Dear Capital Campaign: Don’t Forget the Academics

When Henry Allen, a journalist and a Hamilton alum came to campus last week, he told us that the art of writing is dying. Taking a look around at some of the academic trends on the Hill, I could not help but wonder whether Hamilton College, a school with a quill for a weather vane, might be turning a blind eye.

Learning to communicate and think well are two of the most important tasks we ought to take up while at Hamilton. For well over a hundred years, Hamilton focused on teaching students precisely that. “Pure liberal arts,” blared the nine-page Life Magazine feature on Hamilton College in April, 1953, showcasing Hamilton’s broad academic focus and the typical “small-class size” we still have today.

Times and the curriculum have changed, in some ways for the better. But like it or not, it was the unusually intense academic experience of Hamilton that helped students make a name for their school, not the other way around.

Now President Stewart, the first in her family to go to college, is putting the finishing touches on her own legacy of opportunity. The most recent capital campaign pledges fully 90% of its returns to greater accessibility and outcomes, and the last 10% to education. The precise numbers are 70% to financial aid, 20% to the Career Center, and 10% to communication, to be precise.

The proposal promises to deliver on what probably seem like the most important moments of an education: the beginning and the end. Financial aid increases the number of people who can afford to attend Hamilton. The Career Center helps students find opportunities during college and, hopefully, a post-graduate opportunity. Most people will agree that these things tie the Hamilton college experience into a nice package, and it might very well be the case that they do, in fact, need more funding. 

Regardless, the campaign is a reminder that we cannot forget what is happening in between. 

Allen shed some light on the weaknesses in what is supposed to be our strongest skill. The truth is that while we know Hamilton’s curriculum does a good job of teaching students to write, Allen’s claims give reason to doubt that it does so on a nationally-leading level.

Allen said he and his classmates wrote roughly twice the number of papers that a writing-intensive class requires today, and that was before Hamilton had ever named itself the “writing” NESCAC.

Meanwhile, standardized composition courses no longer exist, and prospective students everywhere are wondering why a “national leader in teaching students to write” no longer has an English major. We have to work harder if we’re going to live up to our reputation.

The difficult but important task before us is to advance Hamilton’s ability to teach writing without backtracking on other worthy causes. In light of the capital campaign, we should acknowledge that greater accessibility and career services are a good thing. Financial aid diversifies the student body in a variety of ways that benefit everyone on campus. Ideally, one’s ability to afford school should not affect whether or not they attend. And the Career Center provides amazing support at all levels of the Hamilton experience.

But we need to make sure we are balancing these goals with a high quality of the education, given the money available.  We may be off kilter.  

But there is greater reason to believe the problem goes deeper than a single capital campaign, or even a series of capital campaigns disproportionately focused on accessibility or career services. The 2010 bicentennial initiative, for example, allocated the largest portion of money to accessibility, but more than half to other initiatives.

In other words, we need not blame accessibility or career services for the lack of writing focus.  Rather, it probably stems from the lack of standardization across departments inherent in the open curriculum.  Lab reports are intense, and they cultivate valuable writing skills, but one cannot possibly equate them to tried and true English, history, or philosophy papers, and there is nothing to prevent students from avoiding those altogether.

We can debate the merit of each department’s courses, but the open curriculum ultimately leads to the same logical absurdity every time: one cannot make any general claims about Hamilton students’ writing because there is absolutely nothing general about the way they learned to write.

Students benefit when they learn to make their own decisions. But as the so-called leader in teaching students to write, shouldn’t Hamilton be the last school in the country to leave it up to students to figure it out for themselves? I think we can do better, but not with our present curriculum.