Before we imagined what community looked like, we simply wanted it. Students and the institution both often rely too heavily on aesthetics. We try to create a community that looks and behaves a certain way, but we don’t always listen to the underlying emotional drive for social connection. Relational drive becomes sidelined for the sake of the relational product, and we lose sight of why we were trying to connect with others in the first place.
Of course, we should be imagining our future and brainstorming ways in which we can make our community stronger and more inclusive. However, it becomes a problem when we, or the institution, set out a vision that is so superficial that it fails to respond to what is happening in the present moment. In other words, if we found our imagination of the future exclusively on the basis of an aesthetic framework, we will forever be correcting our present to align with the “look.” We will not be listening to the reorienting process that the present demands.
To observe this phenomenon in our own institution, we can consider the college’s hardline stance on fraternities. Greek life, on a national scale, is certainly surrounded by a problematic and oppressive culture — it reinforces hierarchies far beyond the college campuses where it originates. It should be a subject of concern and national discussion, but not because it looks bad for institutions. It should be concerning because of the genuine crisis it reflects about the structures of our social lives in America. We should be more concerned about how it enforces hyper-masculinity instead of worrying how to remove Greek letters from the public eye. We should be concerned about the incidents of sexual assault and how our campuses endorse and even award perpetrators.
If Amherst took the root of fraternity culture seriously, the administration would be less obsessive about reporting every single time the term “frat” is uttered. Instead, we would be having a larger conversation about many other all-male institutions and teams that enforce hyper-masculinity on campus — teams that are sanctioned by the institution itself. We might be having more transgressive conversations about how to actually shake an institution to its core and make it look at itself. We should actually investigate why sexist and racist email-chains exist, dig into masculine culture at Amherst and upend it — not encourage students to simply drag old secret files into their trash folder for the sake of our reputation. Too often, conversations stop short and only touch upon how to behave and how to present oneself — how to hide, essentially. And even if no one was told to delete their old emails and screenshots of GroupMe explicitly, we did so implicitly by failing to force men on this campus to truly look at themselves and the culture in which they are implicated.
Such half-hearted conversation does a disservice to all involved. It upholds a structure of education that instructs a certain way of thinking about things, rather than thinking for itself. Being told how to behave in strict terms doesn’t encourage self-reflection — it only makes them believe that asking such narrow, appearance-based questions is the best way to survive. On a practical level, this attitude proves unsustainable.
Rather than addressing underlying issues, relational products only scratch at the surface. And after a while, when this surface cracks, the problems still linger under the façade and fester. In the case of tearing down the social dorms, for example, the policy diminished teams’ abilities to throw parties together, but did it really create a more inclusive social scene at Amherst? It seems like there was little concern for how students connect or should connect in the first place. By only looking at the surface, the college fails to address the complexities of problems on this campus, and this failure is something students have to live with from generation to generation.