Educational Responsibility and Intellectual Honesty

Hey, first years. Here’s a welcome: a belated welcome, nonetheless, but a welcome, from a jaded, opinionated senior who’s entering her final year with a strange combination of disillusionment and yet a stronger belief than ever in the power of the sort of education you can get, should you make the right choices, from your four years at this College. Although I plan to use this column, over the span of the next year, to talk politics, academics and social justice, I thought it’d be fitting to inaugurate it to talk politics of a more local kind: the politics of your education here at Amherst College — and this is something I address to all my fellow students, not just the first years and something I address not as someone who thinks they know some sort of secret as to what to get out of schooling, but as one of your peers, working through how to piece together and parse my Amherst education as I step out into the Real World™.

You’re probably wearily shaking your head at this point, saying, no, I know, I’ve heard it all in those two something weeks of orientation: lead a “life of the mind,” take classes in different departments, embrace “diversity” and “multiculturalism” and all those other catchy buzzwords, expand your horizons and blah, blah, blah. While I think there’s a lot to be said about exploration of different departments, critical thought and indeed, yes, diversity, as much of a watered down concept as it’s been made to be on our campus, it’s also highly important to cut through all the liberal arts propaganda that they attempt to indoctrinate you with right from the day you make that step onto the First Year Quad.

So my first piece of advice is: not all opinions are equal or intelligent (or even intelligible), and your objective here is not to learn them and accept all of them, but to learn both what and how to argue. To do that, you need to use your entire education, both inside and outside the classroom, to develop a belief system, and to try and fit every new piece of knowledge that you obtain into that belief system, teasing it, stretching it to its limits and inbuilt assumptions, reconfiguring it and constantly rethinking it. That’s not to say you step on this campus as a Republican or a Democrat (…please, please don’t think these are the two limits and only possible iterations of a political belief system) and chant the party line while refusing to listen to any arguments contra it. That’s not to say that you should decide a certain political leaning and then stick to your exact interpretation of that political leaning throughout your college career. That’s not to say, conversely, that you should listen to every viewpoint and simply “agree to disagree” either — agreeing to disagree is the worst and most disingenuous form of intellectual cowardice. That is to say that you must give opposing arguments the respect that they deserve in that you must be willing to go beyond just criticizing them and must critique them, and scrutinize where they stand with respect to your belief system and why they do so. That is to say that the totality of your viewpoints (and please, don’t graduate college without viewpoints — the worst evil is indifference) must follow some sort of stated coherence, some sort of internal harmony that you are constantly allowing to be tested, examined and evolved in your arguments inside and outside of the classroom.

Why is it so important to develop a belief system? Because the lack of a belief system is a belief system in and of itself, and the worst kind of belief system, a mindless abyss of liberalism where all opinions are regarded as equal, and thus, those opinions that capture the dominant discourse of society are left unchallenged, and the unstated assumptions inherent in all our basic thought processes allowed to persevere. In fact, it’s farcical to tell you to develop a belief system: you already have a belief system. Find it, know it, test it and challenge it: bring to the surface what you’ve had indoctrinated within and come face to face with it — that’s the purpose of your education. Education is not about knowledge as much as it is about truth, and the first step is to find the truth of your own beliefs, arguments and assumptions. (I’m no philosophy major, but I do feel my bro Socrates would agree on this, and he was, you must admit, a pretty cool guy. If this is a completely incorrect reading of Plato’s Apology, feel free to send angry emails to The Student telling me so).

Furthering on the idea that all people have ideologies and belief systems, and the lack of one is an odious one in and of itself, it’s also important to remember that Amherst College, as well as its subdivisions in the form of its academic departments, is an institution, and institutions, as much as people, also always have ideologies and ideological bents. The College has a desire, a history and an impetus to bring a certain kind of person and a certain kind of thought process into the world, and it’s important to be mindful of that whenever you listen to anything you are told by any and all representatives of the College. The critical eye that your classes are going to teach you to develop towards literature, political bodies and theories, art, television or whatever else, must not be confined to the classroom — it’s the same critical eye that you should look upon not just yourself with, but the institution that you are a part of, and the power, privilege and hegemony that arise as a result of being a part of it and being educated in it. It’s fine to be grateful to the College for its generous financial aid and the education it provides: the resources and the intellectuals (students and professors alike) that it gives you access to — I know I am. But you’re here, presumably, to get an education. Blindly accepting what you’re told about anything — people, politics, institutions and the College itself — is not an education; it’s an indoctrination.

In fact, such a necessity for critical thought and examination goes beyond the way you look at your own self and the way you look at your College. Your education must impact the way you think and live outside academic contexts; your theory must progress to praxis. Academics don’t write books for you to write papers on and get an A plus; academics write books to change the world, trite as it does sound. You’re not truly understanding your education if you’re leaving it behind the moment you step foot outside Merrill or Converse — you’re not reading, absorbing and interacting with texts and arguments if there’s a dissonance between your thought processes inside and outside the classroom. That’s not to say that you should be quoting Foucault at the dinner table (this is obnoxious, I’ve done this and I don’t recommend it) or that you should be an activist or a politician preaching the ideas you’ve learned in class to the world. But it is to say that your education is much, much more than a GPA, saved drafts on Microsoft word, an overdue book from the library or a printed out reading. You are reading what fundamentally are arguments about the world that you inhabit. Realize that fact, engage with that as you engage in learning both inside and outside the classroom and treat your education with the responsibility and respect it deserves.

(Which is really not to say you should stress about your grades. How many A’s you get has nothing to do with how intellectually responsible you are — it’s very easy to have a 4.0 and be completely disingenuous and dishonest in your engagement with your education. Like devil’s advocates, agree-to-disagreers and party-line Republicans or Democrats, just don’t be that person.)