17 December 2008

To the Class of 1989

An Open Letter to My Hampshire College Classmates

Dear Class of 1989:

Give to Hampshire. Please. Give now.

I recently met with a development officer from Hampshire, and was stunned to find that a mere 14% of my classmates contribute anything at all to our alma mater. Total giving for our class for Fiscal Year 2008: $6,607. The class of 2004 has 14% giving participation—and they just graduated! We're getting clocked by the kids who are barely out of college!

Your support for Hampshire College matters. Included below is a longer statement from me about why giving to Hampshire matters to all of us. I hope you’ll read it.

At the same time, you should also know that I am giving to Hampshire. (I cannot ask you to give if I'm not doing it myself.) My 2008 contribution to Hampshire will be $1,200, because I believe it is an important sacrifice to make. I realize that not everyone can give at that level—but most of us should be able to give something.


Here's why your gift to Hampshire College matters.

Support from alumni helps cover the basics, everything from shoveling snow, to buying books for the library, to paying for professors, to the costs of bringing in visiting scholars and lecturers.

Alumni giving helps sustain Hampshire’s financial aid program—critical funds that more than 50% of Hampshire students receive.

Our gifts affect something you may never have thought about: giving from others. Foundations, bond rating agencies, and even wealthy donors all look to see whether the people who graduated from Hampshire care enough to give before they make their own decisions.

And there's still one more reason to give: Hampshire College has a small endowment—tiny when contrasted with Harvard University (roughly $28 billion) or even Amherst College (roughly $1 billion). Those schools lost more in this down market than Hampshire had in the first place!

The upside to this situation is that Hampshire is relatively insulated from recent market losses: it was never able to rely on its endowment much in the first place. The downside is the little money Hampshire did expect from its endowment has been eroded.

So, what about me? I am in the midst of childrearing (not cheap), slowly working to pay off a mortgage, and attempting to save for retirement. I am trying to help my firm weather the present economic storm (so far successfully). And I am acutely aware of how an unstable and unpredictable environment may affect my finances next year. Nonetheless, as I noted in my cover letter, I am contributing $1,200 to Hampshire for 2008, because I consider it important to do so.

Whatever our issues were, the College has a new president, a lot of new blood, and some exciting plans for the future. Our memories of Hampshire may be mixed, but face it: anything else would be unrealistic after four years in a complicated environment, one that (hopefully) challenged our minds, our assumptions, and our beliefs. But think of it this way: here's your chance to help Hampshire College give someone else the opportunity to experience those same things.

Class of 1989, we can do better than a 14% giving rate. If I did not think so, I wouldn't be as public about my own commitment. And as alumni, it is our responsibility to try to help Hampshire. Not because we feel some sense of obligation (though we might), but because as graduates of Hampshire College, a school that helped educate us to be responsible citizens in a complicated world, we should be trying to help Hampshire in turn.


For anyone interested in stories about college and university endowment challenges right now, here are two news items of interest:
The Economist: "Ivory-towering infernos"
National Public Radio: "Economic Downturn Hits Liberal Arts Schools"

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07 December 2008

Keep Learning

When I was a kid, my mother and a pianist friend created a program they called “Adventures with Music and Design.” Over the course of many years, they would take multi-day trips around the country to different schools, museums, or community centers, presenting their program, pieces of which were often beta-tested on my brother and me. At the time, I neither knew the word synesthesia or its meaning, and I’m not sure it was on my mother’s mind either. If I had known, it might have helped define some of the context for the program, which sought to connect the kind of intellectual and (almost) emotional dots between and across the borders of our observational, aesthetic, and artistic experience.

For example, the children’s song “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” is more than a collection of lyrics, and more than a snippet of music by Mozart (and more than the common melody for singing the English alphabet). Almost every element can be connected to some other level of sensory experience—from the difference between hearing the song on the piano or the guitar, to the ability to match up the pattern of the song with the outline of a particularly ornate building facade, or even the fact that the song’s lyrics call to mind something very specific (a star) that conveys implicitly a collection of shapes and colors (night time sky, bright white star). And if it seems like there is something Steiner-like in all this, well, yes; although again, I don’t think that this was top-of-mind for my mother, and certainly was not for me.

In the intervening years, a number of studies have shown the value of and connection between education in the arts and how children learn non-arts subjects. My mother’s program was definitely ahead of its time.

I think it’s fair to say that my absorption of art as a child had a tremendous impact on shaping my intellectual growth, but as the child of a museum director mine was hardly the average experience. As someone who now works in support of arts organizations, this has mostly seemed like a professional issue in recent years. I have seen the statistics from several of these studies, and the “proof” (as it were) looks solid. But promoting arts education is a challenge at the best of times. I think it’s simply too healthy for most news media, not filled with enough of the conflict needed to animate even a feature story.
Now, as a parent, this whole subject takes on a very different cast. Watching my child learn shapes, colors, sounds, music—and trying to help her make connections between each of these things—is fascinating, as both an observer and an encouraging-participant. The straightforward beginnings are just that, straightforward: one starts with colors and shapes, separately and together, and eventually that knowledge becomes such a part of us that we may forget we ever had to learn it, just as at a certain point I watched my daughter start to respond to those questions without much thinking. She is also physically responsive to music, as are most babies and young children I have ever seen; the desire to move one’s body to the rhythm seems absolutely innate (no matter how uncoordinated one might be).

The next threshold seems key: beginning to piece all of these elements together, not only because the connections one can make are enjoyable on their own, but because of the broader intellectual value that is born of the process. Sure, learning to hum “Twinkle, Twinkle” on a kazoo is funny—most things on a kazoo are funny—and being able to play it on a harmonica is … well, let’s call it an aspiration, if you’ll forgive the pun. Beyond that, though, our world is anything but static; it has biology, physics, and art embedded in it deeply, and anyone who has ever looked at the study works by Leonardo da Vinci knows that biology and physics can also be seen and expressed as art.

Learning that how the kazoo works may seem silly, but in doing so my daughter learns that there are different ways to expel air. Learning (as she apparently has) that the harmonica (unlike the kazoo) can be made to work by breathing both in and out also teaches more than just music making. And the seemingly ridiculous toy a friend gave us is anything but, combining tones, patterns, numbers, letters, colors, and shapes together. At the same time, the knowledge of and ability to identify colors and shapes seems to be playing an implicit role in her process of learning to identify numbers and letters. These can also have colors, and incorporate different shapes, and may have textures too. Some of this learning is clearly rote: “c” comes after “b” because that’s how the song goes. Yet it is evidently deeper than that, and I say not that to brag about my child but as a supporting witness to her process of learning.

I’m sure that my brother and I laughed at my mother; that’s what kids do. Fortunately, I have no specific memories of that, so no corresponding guilt. But also fortunately, the whole range of experiences seemed to seep through anyway. As a museum child, I learned not to fear the institutional authority those heavy, stone edifices were constructed to convey—to respect them, yes, but to be comfortable in them and to believe deeply in the importance of sharing the beautiful objects they hold within. More importantly, I came to understand the connections across and between objects and ideas in the world around me, a skill I use every day to link disparate but related subjects together: in this space, in my work, and now as a parent trying to pass some of this on to the next generation. I hope we can continue to provide an environment in which such learning not only takes place, but is simply second nature.