Best Kept College Secrets

Colleges for Real People

Hampshire College – Amherst, Massachusetts

Appearing soon in America’s Best Kept College Secrets – Third Edition

Here’s the problem in describing an experience such as Hampshire: Individuals respond VERY differently to a small, ideologically directed, intellectually diverse college in the woods. An academic program that encourages individual initiative and responsibility, the absence of formal grading reports, an openly radicalized student body – all promise a kind of intensity that differs from the conventional models of college life. For some, the location is part of the charm of the place; they love the outdoors and admire simplicity of living. For others, the distance from big-box stores and urban hoopla is overwhelming. Independent learners tend to have independent sorts of personalities and personalities can be quite large. Is there diversity at Hampshire? Of course, although a Tea Party Republican would find himself lightly regarded. All of the conventional trappings of the college experience are relatively muted at Hampshire; there are some sports – men and women compete in soccer, basketball, and cross-country, and ultimate frisbee is quite good – but frats, mascot, and letter sweaters are conspicuously absent.

What separates Hampshire from other small colleges in New England is its conviction that institutions don’t know all that is to be known. This is a college that describes itself as experimenting rather than experimental; its motto is To Know Is Not Enough. This on-going experimenting in education offers considerable fluidity to its students, but it also operates with considerable attention to the crafting of an academic community and presents its students with a rigorous (in some cases far more rigorous than at Ivy programs) course of study, the more demanding and significant, perhaps, in that each student has considerable authority in the crafting of his or her own education. As the descriptions of the curriculum will reveal, the sustaining elements of the Hampshire experiment include an emphasis on written evaluations rather than grades, a determination to honor students’ interests, lots of room for independent study and conjecture, and a preponderance of projects rather than tests, quizzes, and exams.

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