Carroll: “Why I Am So Wise”
The mission statement of Amherst College reads:
“Amherst College educates students of exceptional potential from all backgrounds so that they may seek, value, and advance knowledge, engage the world around them, and lead principled lives of consequence … ”
“Amherst College is committed to learning through close colloquy and to expanding the realm of knowledge through scholarly research and artistic creation at the highest level. Its graduates link learning with leadership — in service to the College, to their communities, and to the world beyond.”
And yet, students at Amherst beam at the Wall Street Journal’s ranking of our institution as the “#8 best college in America,” with many triumphantly posting it on their Instagram stories. Few realize that this stands in obvious tension with Amherst’s professed mission.
The primary metric for the WSJ ranking was “salary impact versus similar colleges,” a score calculated mostly from comparing median salaries against students of similar demographics at other colleges. Amherst students should perhaps reconsider their pride in this ranking: They belong to an institution that claims to have its students “seek, value, and advance knowledge” or “lead principled lives of consequence,” but what we are ranked highly for is our ability to produce wealthy graduates.
Instead of recognizing the tension between these qualities, we are overcome by our obsession with the college’s rank in the rat race. And I’m sure that the Amherst administration is thrilled about the ranking’s accompanying prestige regardless of its implications, since it means more attention, more applications, and an even a lower acceptance rate to tout against rival NESCACs: Schools are in competition with one another, and statistics and rankings like these matter for the “brand name.”
What does it even mean to be educated, and how has Amherst been failing us in this regard?
Education shouldn’t just tell us the “what,” but the “why.” One way in which the college fails to do this is inherent in the open curriculum. In the freedom to choose anything, people may pigeonhole themselves into their preferred disciplines. Hardcore STEM students, for example, may refuse to choose any class beyond ones that advance their technical skills. When the only ideas occupying your mind consist of math, chemistry, computer science, and economics, you are hardly exposed to the robust character education that the liberal arts is supposed to inculcate — what is the good life? What does it mean to be a “good person?” How can we “lead principled lives of consequence?”
On the other hand, students who take only humanities aren’t immune from critique. So many humanities majors could use more robust logical thinking and communication skills. Sometimes, an idea is simply wrong, or an interpretation just incorrect. The step-by-step rigor of a math class would do a great service for many students. Or, students self-aggrandize in esoteric seminars and never “link learning with leadership,” instead remaining in the ivory tower of postmodern criticism (and then, curiously, going on to work at a consulting firm). We can’t be effective leaders if we can’t explain the ideas from our 400-level seminars in easy to follow, plain language. (And for this reason, I do give the college’s philosophy department significant praise, for they prize this exact skill.)
In either case, neither student is really, robustly thinking. The STEM bookworm doesn’t examine the underlying ends for what they research, and the humanities student doesn’t rigorously analyze their arguments or communicate them effectively. The beauty of the open curriculum should emerge when we see the curious entanglements of a Chinese history class and an international relations seminar, or when we understand the study quoted by a book for our English class because of the statistics class we’ve had. This doesn’t happen when we shelter ourselves in our specialties. The new breadth requirement for Latin honors is a drop in the bucket, mandating at most a pitiful singular class across four areas.
So why are we here, with an Amherst education in reality that seems contrary to the ideals of the liberal arts?
Many factors remain outside of our control; students today might care less about ideas and thinking for good reason. The world has been consumed with a vocational craze. A fraught job market, punctuated with the threat of automation, hardly gives people comfort in studying poetry during their free time. The rising cost of higher education has contributed to the view that college must provide a “return on investment.” Besides the broad forces of the economy, many students may have legitimate, particular reasons for studying certain fields, or being zealously career-oriented.
Overall, the conditions of the world have naturally produced a stream of employment-anxious first-years. I recall sitting in Val at the beginning of this year, meeting the Class of 2027 bit-by-bit, being amazed at how someone I met (fresh out of high school!) is determined to become an investment banker or a manager at a hedge fund, without a substantial explanation.
Finally, some students chose Amherst because it “was the best school they got into,” not because they were seriously invested in the liberal arts. I hardly even knew what the liberal arts was (I was just told that I’d probably like it here!) and it took me two years to better understand it.
But what can we do about it?
We can try, ever so desperately, to continue to educate ourselves by grappling with ideas seriously, and thinking through problems rigorously, even if this must occur outside the classroom.
This brings me to my motivation for this column: We have this stunning community of 1,900 undergraduates, but it hardly feels like we think deeply about any of the things that we all experience together. There is so much we have in common, even from just being at Amherst College, that we can analyze in order to develop our logical thinking, communication, all while refining our ideas of what really should matter.
I have decided to write with Joe Sweeney, my dear friend, for two important reasons. For one, although we may come to similar conclusions (but who knows), we have very different ways of thinking. This contrast, I hope, will prove to be interesting for the reader of The Student (if you are out there), and will inspire wonder regarding the reader’s own ways of thinking. Perhaps the dizzying vertigo from traversing through Joe’s mind will be complemented well with my comparatively cut and dried vanilla prose. Two, because Joe is a true specimen of a man. He is one of the most sensitively loving and fiercely intelligent people I’ve met in my entire life, such that the thought of having our writing compared side-by-side gives me goosebumps. That is probably a sign writing alongside him will push me to grow in my thought.
To bring it home, consider the college’s motto: Terras Irradient, “Let them enlighten the lands.” We are to become graduates that are principled, purposeful leaders — we are to be of service. How are we to enlighten the lands if our minds are hardly awake, and if we go about our days in an intellectual stupor? This column, if and only if you’ll indulge us, is one attempt to shake us awake, get us thinking, and thereby remain faithful to the tradition and mission of Amherst College.
Sweeney: “Why I Am So Clever”
(I’m going to ask you a question, so be ready.)
“Amherst College educates students of exceptional potential from all backgrounds so that they may seek, value, and advance knowledge, engage the world around them, and lead principled lives of consequence.”
Forget the last two parts — really. Forget them. Let’s just focus on that first thing: seeking, valuing, and advancing knowledge.
My guess is that if I were to try and seek, value, and advance knowledge of what it means to seek, value, and advance knowledge, I wouldn’t advance very far. I don’t think it would be unjust, however, to say that it probably has something to do with thinking.
Something — but what? And what makes it a defining quality of Amherst College students? Does it mean that Amherst students think more than students of other colleges? No, that doesn’t seem right. Does it mean that Amherst students think about more things, that they know more things than other students? No, that’s not right either.
Ah! I’ve got it. It means that the way Amherst College students’ think — the way they process, challenge, and, uh, interrelate their own and others’ thoughts — is just better than the way other college students think.
Yes, this is exactly true of Amherst students, and it is exactly what Amherst professors, and the whole capital-letter Liberal Arts Experience, inculcate. My fellow humanities majors: Time and time again you’ve heard peers and relatives and everyone you love belittle your “useless” degree. Perhaps the epithet would be justified if the frame of reference was the world. But at Amherst, where the objective is to be the best at thinking, nothing could be further from the truth — no degree could be more useful. Just look at the learning goals of the philosophy major (that’s the thinking one!):
- The ability to read, analyze, and articulate arguments in primary philosophical texts and in classroom discussion, and to provide a fair and balanced evaluation of them.
- The ability to communicate clearly, precisely, and cogently in speech and writing.
- The ability to anticipate and even welcome objections to one’s views.
Wow! So many abilities!
At Amherst College, though, it’s not only philosophy majors who think. English majors, history majors, classics majors, sociology, political science — hell, biology, economics, physics, geology majors! Geology! They all think, and they all learn new ways to think, and they all get better at thinking.
But what does it mean to get better at thinking? Well, that’s obvious. It means getting better than other people at thinking. It means reading, analyzing, and articulating arguments; clearly, precisely, and cogently communicating ideas; and anticipating and even welcoming objections to one’s views so brilliantly that, when students Williams try it, they look like morons.
This comparative sense is the only sense in which thinking is, in itself, useful. An Amherst College student is someone who thinks very useful thoughts. The mind of an Amherst College student is a very useful thing.
You feel this, yes, this power? Great! Finally, then, I can ask you (are you ready?) my question:
Do you enjoy thinking?
Let us discuss two possible answers to this question, one less and one more complicated. The less complicated answer is as follows:
Those who answer in this manner need not read any further.
Unfortunately, it is the more complicated answer, I believe, which is more expressive of the typical Amherst student’s character. This person (imagine who you will in place of this second interlocutor; the person who comes to my mind is my co-columnist, Tim Carroll ’25) answers the question with one of their own, voiced with some hostility — “What kind of question is that?” — follows with a thoughtful pause, and then: “My goal when I think is to figure out the problem before me. To do that I need to classify components, challenge assumptions, identify operative conditions — whatever will sort the problem into something I can understand, or which will, at least, let me know what the problem is.”
(And, in brackets, because this part isn’t as likely to be said aloud: “And if I’m not the best at sorting out the problem, or the most articulate in defining the problem, then someone else will get to, and then I’m screwed.”)
Continuing: “Insofar as solving or identifying a problem is my goal, whether or not I enjoy thinking is incidental. Well, perhaps not incidental — let me say it like this: If and only if enjoyment of thinking benefits the usefulness of thinking should it then be considered.”
How elegant! In light of your lucidity my question seems not only silly but entirely wrongheaded: You are completely capable of enjoying thinking, if only it were logically necessary to do so! Of course! I am defeated.
But then, once the point is made, a magnanimous admission: “I mean, I guess I enjoy thinking sometimes. But often it’s hard to enjoy. There are so many problems, you know, and so many problems with the way we understand the problems, and, you know, so many problems with the way we understand our understanding of the problems … how can I help if my mind just runs? In a way, it’s when my mind feels like poison that I know it’s working best. What can I do?”
That’s a tough one. It doesn’t seem unreasonable to expect, though, that someone else — namely, a professor or two — might clue you in on how to enjoy thinking, or, at least, raise it as a question to be considered. Maybe they don’t think to raise the question because they’re teaching Amherst College students. They take for granted that, because we’re attending this college, we enjoy thinking.
Well, maybe that used to be true — when I got to college. In the meantime, though, I’ve gotten a lot better at thinking.
I write this column with two goals in mind, one impossible and one radical. The impossible goal is that I will write on all subjects as if I am capable of enjoying every moment I spend thinking about them. This essentially amounts to making every thought, in the chain of thoughts that comprise an article, an end in itself. In other words, this will be an opinion column whose supreme achievement will be that it expresses no opinions.
The radical goal is that I will write as if the mind could be a pleasant place to live. Wrap your heads around that one, geology majors.
Carroll, my calumniated co-columnist: Is my depiction of you a caricature? Yes, yes it is. Does it even get right the quality it exaggerates? Not really. All I know is that you are the Amherst College student’s ideal type: conscientious, heroically learned, at once affable and inquisitive. Here, at Amherst College, surely the very best thinking is open to you.
Let me end on a rousing note. You remember the motto of our college:
Terras Irradient: “Let Them Bring Light To The Lands.”
As far as the light of understanding is concerned — well, we brought it. Panned it around. A lot of good it did.
But oh, my dear bringers, there is something yet left for us (if only we could unlearn our fear of its uselessness, its meaninglessness!) and that is to bring the light to itself.