A Case for Social Justice Education

Amherst College’s admissions brochures love to tout the open curriculum. Save for the first year seminar, which has such a range of options that it can hardly be counted as a required class, we are free to explore our interests without restriction. If you hated French in high school, you can say “au revoir” to it for good here. Loved by more than enthusiastic tour guides, our open curriculum is almost universally seen as a boon for our academic careers. Before we go any further, The Amherst Student’s editorial board would like to clarify that we love the open curriculum. However, we would argue that it could use some tweaking.

The mission of our college is to prepare its students to lead “lives of consequence.” Granted, beyond that, that ideal is pretty vague. Amherst is in no way pre-professional nor does it create many expectations beyond major requirements. Yet, this freedom leaves students at somewhat of a deficit when it comes to social justice issues. The fact is that any pre-med, econ or even English student can get away without taking a single class that explores social constructions of race or gender. In reality, it is entirely possible for an Amherst student to be as ignorant of political issues integral to their participation in our democracy as when they walked in. To put it another way, Amherst students should know the words “check your privilege” as something more than a catchphrase used by a few campus activists.

A mandatory half-credit class on race, gender, privilege and social justice would solve this fundamental issue. This class could be once a week and held during a first-year student’s first semester here. The essential idea would be to make sure that every Amherst student has a basic knowledge of social issues to not only have the conversations that the Day of Dialogue strived to create but also to create better democratic citizens in the long run that can articulate solutions. These issues should not and cannot be relegated to political science or sociology classes, since our perceived social identities affect us in all aspects of our lives. A once-a-week, mandatory survey class created in collaboration with the Black Studies, SWAGS, Political Science, History and Sociology Departments along with the MRC, QRC and WGC could push Amherst students to critically think about their future “lives of consequence” without forcing us to abandon the open curriculum we hold near and dear.

Students cannot lead lives of consequence without actually understanding that racism is still rampant, that colorblindness isn’t the answer and that feminism doesn’t mean hating all men. It would be foolish to dismiss this claim by saying that Amherst students are the “cream of the crop” and should somehow intrinsically understand society better than the average citizen. If the Day of Dialogue showed us anything, it’s that many of us often don’t know or care enough about issues of race, racism and gender inequality. Some have argued that the very nature of being in such a diverse environment forces us to have conversations about privilege and social justice. But Amherst cannot, in good conscience, rely on random late-night conversations between friends to educate students about these essential issues. Students should have informal conversations about race, class and gender, but the onus to start these conversations and educate should be on the institution.