People who followed the course of the Alexander Hamilton Center from the time it was conceived by professors Robert Paquette, Douglas Ambrose, and James Bradfield (later joined by Elias W. Leavenworth) until it sank under the pressure and machinations of hostile faculty at Hamilton College had good reason for dismay over the prospects of traditionalist initiatives in higher education. Paquette has written at length about the course of events, including a sobering essay in the May 2008 issue of The New Criterion entitled "The World We Have Lost: A Parable on the Academy." It chronicles an infuriating sequence of broken promises, closed-door decision-making, faculty resentments, and progressivist tyranny.
A lengthier representation of one episode appears here in a blog post by Roger Kimball that details some of the misinformation that the Hamilton College administration presented in its justification for withdrawing support from the initiative. That a proposal with strong outside funding, a solid and broad historical curriculum, and initial enthusiasm from a college administration should go down makes one wonder what it takes to plant such programs in today's campus grounds.
But the story doesn't end there. The Alexander Hamilton Center disappeared, but the Alexander Hamilton Institute, independent of Hamilton College but located just down the hill, is up and running and going strong.
Here is the headquarters.
It's a stately 180-year-old colonial residence on the town square of Clinton, NY. The property was in bankruptcy and the house in disrepair. Institute supporters made the purchase and set about renovating and upgrading. Now it stands as a prized local display, the Institute's contribution to urban renewal. The building includes a meeting room, bedrooms to house guests, and a bookstore downstairs showcasing publications from Encounter Books. A study area will be dedicated to Elizabeth Fox-Genovese.
The activities are piling up. The Institute offers lectures, colloquia, luncheons, and informal gatherings. The home page lists upcoming events, such as an October 26th event with Roger Kimball, James Piereson of the William Simon Foundation, and Adam Kissel of Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (Fire) speaking on the future of liberal arts education. Peter Wood, president of National Association of Scholars, speaks on academic freedom, Anne Neal on college curricula, and many more. Perhaps most importantly, Hamilton College itself serves as the venue for several events, and student attendance is high. I spoke there two weeks ago and the audience included more than 100 undergraduates.
The Institute circa 2009 provides a different parable than the one Paquette recounted in May 2008. This one ends in success. It's a positive story not because Paquette and others outlasted their colleagues, but because Hamilton students have a vibrant intellectual home nearby, a place to read and browse and listen and question. Conservative, libertarian, and classical liberal critics of academia often dwell on the negative in higher education, and there is much to regret and deplore. But when initiatives survive and prosper, they should occupy first place in critical analyses and reform thinking.