Kyle Ferendo ’15 writes in a commentary of academic life at the College.
For a number of weeks, I have been feeling a puzzling hostility towards Amherst’s administration. I call it puzzling because it has been so general (as a result of my inability to identify its source) and because I had previously been so smitten by my college. Naturally, I felt outrage with the rest of the student body when I learned about the college’s abysmal treatment of cases of sexual assault, but my frustration predated that controversy, and the controversy itself has increased my own willingness to give a name to my dissatisfaction.
With preregistration period approaching, I’ve been spending plenty of time reading course descriptions, and I’ve finally identified the source of my frustration.
For me, the problem is how conservative Amherst is as an institution. I don’t mean in the sense of domestic politics (it’s true, the student body is pervasively “Democratic”). But the course offerings have a strong bias toward the study of established systems of power rather than challenges and alternatives to it, either historical or particularly, modern.
Take the prominence of classical liberalism in our political science and philosophy course offerings. Are there courses in these departments that focus on Marxism? Anarchism? At best, Marx gets a passing mention. Bakunin? Flores Magón? Who are these? Neither do we have the opportunity to study the philosophy underlying fascism, for example, in these departments. I was far more readily exposed to the writings of Alfred Rosenberg when I was in my high school history electives than I am here. Surely we at Amherst understand that to study is not necessarily to endorse.
The only political science course that focuses on any sort of radicalism is based around describing the “threat” that political “fanaticism” poses to democracy. On the other hand, we certainly don’t lack courses that explore debates within liberalism, and Locke features prominently in our political science and philosophy departments. These courses may expose students to criticism of aspects of hegemonic systems, but that criticism typically comes from a place within the hegemonic order itself.
There are history and black studies courses that engage some of these topics in more depth (although it should be noted that the professor who teaches several of these will be permanently leaving the college next year), but the departmental placement of these courses is significant. I think that history is among the most essential fields we use to understand humanity. But studying an ideology through the lens of history almost necessarily focuses on that ideology’s impact on historical events rather than directly engaging the ideology itself on a philosophical or political level.
And compare that with the fact that Amherst offers majors in American studies, European studies and Asian studies, but not Middle Eastern studies, Latin American studies or African studies. This is another manifestation of the same trend: regions of central importance to the global political and economic order are favored over the global periphery in the same way that hegemonic ideologies are favored over counterhegemonic or subaltern ones.
Courses on counterhegemonic ideologies and peripheral geographic regions are important not just for the study of these things in themselves, but because they also offer an important new perspective for those who wish to study the established order. They elucidate through contrast and they tell the other half of the story. The college’s Black Studies and Women’s and Gender Studies departments are valuable deviations from this trend, but they are insufficient.
Ultimately, the problem with Amherst for me is that, while it trumpets the (mediocre to poor, but that is a discussion for another time) demographic diversity of its students, it suffers from a much more severe lack of academic diversity.
I think we have to acknowledge that for as long as Amherst has existed, it has been an institution largely serving — and to some degree serving by conscious design — to educate the elite and to qualify them to go on participating in already-existing power structures. And I believe that we have an obligation to change that.
None of this is to criticize the excellent academic integrity of Amherst’s faculty, or even to suggest that Amherst entirely fails to offer courses of study that could lead to perfectly fulfilling careers removed from the pursuit of power for many of its students. But I nevertheless believe that Amherst suffers from a serious lack of academic diversity, and that this needs to be addressed.