Dear Amherst: Who Are You?

Amherst, who are we? That’s the crucial question facing our school today. Let me explain.

I’m a first-year. I’m new to this school and new to this whole college thing. I’d like to think I came to Amherst with a fresh perspective, unbiased by the twists and turns of college life. So with that in mind, when my friends back in Florida call and ask, “So what is Amherst like?” I find it surprisingly difficult to answer that question. Normally, college students can easily point to a prevalent campus culture. But here at Amherst, that isn’t the case. 

Like all seniors in high school, when I decided on Amherst, I developed expectations about what my future home would be like. Let me guide you through what I thought Amherst was going to be. First, I thought we would be more political. Not political in terms of ideology; I was simply thinking we would be a more activist campus. Many similar institutions, like Columbia or Brown, maintain a strong political culture and often have school-wide demonstrations and protests on controversial issues on campus. Here at Amherst, however, even the most contentious issues seem to be avoided by the majority of the student population. Bummer. 

Second, I expected more appreciation for the arts. Didn’t John F. Kennedy make a famous speech here on campus where he praised the dedication to the arts? Aren’t we, after all, known as the “singing college”? I expected music to play endlessly during dinner in Valentine, the quad to be filled with the sounds of trumpets and violins, angelic voices to fill the empty void in front of Johnson Chapel. Instead, the piano in Val slowly accumulates dust. Instead, I rarely hear our a cappella groups; the only singing I ever hear is my floor-mate Sam in the shower. Instead, the quad is lifeless and so unimaginably silent that if you concentrate, you can almost hear Robert Frost rolling over in his grave. Well, at least I still have Spotify. 

Third, I expected more athletic life. No, I wouldn’t dare bore you with another rant about the athlete/non-athlete divide (though athletes and non-athletes tend to live as divided as Israel and Palestine). Rather, I simply expected more athletic clubs — the two most popular American sports, football and baseball, for example, lack intramurals here on campus. But more than that, I expected more athletic involvement: more students taking a morning jog, more people using the gym, more of us utilizing the quad and our campus more actively. Instead, the only time I see people running is to beat the lines at Val. Do our athletics only show at the fields? 

Lastly, I was under the impression that a small school like ours would foster incredible school pride. Here was my rationale: A small school would help form strong relationships among students. Therefore, by virtue of those connections we would be entrenched in strong purple pride. On the contrary, quite the opposite seems to be happening: Lots of people here are lonely. And then I see disproportionate quantities of Harvard, Yale and Brown sweatshirts over Amherst gear. Is it that we’re not proud to go here or is it that we haven’t cemented a strong campus culture? I’d like to think it’s the latter. I also expected to experience, as my friends at larger schools do, frequent school events and school get-togethers, and the only ones we’ve had, to my knowledge, have been Fall Festival and the homecoming bonfire night. As I arrived at the homecoming pep rally, I counted fewer than 40 of us there. Talk about school spirit! Go Moose, anyone? 

As a first-year senator, I’ve been bombarded with dozens of campus issues including (but not limited to): the mascot debate, the question over divestment, the concerns over modernizing our open curriculum through the Curriculum Committee and the question of social clubs. It’s my belief that these issues reflect our school-wide lack of identity. What should our new mascot be? To keep Lord Jeff or not keep a promoter of genocide/humanitarian crimes as our mascot? That is the question. As for divestment, Amherst says, “Here, freshman, read ‘This Changes Everything’ by Naomi Klein, a book about why colleges should divest” and then hypocritically lacks the scruples to divest itself. Moreover, student applications for a Curriculum Committee were recently solicited in order to examine the merits of the open curriculum, a pillar of the Amherst educational experience. Maybe we should adopt a closed curriculum instead?

Additionally, the student body recently expressed its support for social clubs. Proponents see it as a way to combat rampant loneliness and the athlete/non-athlete divide. Opponents see it as a sneaky, roundabout way to bring back fraternities. I voted for them. But I can already smell the beer. 

Amherst has traditionally been late to the game on several issues. We like to think about issues a lot longer than many other colleges. Maybe this is a weakness; maybe it’s a strength. What is clear, however, is that we have been late on allowing women to integrate into our campus, late on changing our mascot and late on plenty of other pertinent matters.
When Amherst springs into action, it spends more time passively reasoning than reacting. As we explore issues like our mascot, divestment, our open curriculum and social clubs, among others, we are essentially searching for a new Amherst. The issues at hand confirm this sense of campus soul-searching. Amherst is transitioning into a new identity, and the student body leads this transition.     

Tradition and progress are ultimately in conflict here at Amherst. The move from a predominantly white, wealthy, male population to what is today a student population that’s diverse both in race and socioeconomic status is introducing new blood to the heart of our school and is fundamentally driving the search for our identity as a campus. The new Amherst will not be built in one day. Little by little and over time, our diverse student population should be answering the pressing issues here on campus, and depending on how we answer, we have the unique opportunity to determine the character and direction of our school. That’s what helps form a strong college and foster a strong community: a responsive student body that understands itself and its goals.