A Grand Experiment

DiGerry Warburg 74Sspatches from the Eastern Front, a memoir by Gerry Warburg 74S, shares the story of “a political education from the Nixon years to the age of Obama.” The excerpt below captures the energy and insights of early days at Hampshire College. Bancroft Press will release Dispatches in February.

Adventurers found Hampshire College through a variety of means. Word of mouth worked best in the early 1970s, in the days before the Internet and text messaging. Free-thinking high school students nationwide began to hear about an academic vision taking form in New England, at a small new college campus being built among the apple orchards below the northern flank of the Holyoke Range. When admittees arrived, this sylvan corner of western Massachusetts seemed the most exciting place on the planet.

It was our utopia for a time. It offered an alternate universe where all were participants in a grand experiment, trying to create a fresh approach to campus learning. We were pioneers, launching an educational start-up. What ensued was a buffet for hungry minds. The College was a veritable petri dish for alternative education and a progressive approach to public policy matters.

Hampshire College was, in its infancy, an incubator for experiments. One quiet guy in film class closeted himself to put together a piece on the history of the Brooklyn Bridge. Ken Burns learned his craft well. The school paper was edited by such writers as Tom Kizzia, Chip Brown, and Jon Krakauer, who were just beginning formidable writing careers. I signed up as the photography editor; we published under the juvenile title of Climax. Architect Norton Juster taught something called Green Design. My journalism teacher, David Kerr, sharpened our prose by day, then hosted poetry slams and poker games at night.

The freedom and intellectual fervor on campus was intoxicating. It was a time, we all sensed, of enormous possibilities. We could easily imagine alternative futures, both for each other and for our country. The horrors of the Kennedys’ and Dr. King’s assassinations had begun to recede. Racial strife and generational angst waned. Cultural and sexual revolutions brought greater personal freedom. Our generation was post–Vietnam War, pre–Iran–Contra, after the widespread use of birth control pills, and before the scourge of AIDS. We were living in the sweet spot. We sensed our good fortune, even then.

Residents of Dakin Hall G4 floor, Thanksgiving 1974