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 toit is almost too good to be true, but it is truethe Diversity and Social Justice Project. There you have it: slightly repackaged sclerotic anti-American leftismthat 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 Peoples 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 statementsframing them is generally an invitation to vacuousnessbut the mission statement of the Hamilton Centers 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. Isnt that discriminatory? Arent 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 Centers 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 coursethe reigning assumption in the academy is that public accountability is tantamount to a violation of academic freedombut here, too, the framers of the Hamilton Centers 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 colleges bien pensant facultythat is, all but a handful of the facultyinto 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 Projectwhat 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 Centers 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 countrys 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 maters 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.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 25 Number 2, on page 1
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