The Alexander Hamilton Center stirs hopes – and fears

Editor’s Note: This week’s Clarion Call is written by Robert Paquette. He is a professor of American History at Hamilton College and the Executive Director of the Alexander Hamilton Center.

On October 13, the institution where I teach, Hamilton College, announced that an alumnus had committed $3.6 million to support the creation of the Alexander Hamilton Center for the Study of Western Civilization. The charter of the new Center clearly sets forth its reason for existence: “The reasoned study of Western civilization, its distinctive achievements as well as its distinctive failures, will further the search for truth and provide the ethical basis necessary for civilized life.” In the past, most colleges required a core curriculum that provided students with a proper grounding in Western civilization. But over the last forty years or so, a cafeteria-style model of education, touted at Brown University and other prestigious universities, in which students now enjoy the freedom to pursue their own tastes by choosing from an ever expanding menu of exotic entrées has replaced a required, coherent set of courses that privileges Western civilization.

AHC follows the lead of several other schools that have established similar academic centers. Princeton, for example, has established the James Madison Program, which has brought some excellent scholars and a very different point of view to that campus. What we intend to foster, and again quoting from the AHC charter, is “an educational environment of the highest standards in which evidence and argument prevail over ideology and cant.” The AHC is not a right-wing think tank, but a vehicle to pursue a clearly defined educational mission. We will begin active programming in the fall of 2007, with a focus on a Hamilton graduate of 1818, the famous abolitionist Gerrit Smith. My co-founders and I intend to implement a series of events that will interrogate the abolitionist understanding of freedom, how it was shaped by the Second Great Awakening and contributed to the elaboration of a capitalist system in the northern United States.

Our second year will investigate property rights – how they were understood by the Founders, the importance of private property rights as a guardian of our other rights, and the history of the Fifth Amendment that bears on the controversial Supreme Court decision in Kelo v. New London. We plan to devote our third year, the bicentennial of Abraham Lincoln’s birth, to an examination of Garry Wills’ central argument in his book Lincoln at Gettysburg, the notion that Lincoln pulled a sleight of hand and redefined the meaning of the Union by folding the Declaration of Independence into the Constitution. We will explore primarily for the benefit of Hamilton College undergraduates how this country’s greatest statesmen have understood the relationship between those hallowed documents.

You wouldn’t think that the creation of the AHC would stir up any controversy – unless you’re familiar with the prevailing academic culture. Alas, Hamilton’s faculty has not embraced the enterprise. Indeed, one faculty committee, apprised of the center not as a requirement but as a matter of collegial etiquette by one of my co-founders, responded by rewriting the charter within a fortnight and submitting it to us for acceptance. We said, “No thank you.”

At October’s faculty meeting, the first since the college announced the AHC’s creation, faculty members debated and voted on a resolution signed by two dozen of my colleagues. The “unprecedented and unacceptable autonomy” of the Center, they complained, demanded that the charter be amended to ensure far greater faculty input and oversight. A “general rationale” for the resolution appeared above the names of the signatories. It indicated their anxieties about the Center’s “programming and research” and how both would “influence the reputation of Hamilton College.”

What subversion does AHC seek to promote? Why, nothing less than “excellence in scholarship through the study of freedom, democracy and capitalism as these ideas were developed and institutionalized in the United States and within the larger tradition of Western culture.” The central concerns of the Center include the meaning and implications of capitalism, the moral basis for democracy, government as a potential threat to justice, and the role of merit and hierarchy in the formation of civilization.

Somehow, to the resolution’s signatories, the investigation of these and related issues by the Center portends dire consequences. Among the signatories were tenured faculty whose own programming and research in the recent past had been responsible for bringing or attempting to bring to the College as teachers or speakers Brigette Boisselier, the high priestess of cloning for the Raelian cult movement; Susan Rosenberg, a convicted felon; and Ward Churchill, one of the most clever academic poseurs of his generation.

Is there really any need to worry about the governance of the AHC? An outside board of accomplished scholars advises the director of the center on programming and initiatives. A nine-member board of overseers supervises the director, ensures transparency and accountability of the Center’s operation, and insulates it from the vicissitudes of personality in the administration and from politicized factions of the faculty. The faculty resolution declared it to be “crucial” that “representatives of the Hamilton College community have input into the operation and governance of the AHC.” But who counts as members of the Hamilton community? Apparently not the trustees and alumni, nor, for that matter, students or staff. By inference from the resolution, they have all suffered a kind of social death. The founders of AHC have a more inclusive definition and will recruit trustees and distinguished alumni to the board of overseers.

The resolution passed by a vote of 77 to 17, without about a hundred no-shows. When asked to comment on the vote and the motivations of the faculty opposition to AHC, I sought counsel from none other than Alexander Hamilton himself. In Federalist #1, he wrote that the plan of the Constitution “affects too many particular interests, innovates upon too many local institutions, not to involve in its discussion a variety of objects foreign to its merits, and of views, passions and prejudices little favorable to the discovery of truth.” That sentence applies as much to the AHC today as it did to the proposed Constitution in 1787.

Several Hamilton faculty members have risen to demand changes in the governance of the Center, prefacing their remarks by saying that they have “no problem” with the creation of the Center, but are merely concerned about its autonomy. Perhaps so, but I propose a little test. Can any faculty member at Hamilton produce from his or her personal archive, or from the archive of any relevant faculty committee or from the files of the dean any piece of paper expressing concern about the autonomy of any other faculty programmatic initiative in the last 25 years? Without such discovery, I remain dubious about the consistency of principle in the motives of at least some of the opponents.

“The consciousness of good intentions,” Alexander Hamilton maintained, “disdains ambiguity.” In that spirit, here is the charter: Have a look for yourself.