Schools I Love

menu_01I love school. I really do. I know not everyone is lucky enough to have had the school experience I’ve had, and let me point out, if it makes you feel better, that my first thirteen years of school were pretty hellish. I had some good, solidly wild, purely inventive years in high school. But before that, it was just an endless barrage of brutal schooling. I say this as a kid who was as privileged as it got in that setting. I was tracked since kindergarten, put in every advanced program available to my public school, and had a few really good teachers. Still, I was vividly aware that 80% of the kids in that education factory would never be given the chances I had. I hated it, both for what it was and for what it removed me from.

When I was seventeen, I discovered Hampshire College, which had sent a brochure to my best friend (who eventually ended up at art school). Hampshire doesn’t use letter grades, doesn’t care about SAT scores, doesn’t use tests, has no required classes, has almost no dorm rooms that require you to have roommates (single rooms were a big criteria of mine), and is located in the midst of forest and farmland in idyllic Western Massachusetts. The ‘idyllic’ part unnerved me; I hated how elitist and removed from real life college seemed to be. But Hampshire offered me aid and promised I could take as much leave of absence as I wanted. So off I went, into thickly forested academia and ultimately into the educational utopia of my dreams.

You would think, right, that since Hampshire has no grades or tests that it must attract slackers who do nothing. And you’re right; it does attract slackers in the face of traditional education. I met an entire population of brilliant slackers and genius misfits. Still, the only way to graduate is to complete a series of projects, roughly over four years, under the guidance of a range of faculty sought out by the student. For the last two years of projects, committees of faculty must be formed to judge your work, and technically no classes are necessary to graduate. Classes are across-the-board excellent, however, and in lieu of a grade every student receives a narrative evaluation from the professor (who is addressed in class by first name only). The evaluation always includes, in detail, both what was done well by the student and what needs improvement. The effect of this kind of feedback is profound; it pushed me to work harder with every class and to absorb criticism constructively and aggressively (well, moreso than I had before, trust me). In the absence of an A+, there is no ceiling to learning. I never bothered to take a leave.

Hampshire uniformly teaches its students to develop a critical eye and an analytical mind. It was founded in 1970 by the four surrounding colleges (UMASS-Amherst, Smith College, Amherst College, and Mt. Holyoke), all of which felt that there were innumerable subjects their trustees and alumni considered too radical to teach but that needed to be taught nonetheless. Critical social theory, queer theory, thinking about law and justice in terms of race and culture, media analysis, experimental film and video, progressive science, postmodern political analysis, and radical approaches to studio art, music, theater, and dance are just some of the staples of the liberal arts education as Hampshire has redefined it. Together, the five colleges make up the Five-College Consortium, complete with a free range of cross-registration at all five schools and a free busing system (each school is no more than twenty minutes away from the others). I took courses in sociology and postmodern theory at Amherst, and at Mt. Holyoke I spent two years jumping horses.

Of course, some of the brightest people I know would have disliked attending Hampshire; it doesn’t propel everyone. It’s perfect only for a specific kind of person, one who thrives on zero structure, has an enduring interest in social equality, wants to become friends with their faculty members, and is willing and hungry to take responsibility for their own education. It made me love school. If you are this kind of person, maybe you should apply.

Cedar, what other schools do you love?

So, wouldn’t you think it was funny if, despite my fear of elitism, I ended up at Harvard University? But here I am, working on my Master’s in Education at the Graduate School of Education. My concentration is in Technology, which means that my work and my education are in the process of dovetailing perfectly. The Ed school is, as far as I can tell, very hands-on and hopeful about the future. During orientation they kept telling us to “go out and change the world,” which is an exciting and rather sweet thing to hear when you’ve written paper after paper on cynicism, removal, and the hyperreal. The Ed school aims to nurture diversity in the classroom, to cultivate inventiveness and to approach learning experientially.

While there, I was a cross-registrant in a cyberlaw course at the Harvard Law School, which made for a very influential few months of my life. Because of that course, which was both energizing and compelling, I’m now an affiliate of the Berkman Center for Internet & Society. They believe in open code, counter copyright, and hackers. You have to love them.