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Prove TINA Thought Wrong

So… I got the news yesterday, while listening to my car radio, and then almost drove off the road.

I immediately pulled over and checked my email: two of my friends from Hampshire College had already written, and a third would soon after. Like them, though mostly for them, I felt as if an unseen weight had suddenly lifted. I’m not by temperament pollyannish, and I do realize that the most difficult, the real work begins now. Nonetheless, the resignation of the Hampshire College president and several key members of its Board of Trustees makes that work possible, and the appointment of Ken Rosenthal as interim president seems an ideal solution. The way is now clear for Hampshire College to do what it does best: to reinvent itself, and, by doing so, to reboot liberal arts education in and for the twenty-first century. Frankly, there’s nothing this planet needs more. The earth will certainly be around for the next century, but, as you know, it’s far from certain whether many of its species, including our own, will manage to stick around for the ride.

As Johnson famously said, there’s nothing like the prospect of hanging (especially when friends and colleagues are sure to be among the victims) to focus the mind—and that is precisely what is most needed now. Before this work begins, however, it is also necessary to reflect at least briefly on what has happened. Conflicts as heated and heartfelt as we’ve witnessed during the last few months at Hampshire also leave wounds. Scars and healing will come, but the shock caused by injury and trauma will surely dominate for some time to come.

For me, the news about these resignations brought to mind a couple of recent conversations: one with a faculty leader in the movement to re-envision the Hampshire campus, the other with a now retired Hampshire professor, someone close to the administration as well as current faculty. The latter began her comments to me by expressing her discomfort at the rancor and attacks against the (now former) president and trustees. Not everyone shared that anger, I told her, the faculty leader I had spoken with had even come close to defending the president. In a freewheeling discussion, he discounted and distanced himself from one of the most extreme readings of Hampshire’s situation; he didn’t share, he said, the often-aired sentiment that everything had somehow been planned in advance—that the recently hired president had been brought in to wield a hatchet, to close the campus and sell it off.

If rereading Machiavelli won’t help us to understand what has gone down at Hampshire, what will? Though it will seem a stretch and might easily be misconstrued, I’d suggest another parallel: the notorious experiments that Stanley Milgram ran at Yale in the sixties. In these experiments, participants were required to administer shocks to another person that increased in intensity each time this person—actually an actor, and not in fact given shocks—gave an incorrect answer to a quiz.

What I’m thinking of isn’t, however, the lesson that Milgram was thought to have taught us: that people are naturally obedient, and that they’ll follow orders even to the point of engaging in cruelty towards others. If you remember Milgram’s work, it’s likely that you too remember it this way; I certainly did, at least until I listened to a RadioLab episode reviewing those experiments and rehearsing the revisionary reading given to them by British researchers Alex Haslam, Stephen Reicher, and Joanne Smith.

According to this re-reading, obedience is simply one behavior observed across the complex and varied series of experiments Milgram performed, and it is far from the dominant characteristic shown by the work. As it happened, even in the single, most often cited experiment, on the few occasions that experimental subjects were given a direct order (“You have no choice, you must continue”), they did not in fact follow that order; they insisted instead that they had a choice, and were not required to continue.

Don’t assume, however, that this revisionary reading implies a sunnier view of human nature than the traditional lesson Milgram was thought to have taught us. Instead, according to this view, when Milgram’s subjects engaged in what they knew to be cruelty toward others, they weren’t simply following orders, they actually chose to do so. They likely believed that the goals of the experiment were worthy, and that their own contribution to science made such behavior, though unpleasant, necessary.  When Nazis engaged in genocide, and performed each of the unspeakable acts leading to the slaughter, they too likely believed that their cause—and the Reich—was a higher goal that gave them no alternative.

In Britain, ever since the Thatcher years, there has been a lot of talk—and resistance to—what they call the TINA argument (“There is no alternative”). The very purpose, I would argue, of an experimental college like Hampshire is to prove TINA thought wrong. For nearly fifty years, it has done just that; the now unified front of faculty, staff, students, and administrators, I have no doubt, will find a path to do so for at least fifty more. I also have no doubt that the most recent former president of Hampshire College, like the recently retired trustees, believed that they were making necessary decisions, and that they had no alternatives. I also believe they were wrong.

I do understand, of course, that this is a moment of crisis, for both Hampshire College and for liberal arts education everywhere. For that reason, I want to express my enthusiastic support for the efforts of my friends and colleagues in the work to re-envision Hampshire College. An early—and exciting—draft of these efforts can be found here.

But I also want to do more than that—and I want to call upon my Five College colleagues to do more as well. It took a united effort of the then Four Colleges to create the bold and brilliant institution that Hampshire College has become, and it will take similar support in this moment of crisis for Hampshire College to be reborn. I know that my own work, profession, life—and our common world—is better because of Hampshire College. That’s why I think it only fair to recycle at least a small part of my salary to our Five College partner. So, in this crisis year, I’m donating $1000 to Campaign for Hampshire, and I plan to donate half that amount every year I continue to receive a salary from a Five College institution—under the condition, of course, that the independent, free-thinking, creative soul of Hampshire College remains its own.

I see no reason why every other faculty member in the Five Colleges should not do the same.

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