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Perspectives on Hamilton's Educational Goals

Hamilton’s Educational Goals – An Overview

Heather Buchman, Associate Professor of Music

Hamilton College’s new educational goals, adopted by the faculty in May 2011, represent a new step in the College’s Open Curriculum.  In articulating Hamilton’s vision of the liberal arts, these goals preserve the freedom that the Open Curriculum offers students, while bringing greater focus and clarity to liberal arts studies within this context. The goals are designed to give students and faculty advisors a framework to help students define and shape their individual programs.

A central element of the philosophy underlying the goals is that they are organic rather than mechanical in nature. Instead of prescribing specific classes or subjects, they articulate the essential elements of a 21st century liberal education in terms of capacities to be developed. 

Another essential aspect is that the goals are transdisciplinary – each one is active across the curriculum, and hence can be cultivated within any field of study. This gives students maximum flexibility to determine how to build on their previous learning experiences with new ones, in a way that makes sense for their personal goals. The transdisciplinarity of the goals both reflects and facilitates Hamilton students’ instinct for making connections between ideas and concepts in courses from different fields. The goals also reveal connections between the curriculum and many co-curricular activities.

The structure of the educational goals reflects the wide scope of intellectual work being done across campus. The first goal, intellectual curiosity and flexibility, is the foundation on which all the other goals stand. The liberal arts’ traditional focus on critical thinking is elaborated in the paired goals of analytic and aesthetic discernment. Along with Hamilton’s historical strengths of writing and speaking (now expressed as communication and expression), emphasis is also given to other goals that are increasingly vital for today’s graduates – disciplinary practice and creativity. The goals flow naturally from individual capacities to the more outward-looking goals of understanding cultural diversity and ethical and engaged citizenship.

Taken together, the educational goals are intended to inspire students and professors alike to develop and work in multiple dimensions through their engagement in the liberal arts.

Allison Eck ’12

Hamilton’s Educational Goals resonate for me because they help me recognize connections between the seemingly disparate subjects that I study. I can observe, for example, that a particular 20th century composer and a philosopher of science were similar in that both encouraged creative divergence from standard method. Or I can exercise intellectual flexibility and see how Einstein’s theory of relativity helps elucidate the role of time in certain literary narratives.

The Goals also inspire me to approach subjects from multiple and unexpected angles. For example, when I’m slaving away at a tough physics problem set, I try to keep in mind the “prettiness” or aesthetics of my solution.  I might arrive at the correct answer, but my work could still be a garbled mess. But if I execute a “clean” approach, a more elegant and meaningful solution will follow.

The Educational Goals also help me to view my studies in comparative literature from a fresh perspective. While novels expose us to different experiences and emotions, they also call on the reader to engage our faculties of ethical awareness and analytic discernment. They impel us to probe characters’ minds and dissect complex social exchanges – being a reader, among other things, means being an ethicist and a problem-solver.

Finally, my involvement in the arts at Hamilton takes me deeper into the art of communication and expression and of practice. Music is about expressing what can’t be articulated in words; it’s also about the visceral reward of nailing that tricky passage on my clarinet, or hitting that high A on my French horn. Continuing to work on these skills opens me up to whole new ways of thinking that I can apply to other areas of my life.

Elizabeth J. Jensen, Professor of Economics

Intellectual curiosity, disciplinary practice, and communication are deeply embedded across all departments and programs, including those in social sciences. As I tell my students, it is important that they can recognize interesting issues and ask thoughtful questions, that they master problem-solving techniques appropriate for answering the questions, and that they can communicate with different audiences. 

It is easier to see the relation to the other five goals in some courses than in others. A student studying economics—looking at an issue like the recent financial crisis, for example—will learn how to use models, often expressed with graphs, to understand what factors affect the economy. Statistical analysis is fundamental to testing hypotheses empirically in economics. Hence, analytic discernment is central to economists’ way of thinking.

But some of the most interesting discussions—among faculty members, among students, between advisors and advisees—might be those that result from looking at the less obvious relationships between courses and goals.  To study developing economies, it is important to also learn about different cultural traditions and perspectives. To communicate effectively with policymakers, economists should think about the aesthetics of the presentation. To address problems such as poverty and lack of health care, creativity is crucial, as is working with and learning from sociologists, psychologists, and colleagues from many other disciplines.  And  to guide us all in exercising  “sound and informed judgment in accordance with just principles”—language from the last educational goal—about policy that affects unemployment, inflation,  the distribution of income, use of natural resources, and many other issues, economists need to provide relevant information to and work with policymakers.

Colleagues from other social sciences will have other stories, of course. It is exciting that the educational goals are woven throughout the curriculum.

Onno Oerlemans, Professor of Literature and Creative Writing

What strikes me first about Hamilton’s educational goals as they apply to the Department of English and Creative Writing is that they appear designed specifically for us! When I remember that I am also on the Environmental Studies committee and have taught several different E.S. courses, I realize that these goals apply equally well to that very different interdisciplinary program. So I conclude that we are really onto something here—that these goals reflect something central to what we do across the College.

The relevance of some of these goals is obvious. We do indeed all strive for excellence in communication and expression, though in English and Creative Writing, because we study such wonderful examples of clarity and eloquence (and see that they are not necessarily synonymous), we have ample opportunity to talk about what makes writing effective and powerful.  Curiosity and flexibility are also central to both English and Environmental Studies. There are a wealth of texts, issues, problems, and approaches within both fields of study, so that I always feel it is as important to stress what we don’t know and haven’t studied, as it is to pay attention to what we are actually examining. That there is much crucial data in Environmental Studies is not surprising, though tracking down or producing that data, and making sense of it, are two central challenges of the discipline. That analysis is also central to the study of English is perhaps surprising only to neophytes. We analyze and look for patterns in poems, novels, and plays, and try to find larger ones in their relation to history and society. We also recognize that facts require context, and can be contingent on perspective.

As someone who teaches a course on Literature and the Environment, I can see that there are also deep similarities between these two disciplines. One of the primary (but often under-examined) reasons we treasure the natural world is because of its beauty. One of the reasons I teach the kind of literature I do (nature writing, Romantic period poetry) is because I have been moved to feel and understand the importance of natural beauty through the beauty of writing by such authors as Wordsworth, Keats, Whitman, Thoreau, Lopez, and Dillard. So too, reading texts from different cultures helps us to understand the different values of those cultures, including, interestingly, the different ways those cultures value the natural world and animals. I am also powerfully moved by those values we have in common.

Janelle A. Schwartz '97, General Director of the Hamilton Adirondack Program

“I swear I leave this class more knowledgeable yet more confused everyday.”
—Hamilton student '15

I thought I would open this reflection with a course narrative, of sorts. In my proseminar, Truth, Lies, & Literature (to which the above quote responds), I spend the first class meeting lying to the students about who I am. I hide in plain sight for the first five minutes of class—just long enough to see the students grow antsy that their professor is late for their first day. Then, when I do reveal myself, I present the students with a doctored biography, a biography that is at once me and not-me, and then I ask them:  “where does the truth lie?” Depending on how the students receive the pun in my question, they can be simultaneously right and wrong in their selections. By turning the students’ expectations on their heads, or simply exposing the varied perspectives possible in so seemingly straightforward an exercise as introducing oneself, I am able to segue into a serious discussion about close reading, critical writing, and what I call “the art of manipulation.” This is a course concerned with understanding how what we read impacts how and/or what we believe—and how a search for “truth” reveals a shifting complex of historical, cultural and political perspectives (to name a few). By the end of our first meeting, the students not only get a feel for the subject of the course, they begin to understand how my pedagogical plans will be put into action, why I have chosen to execute the course in this manner, and the crucial role they themselves will play in it. I believe it is important for students not only to learn what we teach, but also to recognize how and why we teach it. In turn, as they take ownership of their own ideas, the students’ comfort in navigating unfamiliar material expands alongside their intellectual curiosity. By treating both discussion and writing as practica, as immediate models of practical experience coupled to intellectual development and social action, these complementary exercises become the vehicles through which students can recognize what Timothy Morton in The Ecological Thought defines as praxis—“action that is thoughtful and thought that is active” (ET 9)—and what Hamilton itself outlines in its eight interconnected educational goals.

To reflect on these educational goals is a twofold process for me. As a graduate of Hamilton (’97), with a major in Comparative Literature, I flourished in the allowance my mentors gave to me for taking creative risks. I grew to appreciate the demand that I ground my intellectual curiosity in solid analysis and disciplined expression—however experimentally wrought. Now an educator myself, I have an eerie yet comforting sense of Hamilton’s undeniable attraction as a liberal arts institution. And I work to impress on future Hamilton graduates the confidence to develop their own critical voices toward a range of subjects in a multitude of contexts. Like the college’s articulated goals, I am committed to an interactive, transdisciplinary education, one in which ideas can be shared and debated within a respectful community of learners; in which students and teacher alike play integral roles; in which intellectual curiosity, flexibility, aesthetic discernment, and creativity are important forms of exercise; and in which a single classroom both affects and is affected by the larger community. I am convinced that a single classroom can enact in microcosm the macrocosmic boon of our diverse, yet wholly interdependent, world.

Commonalities Among Our Disciplines

Ernest H. Williams, the William R. Kenan Professor of Biology Emeritus

Although we talk a lot about the differences among our disciplines, I want to emphasize three commonalities. Ideas are first and foremost in all disciplines. Whatever we call them – theses, principles, hypotheses – we work fundamentally with ideas, and it is ideas that spur our intellectual curiosity and challenge us to think creatively. Secondly, we use evidence to evaluate and support our ideas. Just as the kinds of ideas differ among disciplines, so do the forms of evidence we work with. In literary studies, for example, the evidence comes from texts; in historical studies from documents; and in scientific studies from lab and field results. Finally, our thinking in all fields is guided by what we learn from others, and we acknowledge what we’ve gained elsewhere by citing our sources. The form of the citations may differ among disciplines – e.g., footnotes in historical studies and names and dates in science – but the form of the citation is secondary to the common expectation in all fields that we engage with ideas and information from others and we cite the sources. These three commonalities – the emphasis on ideas, the use of evidence to evaluate and support ideas, and the engagement with and acknowledgement of information from others – are fundamental to all our disciplines.

Educational Goals and the Arts

Heather Buchman, Associate Professor of Music

Some connections between the arts and the educational goals are more apparent than others – so here follow some examples from the perspective of the arts, specifically music.

  • The artist, like the scholar, must start with intellectual curiosity and flexibility – continually learning new things and broadening her knowledge and experience.
  • Analytic discernment is essential for understanding the technical language of music.  Music theory begins with the analysis of musical structure and grammar.  Studying a piece in historical context draws on both analytical and research skills.
  • Aesthetic discernment is the ability to recognize and make informed evaluations of quality, a foremost concern in the arts.  A discerning ear distinguishes between excellence and mediocrity, recognizes beauty, perceives nuance – all essential to critiquing and improving one’s own work and evaluating others’. Aesthetic discernment is an essential part of professionalization in all fields – but the arts are especially focused on this capacity.
  • Disciplinary practice is also central to the arts – learning how to work effectively on technique, learning the discipline required to consistently develop one’s skill over time.
  • Creativity is a complex process built on the foundations of discernment and practice. Creativity in music is usually associated with composing. It also aids in interpreting a piece, finding new ways to discuss issues in music history, and making connections between music and other fields.
  • Musical expression depends on developing fluency in both analytic and aesthetic discernment.  And authentic expression must be creative, not just imitative.
  • Broadening one’s exposure to different genres and styles of music leads to experiencing diverse cultures. Playing and listening to unfamiliar kinds of music (e.g. world music) deepens our awareness of diversity in music.
  • Finally, musicians and artists are conscious of the ethical dimension of our work. How our art is affected by the world around us, and how we use it to engage with others, challenges the artist daily.

The arts require us to use multiple goals in combination. And they invite us to uncover connections between our work and other fields. These attributes make the arts ideal for cultivating and integrating all of the educational goals.

Educational Goals and the Sciences

Ernest H. Williams, the William R. Kenan Professor of Biology Emeritus

One encounters the College’s eight goals throughout our curriculum, but since I’m in the sciences, I’ll comment on how the goals relate to science courses. Intellectual curiosity is first and foremost and underlies everything we do in all coursework at Hamilton. Disciplinary practice, like intellectual curiosity, applies to all areas and is achieved by pursuing multiple courses in a discipline, and, through practice, becoming better and better at that discipline’s procedures and more knowledgeable about its ideas. In the sciences, we measure and record observations. Thus, quantitative approaches are fundamental, and in science courses you can expect extensive focus on the goal of analytic discernment, which refers to quantitative analysis and assessment. Creativity, another goal, is as important in science as it is in any other discipline. In fact, the most fun in science is creatively figuring out what the data tell us! It’s important to think creatively and independently about whatever we observe. The goal of communication and expression is as important in science as it is in every other field. Any ideas we come up with have little value unless we can communicate them clearly and effectively to others, so the quality of one’s writing is emphasized in science courses. Aesthetic discernment is a part of communication; we have to decide how best to display scientific results in a clear and aesthetically appealing manner. And science is a social enterprise, so ethical, informed, and engaged citizenship is important here as well; you can expect to hear about ethical standards and expectations in each scientific field you study. The goal of understanding cultural diversity may seem to be outside science, but the strength and beauty of science are that it’s open to anyone to gather evidence and draw conclusions – and people from diverse backgrounds make important contributions because they start with different perspectives. One can gain experience with all the College goals in science courses, but you’ll deepen and enrich your understanding of these goals through taking diverse courses from multiple disciplines.

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