paired with Division III students with similar academic interests to complete a small study, all under the observation, and subject to the approval, of a faculty member. The program was adjudged a success and has now been permanently institutionalized.

While some students worry about what they see as Hampshire's headlong plunge into normality, the circumstances of Hampshire's founding tends to perennially attract students who revive the questions about education on which the institution was founded and challenge the administration to honor them. Unsurprisingly, then, Re-Rad was not the first student push of its type. Efforts like it have sprung up at Hampshire with some regularity throughout the years, with varying degrees of impact. In 1996, for example, student Chris Kawecki spearheaded a similar push called the Radical Departure, calling for a more holistic, organic integration of education into students' lives. The most durable legacy of the Radical Departure was EPEC, a series of student-led non-credit courses.

A more detailed account of movements such as these can be found in the history of Hampshire student activities written by alum Timothy Shary, now a faculty member at Clark University.

In the media

Despite its small size and short history, Hampshire has made its own mark on pop culture and political activism. Its annual Halloween party, referred to by some as "Trip or Treat" for its historically widespread use of psychedelic drugs, was once profiled by Rolling Stone magazine.

Hampshire was the first college in the nation to decide to divest from apartheid South Africa in 1979 (with the nearby University of Massachusetts Amherst rapidly coming second). Legal and Financial research undertaken by student Michael Current and faculty member Kurtis Gordon was promoted nationally by business activists Douglas Tooley and Debbie Knight.

In November 2001, a controversial All-Community Vote at Hampshire declared the school opposed to the recently-launched War on Terrorism, another national first which drew national media attention, including scathing reports from Rupert Murdoch's FOX News Channel and the New York Post ("Kooky College Condemns War"). Saturday Night Live had a regular sketch, "Jarrett's Room", starring Jimmy Fallon which purports to take place at Hampshire College but is grossly inaccurate, referring to non-existent buildings ("McGuin Hall") and featuring yearbooks, tests, seniors, fraternities, 3-person dorm rooms, and a football team, none of which have ever existed at the school (although in the Fall 2005 and 2007 semesters the college experienced a higher than expected number of freshmen and temporarily had to convert some of the common spaces into 3-person dorms). The sketch further seemed to think that the college was actually in New Hampshire (a common mistake).

Alumnus Ken Burns wrote of the college: "Hampshire College is a perfect American place. If we look back at the history of our country, the things we celebrate were outside of the mainstream. Much of the world operated under a tyrannical model, but Americans said, 'We will govern ourselves.' So, too, Hampshire asked, at its founding, the difficult questions of how we might educate ourselves... When I entered Hampshire, I found it to be the most exciting place on earth." Loren Pope wrote of Hampshire in the college guide Colleges That Change Lives: "Today no college has students whose intellectual thyroids are more active or whose minds are more compassionately engaged." In 2006, the Princeton Review named Hampshire College one of the nation’s "best value" undergraduate institutions in its book "America’s Best Value Colleges".

Alumni and faculty

Notable alumni

Fictional alumni

Notable past and present faculty

Presidents of the college

See also



  • Alpert, Richard M. "Professionalism and Educational Reform: The Case of Hampshire College." Journal of Higher Education 51:5 (Sept.-Oct. 1980), pp. 497-518.
  • Dressel, Paul L. Review of The Making of a College: Plans for a New Departure in Higher Education. Journal of Higher Education 38:7 (Oct. 1967), pp. 413-416.
  • Kegan, Daniel L. "Contradictions in the Design and Practice of an Alternative Organization: The Case of Hampshire College." Journal of Applied Behavioral Science 17:1 (1987), pp. 79-97.
  • Pope, Loren. "Hampshire College." In Colleges That Change Lives. New York: Penguin, 2006.

External links

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