Amherst in the Classroom: Where Is the Dialogue?

Aaron Holton ’25 and Madina Oraz ’25 criticize the centering of American thought and the rejection of unorthodox perspectives in the Amherst classroom.

Over the course of years at Amherst, we’ve observed troubling developments. At a school that prides itself on inclusivity and acceptance, a multitude of students is met with intellectual othering by peers who either fail to adapt and learn from perspectives other than their own, or those who are simply unwilling to treat a view and perspective other than their own with respect and dignity. As this ill continues to spread across campus, we feel it is imperative that we address it openly and offer a solution, for we worry greatly about the future of academic freedom at Amherst College.

Madina: I did not know what an Amherst College classroom entailed when I enrolled. Being entirely unfamiliar with what my next four years would look like academically, I played to my strengths: “I do not know American history, but I know Central Asian history. I know a lot about the Eastern Front and Muslim philosophy. The skills behind this education should be enough to handle topics I have not learned about yet.” For each class, I followed the handout given by many intro-level professors: skim, read, highlight, make connections to the course, ask questions. It was very surprising, however, to see how these basic notions crumble under the assumptions that pertain to most academic discussions at this college. If a given text mentions race, the knee-jerk reaction is to connect it to white supremacy without paying attention to what the author is trying to say. If the assignment is about something foreign, then the discussion is about United States trade or some post-war relationship. Considering that many students on this campus had a U.S. history requirement in their past education, what I described is understandable. However, the mentality of racing through the class discussion to show off the knowledge already gained not only excludes people who do not possess it, but also takes away from the learning environment that our college tries to provide.

Aaron: Classes are filled with students who weaponize their identities to further their own interests. Rather than attempt to include students from all backgrounds, peers alienate and exclude those from non-traditional ones who, so often, find themselves met with ad hominem attacks and ostracization from their peers — students would rather hold that the preconceived notions, reaffirmed by their lived experiences, should constitute the truth of an entire subject. There is, unfortunately, no room for the academic or the intellectual who thinks — someone who treats what is common as uncommon, undoing what one knows, and asking how one knows it — to exist with respect, dignity, and confidence. Rather, their existence in these spaces is predicated on a particular courage — one which calls upon those who exist as minorities in undemocratic spaces to speak against the grain and suffer at the hands of Amherst’s norms.

Madina: There is rarely any room for learning in our classrooms. The assumption of unanimous academic opinions (especially the centering of American thought in regards to issues varying from race to the nation-state) not only scares students who come to a classroom with an expectation to learn about different perspectives, but also sanitizes the learning experience. There must be room for error, but error that leads to academic advancement rather than debates fueled by prejudice. From a harm-reduction perspective, it is difficult to imagine how such an approach would not backfire. But here is a thought: The proposed path of learning is similar to one that a person unfamiliar with American college education goes through. Often during my humanities classes comes a moment when I have to declare: “This is where my knowledge stops. Can someone who studied American history take over?” Or, the opposite, where I have to declare my disdain for the lack of complexity in the discussion: “This point plays differently when you consider the effects of communism on Central Asia,” I say at least once a semester. Yet I do not observe similar behavior from my peers. Discussions usually feel like a stirring pot of preexisting notions and function as an extraction tool for a five-paragraph essay.

Aaron: And now, three years in, I find myself ever so dissatisfied with my education. Classrooms are filled with peers who do not wish to seek truth or interrogate their own premises. Rather, they find themselves surrounded by those who are oh so eager to hold arms in academic mediocrity, those who refuse the essential task granted to us as students: to ask. Ask questions. Question ourselves, our peers, our professors — question nearly everything we “know,” and imagine what it would be like to not “know.” Instead, we find ourselves mired in intellectual standstills or risk public mockery.

Madina and Aaron: We are afraid that this type of knowledge will not leave the classroom. At best, it becomes a nice chatter over a cup of coffee or a shameful memory to those who attempt, in an honest effort, to reach the truth. A solution, we believe, is redefining our norms — demanding an equality structured around not one but all identities, alongside an acceptance, tolerance, and understanding of the unorthodox. A necessary step to pursuing honest discussion —  a central trait of higher education.

We do not expect change to happen overnight. But we can be closer one step at a time. In the footsteps of our predecessors (and following in the examples of the Amherst Uprising, the establishment of the AAPI studies, and the Amherst Anti-Slavery Society), the first change, in any area, comes from students. We invite you to rethink which notions build up your academic common sense. We encourage you to be open about where your academic knowledge begins and ends when presenting an argument. We encourage you to ask questions about other students’ opinions. There is no value to knowledge that faces no resistance.