Defining Amherst is an initiative about exploring the purpose of an Amherst education. For more information, visit www.definingamherst.wordpress.com.
Johnathan Appel ‘16 didn’t come to Amherst looking for a comfortable education. He came here to have all his ideas challenged. As a political science major, he finds himself re-evaluating the systems of privilege he benefits from and trying to understand their existence. Recently, he has become more involved with campus politics as a member of the Judiciary Counsel. He hopes our student body will find ways to use the AAS to empower ourselves and to tackle important issues.
In this interview, Johnathan explains how his interactions with other students and his classroom experiences have changed what he thinks and have taught him to constantly question his own ideas.
SH: What is the purpose of your Amherst education?
JA: I guess it’s two-fold. I came here because I want to be exposed to all different kinds of ideas, including conservative ideas. I’ve never felt more uncomfortable with my ideas in my life. People need to come into an Amherst education having their mind completely scrambled, saying, “How do I even process the world anymore?” and that’s when the learning takes place. And then secondly, I really like to get to know a lot of people. I have come in here and thoroughly enjoyed being able to see people and know who they are and what their experiences are and being able to have that inform who I am. That’s why I didn’t go to a big school. I love having multiple groups of friends and seeing how they all intersect. Those are my goals.
SH: How have you worked inside and outside of the classroom to accomplish those goals?
JA: As a political science major, I major in institutions and reproductions of inequality, which is fancy for understanding why I was born super rich, while other people were born poor and why we have systems of privilege. And I think before I got here, I, for example, assumed that the civil rights movement had done its work. But when I’m faced with similar issues in the classroom, like the racial caste system of mass incarceration in the war on drugs, for example, that boggles my mind and makes me reevaluate everything. My other goal I’ve tackled both inside and outside of the classroom. One of the most influential classes I’ve ever had was one in which we were talking about the war on drugs and how race informs random stops and frisks and three people in the class had amazing stories. And then I said to myself, “I was born on the upper east side. I’ve never been stopped and frisked in my life and I’ve used drugs.” If anything scrambles my mind and proves that systems of privilege still exist, it’s these other people’s experiences. And outside the classroom, I just try to get to know as many people as possible.
SH: How did you choose Political Science over Law Jurisprudence and Social Thought?
JA: I wanted more of a history focus. I was actually deciding for a long time between history and poly-sci. I like law, but I’d rather investigate the real world issues as opposed to the construction of the trial, for example. I like to think I’m more of a big-picture person and I thought I could do that better in poly sci.
SH: What is your involvement with and views on campus politics?
JA: I ran and won the JC by a narrow margin in January and I’m running for senate. I see the senate and I see politics as something that could be amazing. I see US politics as something that compromises, that takes things such as the feminist movement, and waters them down until they’re a shadow of what they were. But with AAS politics, I see a body that has had it’s power taken by the administration and I’m not a pure administration hater. I think they do great things, but as a student body, we need a way to empower ourselves and make student driven change and the answer lies within the AAS. Rather than being just a body that gives out money, it should be that and more. It should empower students on issues, such as, gender inclusive bathrooms or gender inclusive language in syllabi. Students are the largest population on this campus and we should have the most power, but we don’t and the only way to treat that is through politics. It’s why I’m a poly-sci major.
SH: Do you think we all have a larger, common purpose as students at Amherst?
JA: My immediate reaction is yes. As the largest population this campus, we have a duty not to be apathetic. I was reading something for class and it was talking about acquiescence. In any kind of political movement, unless you have a big interest group, nothing happens. The student body here can be that interest group to inspire real change on this campus. We did that with sexual assault reform. We can do that with so many other things. Another common purpose is that we’re all here to challenge each other. Ultimately we want everybody to leave here more ready for the world and more ready to inspire positive change in the world.
SH: Do you think it’s a school’s job to teach their students to challenge each other?
JA: I think it’s a school’s job to completely change what we think. I talked to one senior who’s going to finance and he said to me “I didn’t realize that I didn’t have to be an econ major. I wish I had been a history major.” I think it’s the school’s job to let people know that immediately. If I had my ideal world, I would make it so that students couldn’t declare their major their first year at all. You shouldn’t study what you thought you were going to study. It’s the schools job to rattle your brain. It’s the schools job to actually encourage students to live lives of consequence, which we don’t seem to do, unless the consequence is reproduction because that’s what we’re doing – we’re just reproducing the same thing over and over again.
SH: How does your education relate to your life?
JA: It changes my ideas through my experience engaging with the materials I’m reading. Also, sharing these experiences with other people, interacting with other people, having that dialogue, benefits my ideas on what I would like to do with my future life. I think that’s really what an Amherst education is about. In four years, you’re going to come out thinking something completely different than what you came in thinking and hopefully it will be a bit more on the mark. And then you will spend the whole rest of your life having gained the ability to question what you’re thinking. That will only help you grow. I want to learn to have the tools to constantly question my own experiences and the experiences of those around me and figure out how can I change things for the better.