When I sat in the crowded Merrill 1 lecture room early in the fall for the Association of Amherst Student’s budgetary committee’s mandatory introductory meeting, I found myself annoyed when Treasurer Paul Gramieri ’17 announced new caps on food spending by insinuating that if a club’s event needed food to get people to go to it, it probably wasn’t a very good event. I probably muttered something to myself about neoliberalism or austerity.
Yet perhaps there is some merit to Gramieri’s line of thinking. Why does every event need to have food? Probably every Amherst student is guilty of going to an event just for the food. One might thus conclude that Amherst’s programming isn’t very compelling, but I think the opposite is true: Amherst College puts on incredible events. In the past weeks, we’ve hosted a the former adviser to the White House Council on Women and Girls, a discussion on Amherst’s history of activism, the founder of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions and more live music than you can shake a stick at. Still, many events have poor attendance, and the events with the best attendance are often the events that have the best food. Why is this the case when our events are, by all other measures, so strong? On the demand side, many students are just too busy to take time out of their days to go to events they wouldn’t normally attend. But the culture of busyness has already been critiqued ad nauseum. I’m writing now to take a look at the supply side.
Our programming is undoubtedly top-notch, but there’s simply too much of it. This may be an unpopular opinion. As Student Life scrambles to slap palliatives on a student body aching with existential loneliness, no administrator would dare suggest the college “do less.” Instead, we seek an additive solution — no one can accuse you of not doing enough for the student body when you’re constantly giving them more stuff. Adding programs thus seems like a no-brainer, and certainly many students would agree — we (myself included) love planning events and there’s no shortage of funding opportunities. Yet, I believe our abundance of programming inhibits the kind of connections that actually quell loneliness.
Professor Dumm identified this trend of additive solutions to loneliness in his essay “Taking Yourself Seriously” for the fall semester’s Disorientation Guide and proceeded to critique both the encroachment of “extra-curricular bullshit” on the more serious academic purpose of an Amherst education, and the general notion that loneliness was something to be cured. Dumm describes this tidal wave of programming as “at best pleasurable distractions … meaningful only to the extent that the friendships you make in these places and while doing these activities may help you to advance the main event of your life here,” being the serious cultivation of oneself as an intellectual adult. While Dumm and I agree on his former point about bullshit-encroachment, I diverge slightly on his latter. Loneliness should not necessarily be cured, but I believe we should embrace the instinct to connect with each other as fellow lonely human beings. I would argue, however, that Amherst’s abundance of programming does little to foster connection of that sort. Most people attend events, club meetings or sports practices with their friend groups, which are not only, obviously, pre-existing to said event, but are also often loose connections based on geographic convenience or a shared identity.
Between academics, clubs, sports, parties, college events and employment, what Amherst students lack is time and space for one-on-one connection: Perhaps making new connections with someone you never thought you’d be able to identify with, or perhaps strengthening existing bonds that you’ve miraculously formed in an otherwise connection-hostile environment. No amount of programming will provide that space — in fact, it encroaches on what little of it there actually is. Lacking the space and time to take risks in connecting to each other, students’ circles of friends close off, we engage in low-stakes hookups instead of actually dating each other, and we never bother to go off campus and meet other kinds of people (yes, there is an Amherst College kind of person) because every kind of event we could ever ask for is within spitting distance. Instead of exploring the physical space of the Five Colleges and the Pioneer Valley and the emotional landscapes within ourselves and our neighbors, we avoid novelty and stay comfortable.
Not everyone may agree with me. I tend to think that true connections with our neighbors are facilitated through lack of structure, but some people feel they need that structure and I want to respect that. Particularly for students who choose not to drink, college programming might be one of the few venues to meet people who can remember their own full name. However, having tried keeping insanely busy as a way of dealing with my own loneliness, I’ve found that loneliness tends to creep back into these group settings, leading to the strange feeling of loneliness among lots of people who, at least peripherally, know you. To truly confront ourselves and our loneliness, I suggest we build down rather than up.