Amherst College must confront its political apathy

Some of us look back nostalgically on the time when our parents were in college. Back then, politics were not the exclusive domain of the wealthy or the middle-aged. It did not take “Rock the Vote” with questions like “Macs or PCs?” for young people to watch as presidential candidates debated their future.

During the 1970s, students on college campuses became a major impetus for social change in this country. Students lowered the voting age, ended a war and made progress against racial and economic injustice. Even here at Amherst College, despite the so called “Amherst bubble,” students took a serious political stance. Does anyone today know about “the Moratorium?” Or that Amherst students, accompanied by the president of the College, were arrested outside Westover Air Force Base? We don’t need to be a hot bed of radicalism to go far beyond where we are now.

I raised these issues with many people who came of age in the 1970s. Almost unanimously, they agreed that the main difference between then and now was the draft. Knowing that your high school classmates were a world away hacking through a jungle understandably has an effect. At the same time, if we are to use the language of “privilege and responsibility,” then we cannot ignore the realities of the world.

My mother, a professor at Oberlin College, noted the differences between the attitudes of Oberlin and Amherst when she came here for a visit. She remarked that Oberlin, despite being less privileged than Amherst, had frequently pushed for social change well before Amherst. In her view, Amherst was too concerned with maintaining its position atop the hill and less concerned with the landscape below.

I defended our actions on the grounds that being on top requires careful examination of when to intervene below. Increasingly, however, I believe I was wrong. I commend President Marx on his invocation of privilege and responsibility, but this college must go further. Privilege does not require social conservatism.

If we are really to believe and engage the language of “privilege and responsibility,” it cannot be enough that we, the students, see Amherst as a gateway to success and responsibility as philanthropy. Rather, the language of “privilege and responsibility” compels us to act now.

It is time to engage in a serious debate on this campus about what we, as an institution, stand for.   Privilege and responsibility is political language.Teaching both sides of an issue does not imply standing for both. Our position of privilege does not allow us to hold certain values others cannot, rather it compels us to disseminate them. We have a duty to create a socially just world.

As those on any side of these issues will tell you, we stand at a crossroads. We can continue to follow the path of neutrality and apathy that we have followed for the last decade with our eyes set squarely on that number one spot atop The US News and World Report rankings, or we can shift our gaze toward a nobler goal of public service.

Much of the social progress for which this institution stands is at stake for the general public. If we truly believe in privilege and responsibility, we cannot allow privilege to now blind us from our responsibility.

The upcoming elections ask us to consider our positions on a woman’s right to choose, Pell grants, affirmative action, the preservation of our civil liberties and the right of homosexuals to be equal to heterosexuals in the eyes of the law. Few could imagine the possibility of this campus denying a woman her right to choose, forcing pregnant women to drop out to care for their newborns. We cannot contemplate which of our classmates would not be here if financial aid were drastically cut to those who needed it most. We do not worry now about censorship of our work. We do not worry about homosexual couples’ rights to be open about their relationships. Why then do we allow our political leadership to question the propriety of these positions without responding to them?

It should not take a draft and thousands of lives to convince us that we need to act. If Amherst is indeed a “gadfly” and an “electric eel,” let us now engage the world. Let us tell the world that those most fundamental values for which we as an institution stand, those values without which we cannot envision our campus, should be a part of the broader world.

The privilege that allows us to create a socially just environment on campus should not insulate us from the responsibility to make a socially just world. We cannot wait for a draft to tell us that our country is headed in the wrong direction; by that time, we may not have the civil liberties left to respond. If our country is truly in dire straits, let Amherst respond. Let us uphold our great liberal traditions.

Now is the time for a comprehensive response, both by the individual and the institution. As our parents did, we must create a society in which we want to come of age. But the administration too must respond. Those ideals which make Amherst socially unique and a bastion of privilege in its cultivation of learning and enlightenment should be disseminated to the world at large. It is time to take a stand. Let us go forth and illuminate the lands.