Big Question: What do you need to learn?

Big Question: What do you need to learn?

WHAT DO YOU NEED TO LEARN? This is the latest question we will be grappling with around campus from Friday, April 4 to Friday, April 11. This question does not rely on expertise or facts, but on personal stories and experience. The answers we give this question define us as human beings. We asked four people around campus for their thoughts on this month’s Big Question: What do you need to learn?

Austin Sarat, Professor of LJST and Political Science, Associate Dean of Faculty
Needing to learn is a little like needing to breathe. Life cannot be sustained without it. But what anyone needs to learn will, of course, depend to some extent on their life situation or life project so it is hard to say what the most important things to learn are for anyone and everyone. With that said, I’ll name two things that I have had to learn. First, I think that learning from loss, pain and suffering is a crucial life skill. Not just learning to live with them but rather figuring out what, if anything, can be learned from them is essential. I am still trying to figure that out. Second, I was a first generation college student coming from a family where few understood what I was doing. Still today many in my family cannot quite fathom it. So then I had to learn how to bridge a chasm in my own family and today I still need to learn how to keep love and communication alive in the absence of an easily shared set of mutual understandings.

Cara Sullivan, Campus Police Officer
An interesting question to ponder while sitting by the pool at my hotel in Key West (Yes, cops have fun too). And then it dawned on me…There is something that we ALL experience and have this love-hate relationship with on a daily basis and that “thing” is called, making time… for ourselves. Think of all the things that you make time for on a daily basis that are for other people. Professors, parents, friends, family and so on…Now think of the amount of time you take out of your day for yourself. If you’re like me, your “me time” ratio is a thin sliver on a pie chart. A friend of mine, who has her Masters in Statistics, literally made a pie chart of my time and how it is spent (or not spent) because, you know, that kind of stuff is fun for her. To actually see my time plotted out on a chart was mind blowing and eye opening. Now, I’m not saying to go out there in the world being selfish and not being there for others. Obviously, I wouldn’t last too long as a Police Officer if I had that mentality. But what I realized is that if I don’t take time out for myself I can’t fully be there for others. Learning to make time for the things you love is the only way to balance out this crazy experience we call life. So, before I go back to my “me time” by the pool, I leave you with this challenge: Think of something that you love to do but that you keep putting off. Is it time to make your own pie chart? Hmm….

Jayson Paul ’16, Physics and Philosophy major
What I need to learn is a sense of balance in my life. I need it; I must have it, and not just to learn, but especially to learn. Balance, for me, requires free space — time, physical space, mental space and emotional space. Space to grow and spaces to grow into. Not to have these things means to live in reaction to the world around me and to be incapable of the reflection that actually learning versus, say, memorizing, remembering or even understanding, requires. Learning is more active, more complete and more worthwhile than any of those alone. What I need to learn then is just how to create that balance in my life. To take the world as it is and find and create ways of framing it and encountering it that open up the field; that create those spaces where I can actually learn in everyday life as well as in the classroom. What I need to learn is temperance, discipline, self-honesty and passion — the internal forces of fulfillment and achievement.

Meghna Sridhar ’14, LJST major
One of the most important things to learn is power and resistance: what are the institutions that hold power? How are you tacitly complicit in their expressions of power? How can you best learn how to resist that power and stand up for those that are oppressed by it? Relatedly, another thing very important to learn is the courage to speak in your own name, against power, for justice and equality and inclusion, and in solidarity with those who resist. Empathy, resistance and courage constitute intelligence — agreeing with the status quo and upholding it is merely a sign of empty and meaningless self-preservation.


Ask Big Questions (ABQ) is a pilot initiative organized by the Provost Office to create thoughtful, co-curricular spaces that bring students, staff and faculty together in personal conversation.

During the first round in February, over 140 Amherst community members participated in a dialogue session to answer, “When do you conform?” According to the data collected afterwards, 93% of ABQ participants felt they had gained new insight into the topic and themselves, 91% left the session feeling closer to the rest of participants, 92% had a positive ABQ experience and 98% of participants said they would participate in another ABQ session!

So, this is it! Sign up for the second round of ABQ sessions as soon as possible @ go/ask/signup for they fill up quickly! As this is still a pilot program we are providing a limited amount of sessions with participant caps, however, we hope to expand the program next year. Our aim is that Ask Big Questions will contribute towards meaningful connection, community and understanding at Amherst.

For more information go to