A tale of two schools

In order to come back, the deans told me that I had to take a semester at another school. Although I was ambivalent about returning to Amherst, I figured that I might as well keep my options open and take a semester elsewhere. I am now going to C.W. Post, a large university on Long Island.

The differences between Amherst and C.W. Post are striking. Amherst is a small college; C.W. Post is a large university. Amherst is highly selective; C.W. Post accepts anyone with a pulse. Amherst is nestled cozily in a bucolic setting; C.W. Post is located off a bustling boulevard in the New York City suburbs. At first I reveled in the change of scenery. By the end of my first year, I was so thoroughly bored with Amherst and the surrounding area that C.W. Post, with its sprawling campus and diverse student body, offered a refreshing change. But after a few weeks of class, I’ve had a few realizations and experiences that made me understand the benefits of what Amherst offers its students.

The first difference I noticed between Amherst and C.W. Post is the social atmosphere. Because C.W. Post is largely a commuter campus, the people aren’t very friendly. The students don’t associate with one another freely-rather, they avoid each other cautiously. More than half the students walk around with cell phones perpetually stapled to their ears, prattling idly with off-campus friends while walking silently past their classmates.

Additionally, a profoundly different educational philosophy pervades the classroom. At C.W. Post, the professors automatically assume that the students are undisciplined and do not care about their studies. After all, admissions criteria are effectually nonexistent, and most of the students at Post did not work very hard in high school. As a result, the teachers do not trust their students and are very wary of cheating and plagiarism. I don’t think most professors even bother having office hours, assuming that no one will show up.

This lack of trust trivializes the importance of papers and exams. At the same time, it marginalizes students who are diligent and interested in their studies. I have already met countless students who felt as though the professors neglected their work and failed to encourage their intellectual development.

The professors at Amherst, by contrast, are very confident in the abilities of their students. They assume that the students are disciplined, interested and intelligent enough to learn in their own, individual way. The class discussions are Socratic and the professors are trusting-extensions are freely granted and free inquiry is encouraged.

Last week I had an experience that typifies this difference between Amherst and C.W. Post. I handed in a paper for my Introductory Philosophy class, but the teacher returned it to me because my name was in the upper-left hand corner, not the upper-right hand corner, as specified by the course syllabus. I changed the format and gave her the paper the following week, and she flatly accused me of plagiarism. “This looks like an internet paper,” she told me. An investigation is pending.

This lack of trust and intimacy extends to every aspect of student life. In scheduling, for example, students are not allowed to choose their own classes. Rather, they are forced into a predetermined track as early as the first year and assigned a list of classes that they must take. With a rigid core curriculum and little freedom in choosing classes, students end up taking classes they don’t like. They become cynical and apathetic about their education. They learn to view education as a means to an end, a necessary hurdle in a vocational track. The school thus becomes a mass-production factory for stamping out degrees, not a haven for personal development and intellectual expansion.

This is not to say that C.W. Post is a bad school. The facilities are beautiful and the location is prime. The student body is highly diverse-much more so than Amherst. Although I do not agree with the highly disciplined approach of the faculty, I found that my professors are just as interesting as any I’ve had at Amherst. In fact, in spite of her attitude towards the students and towards my work, I believe that my Intro Philosophy professor is one of the most thorough and engaging lecturers I have ever encountered.

Nevertheless, C.W. Post lacks many of the qualities that make Amherst a truly special place. And while I am not sure whether or not I’ll make it back, I’ve come to appreciate all it has to offer. Amherst is one of the few schools at which you can do anything you want, where you not only have complete freedom to pursue whatever interests you, but you are encouraged to do so. Take advantage of that while you still can.