Lately, toilet plungers have been on my mind. I’ve been thinking a lot about how infrequently I see toilet plungers on campus and about what that dearth of plungers says about our community. Before coming to Amherst, I lived in a fairly ordinary lower-middle class suburban house. Each of our bathrooms were equipped with one plunger, typically placed to the left of the toilet. In our family, whoever plugged a toilet was responsible for unclogging it, which seemed reasonably fair to everyone. When we were young, my brothers and I would try to get out of plunging-duty by pretending we didn’t remember the right technique, at which point our parents gave us two options. We could observe as they plunged and then do a practice round on our own or go back to the toilet and see if our memory had suddenly been jolted. As I got older, the whole memory-lapse charade started to seem slightly lazy, and occasionally I would plunge without any feigned-ignorance shenanigans. Eventually, plunging became another one of those little things you do without thinking, simply to save someone else the bother.
I’ve also been thinking a lot about the cost of toilet plungers and specifically about the cost of supplying plungers to the student body of a small college. Lowes sells the seven-inch Cobra Rubber Plunger with a twelve-inch handle for $5.98. Amherst College typically houses around 1,800 students. If the school wanted to supply one plunger for every 10 students and then distribute them evenly among the dormitory bathrooms, 180 would need to be purchased and the college would have to pay a grand total of $1076.40, or 60 cents per student.
Given how inexpensive it would be to supply plungers and to ask students to use them, it’s curious that the custodial staff unclogs our toilets. Curious because unclogging a toilet is the exact sort of thing I think a liberal arts education should ask you to engage with. To me, the liberal arts are about teaching a generation of citizens how to be excellent members of the wide range of communities they will need to work within over a lifetime. These communities might be large or small, corporate or personal, intellectual or un-academic, as public as a governing body or as private as a family. Their members could be leaders, critical thinkers, hard workers, effective time managers or a whole slew of other things you can learn to be in an Amherst classroom.
A crucial part of being engaged in a community is to learn how to work on caring for that community. Of course, no class here at Amherst can teach you how to do necessary menial work selflessly and without gripe. Classes are about learning how to tackle intellectual work, which is all well and good, except that when you spend your time doing big work for yourself, you lose sense of communal responsibility. Lessons about attending to the commons are taught at Amherst in doses. They are taught waiting in compost lines at Val, locking up the dorm room because your roommate has expensive golf clubs that he wants protected and taking out the trash. These daily moments accumulate until they teach a valuable lesson about how much our community’s wellbeing depends on the ways we care for it.
For me, one of the scariest and most crucial things about life on this small campus is that the way I use my body and my words has a salient effect on the people with whom I share space. I used to think of menial tasks as small work, but this is not the case. It’s strange that for all the time I spend worrying about the impact my actions have on this community, I almost never have to think about or to partake in the daily menial labor that’s necessary for us to have a community in the first place. Living at a college where my meals are prepared for me and my living space is cleaned by a custodian, I want to find more ways of reminding myself how much of my well-being here depends on labor that I rarely engage with or think about. Taking the time to plunge our own toilets is one small way of starting to find meaning in forms of work and types of workers whose place at Amherst College is neglected far too often. For 60 cents a student and two to three pumps a clog, it’s well worth the price.