In America, a college education was once viewed as the path to informed citizenship, with the emphasis on the acquisition of a broad culture and an ethical view of the world. The GI Bill helped young Americans get the preparation they needed not only to face the future, but to shape it for the good of the country and the world. Now, however, as many commentators have noted, higher education is increasingly seen as a private rather than a public good – a notion that is implicitly used to justify the reductions in government support of the past several years. At a time when it is clear that the United States and the world need a thoughtful and ethical citizenry with an historical understanding of society and a compassionate outlook, the prevailing sense seems unfortunately to be that the value of a college degree accrues principally to the person receiving it and much less so to the society in which that person lives and works.
This shift in perception is inconsistent with how we view – and traditionally have viewed – our responsibility as educators at Hamilton College. In our earliest days, when liberal arts colleges were the primary route to civic engagement, Hamilton produced many of our nation’s influential educators, abolitionists, ministers, legislators and judges, and members of the faculty created and transmitted knowledge and contributed to the advancement of new ideas and understanding. As the country matured and the United States began to emerge on the world stage, Hamilton alumni used their diplomatic skills for the benefit of the republic. This fall we celebrate the centennial of the 1912 Nobel Peace Prize awarded to 1864 Hamilton graduate Elihu Root, and our current students benefit from the perspective of Christian A. Johnson Distinguished Professor of Global Political Theory Ned Walker ’62, who served as United States ambassador to Israel, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates.
Individually through its graduates and faculty, and institutionally through its actions and policies, Hamilton continues to regard higher education as a public good. Our mission – preparing graduates for lives of meaning and purpose so that they can contribute to the world they inhabit – has never been more essential, and our approach has remained constant for two centuries: putting talented students in contact with gifted educators and providing them with the tools and facilities to do important work.
For example, the Ruth and Elmer Wellin Museum of Art opens this fall. With its contemporary design and classical proportions, its pedagogically oriented staff and open archives, the museum will encourage experiential learning, interdisciplinary research and an appreciation of the interrelatedness of objects, people and events. Along with the theatre and studio arts complex scheduled for completion in 2014, the Wellin will support an ambitious program in the visual and the performing arts for Hamilton students with majors all across the curriculum. At the same time, Hamilton is addressing a national priority. Since the opening of the Taylor Science Center eight years ago, we have seen a significant increase in enrollments, research opportunities and majors in the sciences. Moreover, our college is consistently among the top 10 in the country for the percentage of graduates with a degree in mathematics.
We were honored to have John Wesley Chandler, Hamilton’s 15th president, speak at Convocation in August. President Chandler made an eloquent case for both the transcendence and the practicality of liberal arts education. We equip young men and women not just to enter the world but to change it, so the educational horizon for our students is not four years, but four-score years. We are not simply preparing them for graduate school or that first job after graduation, but for a lifetime of leadership and service in their communities.
We believe that the privilege of a Hamilton education comes with the expectation that those who receive it will use the knowledge, experience and skills they acquire on College Hill to do good. For that reason, each August our first-year and transfer students perform community service as part of their orientation to Hamilton. We require this of new students because we want them to understand that they are part of a larger community and because we agree with the late Professor of Philosophy Russell Blackwood that the habits formed on College Hill are likely to last a lifetime. Indeed, for many of our students, service is habit-forming.
Our decision a few years ago to adopt a need-blind admission policy was made to ensure that no qualified student destined to make a difference would be excluded from Hamilton on the basis of financial need. At the same time, investments in our academic offerings, in the latest technology and modern facilities, in the Maurice Horowitch Career Center, and in programs such as the Arthur Levitt Public Affairs Center help ensure that our graduates are prepared effectively and positioned well for leadership and service.
Hamilton has been given extraordinary resources because our alumni and friends recognize that our students are meant to do great things. Investing in the education of a Hamilton student is an investment in the future of our country and our world. I hope that you feel as privileged as I do to be a part of this noble effort, and I thank you for your loyalty and your support of the College.
Joan Hinde Stewart