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Opinion

Letters to the Editor

By Jon Hysell ’72, Michael Guzzetti ’11, Dean Woodley Ball ’14

October 3, 2013

Real Talk allows students to ‘know themsleves'
Jon Hysell '72

I was a Hamilton undergraduate from 1968-1972. Our student body, administration and the American community  at large grappled with polarizing views about racial injustice, sexism and a foreign war that eventually took over 50,000 mostly young Americans’ lives. Back in the day, our college provided opportunities for civil dialogue. Hamilton faculty and administrators offered a listening ear and, often, wise counsel. As Kent State and Columbia University showed, when campus dialogues ceased, things spiraled out of control.Retrospectively, I came to value our college’s bedrock support for the free exchange of ideas.

The “Meaningful Conversation about Race” last Thursday provided me a context to understand the racially charged events and varied media coverage of last week. It helped me be empathetic toward the varied views expressed during the meeting and, in a renewed way, appreciate our college’s commitment to work within our Hill community to find solutions to deeply rooted cultural and personalized human challenges about race and race relations.

Thursday’s gathering reminded me that Hamilton still provides students many of the means,  or at least  the chance, to “know themselves” and, to the extent possible, each other.  Hamilton’s flaws notwithstanding, students have just four years—a rare and fleeting opportunity—to live in such a relatively safe environment.

I am optimistic that our community has started a dialogue that could substantially transform Hamilton for the better. It seems to me students are the primary actors in this process. Please accept my thanks for exercising this leadership.  More examples of your maturity and hard work will be needed in the coming days, weeks, months and years. Feel free to let me know how I can help!

A plea for reflection from an alumnus
Michael Guzzetti '11

Recent events surrounding Hamilton College’s community have compelled me to write this letter to current students, alumni and faculty.  It is crucial that we maintain a link of communication between the alumni and the current Hamilton community.  

This sort of controversy is not new.  In my time, there was furor over the Mexican Party, which split the campus and raised hell until certain steps were established to prevent such an incident from  reoccurring.  The intent of The Days-Massolo Center is to help marginalized groups fit into the campus, and thrive in an environment that is sometimes overwhelming.  I support this, and believe the wisdom of this establishment should have manifested itself positively.  However, I am concerned about how this center has been run.  As a gay, Hispanic, adopted man I am exactly the type of person Amit should be representing in a professional and responsible manner; however, he is not. As an alumnus, I am worried about the liability he poses for the college I love.

We are not witnessing a discussion over racial rights, but the fallout from an incredibly poorly thought-out program, which was managed and promoted by Amit.  While there may be a vocal party, The Movement, which is trying to capitalize on this fallout, what is actually important is the impact on the college, and what the establishment of such a program in the first place, entails.  I speak now especially to the seniors, the faculty and Administration and the Alumni, as this is a liability that threatens us, as well as current and future students.

From the beginning, the Days-Massolo center should have been run not by someone who is a militant activist with an ax to grind, but by someone genuinely dedicated to the whole community.  Not someone who is focused just on the grievances of the marginalized, but who genuinely seeks to incorporate them, and foster love throughout Hamilton College.  No one doubts that this most recent incident is distasteful, but where does it stem from?  Many would have you believe it stems from the Alexander Hamilton Institute (AHI), but this does not hold water.  Who was the originator of the event?  Amit. And although  he may protest that it was engendered by the students, it is his official responsibility to guide and mentor those students to engage with the campus and wider world in an instructive and responsible manner.  This he has failed to do, and thus has not performed his professional duties in an acceptable way.

Did the AHI point out the fire?  Yes, but they did not start it.  What started it was the very poor choice of creating a segregated event on Hamilton College’s campus, and somehow thinking that it was a good idea.  Is this in the long term interest of the Days Masolo Center or even Hamilton?  I think not.

These sorts of incidents serve only to polarize the sides more, and create an oppositional climate among people who should be learning to work together, as they will have to once they graduate from the Hamilton bubble.  No doubt, past and future donors, prospective students and alumni of all stripes must wonder if they want their legacies tied to such a divisive figure harbored by the administration.Would you want to be part of a community where the hordes of the disaffected shriek in a student assembly at their opponents?  This behavior is odious, ineffective and frankly, shameful. If we cannot be civilized in a forum, where can we be civilized?  

What sort of precedent does this set for Hamilton?  If you cannot bring yourself to be reasonable, is the recourse to scream your outrage like an animal? We must stop using the language of race, and return to the route of reason and shared humanity.

My experience with the Hamilton College administration and student body was marked by love and mutual respect.  I remember this fondly.  I have carefully studied both sides of the issue and spoken to some of the key players in this tragedy.  My conclusion is that it is dangerous to implant ideas of resentment and privilege in any group of students, regardless of the motivation.  

There are people of many orientations, races and ideas.  I have always been brave enough to speak out against racism, without recourse to bitter grumblings in a “colored’s only safe space.”  In fact, as a marginalized human, in regards to my sexuality, race and family, I am offended that such a condescending and paternalistic program was offered in the first place.

I hope the administration realizes that the mentality that allowed such an incident to occur is far too reminiscent of the start of the Ward Churchill scandal to let such irresponsibility slide.  We owe it to ourselves as a community to not let divisive  and misguided activism penetrate our campus and distort the academic credibility of Hamilton College. I am The Counter-Movement, and I refuse to let incidental aspects of my common humanity be exploited and incorrectly emphasized to the  detriment of my reason and respectability.  I stand with Hamilton College, have shared my name and wear no mask of shame.  When will they?

The voice of safety in the conversation of mankind
Dean Woodley Ball '14

Hamilton describes the liberal arts as essential to, among other things, the ability to “examine facts, phenomena and issues in depth, and from a variety of perspectives, and having the courage to revise beliefs and outlooks in light of new evidence.” This skill constitutes perhaps the most crucial lesson the liberal arts have to teach.

America’s public schools have abandoned this conception of the liberal arts. Many of our private preparatory schools, though not as far along in the process, are doing so as well. Our liberal arts colleges are among the last strongholds of this vaunted tradition,  and I am saddened to report that they, too, are gradually forgetting the enterprise for which they were founded.

The forgetting is not complete: schools like Hamilton still teach many students to speak in what Michael Oakeshott called the “conversation of mankind.” The liberal arts and sciences continue to exist and often thrive here, but the wind is pushing them in a new direction; one which promotes safety over learning, eschews intellectual challenges for the homely comfort of our pre-conceptions; and preaches ideology rather than passionate discourse.

Hamilton bills itself as a place where students come to “find their voice,” but instead of promoting the confident articulation of one’s viewpoint, the school, led by its bureaucracy, now champions an altogether different objective. The cultivation of intellectual confidence is replaced by the instinct to avoid conflict. Articulation is swapped for equivocation. The middling is mistaken for the nuanced. Critical thought is encouraged until it confronts the doctrine of tolerance. We cannot risk offending anybody, this new climate of education instructs us, so we should occupy the middle ground in all conflicts.

The climate is not specific to Hamilton. It is endemic at nearly all prestigious liberal arts colleges and, to a lesser extent, in all of American higher education. And I believe that it runs contrary to the very essence of liberal education. Every moment of intellectual surprise I have ever experienced, every insight I have ever stumbled upon, every great conversation I have ever had has been founded on challenge, not affirmation. It’s because we grow by having our most fundamental assumptions—those assumptions we don’t even realize we’re making—confronted. Sometimes, those assumptions require substantial revision; other times they do not. But it is by being made aware that those assumptions even exist in the first place that one learns to find their voice in the conversation of mankind.

If we do not challenge these trends, I fear that many of the best minds of our generation will find themselves, as Oakeshott so eloquently put it, unable to escape “the unfrustrating womb of their own inclinations.” We need those minds now more than ever. It’s time to leave the womb.

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