Over the next few months, the class of 2019 will be busy making some big decisions — which classes to take, which clubs to join and which Val meals to vow never to eat again. But they will also help make another big decision, which may have more lasting consequences for Amherst: whether the school can have social clubs.
I was one of the original members of the group that formally proposed social clubs — clubs which exist for the purpose of providing a social outlet for its members and throwing social events open to the entire school — to the student body almost a year ago. To address some rumors off the bat: Yes, many of the men in the group had been in fraternities. Yes, we miss fraternities, as do many male and female students who weren’t part of Greek organizations. No, social clubs are not a top-level conspiracy by which we plan to kick all of the girls off campus and return Amherst to the frat-centered 1950s.
Social clubs, by my estimation, take profound steps to fix the things that made fraternities an exclusionary force for some. The proposed clubs must be co-ed, can’t reject anyone who has shown interest, are funded by the school rather than by dues and have administrative oversight which can dispel a club for lack of diversity (of any type). They give students funding and space to form close, meaningful friendships outside of sports teams, freshman dorms or theme houses. And they ensure that every weekend, students will have more options than drinking in a dark corner of Stone or making arts and crafts in Keefe.
Yet, there exists at Amherst a small but vocal contingent that sees social clubs as college life going to hell in a hand basket.
At first, I didn’t understand why this contingent was so against social clubs. It seemed like whatever we did to address its concerns, it remained unsatisfied. But towards the end of the year, it hit me — these students weren’t against any individual aspect of fraternities or social clubs themselves, but against the whole idea of organized social groups. They were against any students coming together with any other students, calling themselves any name or pooling any of their resources to throw an event.
Take, for example, Sam Rosenblum’s polemic against social clubs last semester in this same publication: “We should desire,” he writes, “a campus where every student, because of and not in spite of social differences, would be able to befriend any other student.” His argument seems to start on the right track, though we might be immediately wary of a framework that defines social life in opposition to friendship. But in Rosenblum’s next sentence, we see just how misguided his position is. Rosenblum wrote: “A variety of factors — athletic team membership, first-year dorm placement, (lack of) attendance at the socials, religion, political stances — limit our ability to befriend others on this campus.”
In other words, Rosenblum and others who oppose social clubs in any form believe that social life and friendships are hampered by organized groups like sports teams and first-year dorms (a category to which we could add first-year seminars, a cappella groups, the AAS, theme houses, the Multicultural Resource Center and the Women’s and Gender Center). But this view is the opposite of the truth. Activities like playing on the same team, living in the same dorm or going to the same parties and events are exactly what make meaningful social relations possible. They are the very foundations that allow us to meet and bond with those who become our close friends.
It is even more astounding that Rosenblum lists religion and political views as detriments to social life. These aspects of identity (to which we could add race, class and gender) not only create commonalities which are the seeds of meaningful relationships, but make us who we are. “Students at Amherst have a variety of interests, desires and talents that attract them to form different social groups,” Rosenblum writes. “That is a problem that fuels loneliness on our campus.” It is a shocking position, with scary implications, that a diversity of student interests and talents is a problem that must be fixed. Now, it may be true that loneliness at Amherst is fueled by our inability to engage with those whose identities seem wholly different from our own. Giving Rosenblum the benefit of the doubt, this is how I take his remark. But the ironic thing is that social clubs would help solve that very problem by channeling the universal interest of companionship, rather than interests that only appeal to those of certain identities.
I do not know how Sam’s contingent came to believe that groups and identities hurt, rather than enable, social relations. But I speculate that it has to do with their stated desire for relationships to develop “naturally” or “organically.” This is not an absurd craving. In fact, it is a very human one. We all want to believe that we are capable of entering into meaningful relationships wholly on our own, without the help of any institution or group. We imagine a utopian landscape in which we are guided, as if by magic forces, to those deep connections that will sustain us and make our lives worth living. For the anti-social club contingent, existing groups and identities are the only things stopping us from realizing this idyllic state of affairs.
But the truth is that there is no magic. Institutions and commonalities are precisely the things that make organic social relations possible, not the other way around. Groups make meaningful relationships, and social clubs would do so better than most.
So some closing advice to the class of 2019 (and anyone else willing to listen): Do not be fooled into thinking that the contingent against social clubs has any viable alternative in mind. They don’t. If you truly believe that institutionalized groups are bad for college life, then vote against social clubs. But if you don’t — if you agree that common activities and identities make meaningful relationships possible — then I implore you to vote “yes” on the proposal.