What Does Amherst Owe Democracy?

Those elite institutions that send their alumni into leadership positions in our country have a responsibility to educate truly civic-minded leaders, Zane Khiry ’25 argues.

Harvard, Holy Cross, Princeton, Princeton, Princeton, Columbia, Yale, Rhodes, Harvard. You may think I’m just naming a bunch of schools worse than Amherst (and I am), but I'm actually listing off the institutions where every current U.S. Supreme Court Justice received their undergraduate degree — almost all of which are elite colleges. In the midst of corroding trust in our nation’s institutions and the pillaging of them by a narrow circle of elites like those on the Supreme Court, it’s important to recognize the role that we — those who comprise the bodies of the elite institutions that train our nation’s democratic elites — have played and continue to play in the death of American democracy. The crisis of leadership starts here, at Amherst and its peer institutions, and any failure to produce civic-minded, responsive leaders should be seen as the fault of these institutions.

Elite institutions like Amherst need to take ownership of Clarence Thomas, for example, the same way they enthusiastically take credit for Barack Obama — because, whether they like it or not, it is they who produced him. Thomas, the Supreme Court justice who worked to overturn Roe v. Wade, and is currently working to dismantle affirmative action, graduated near the top of his class at Yale Law. He exemplified what it means to a successful student at such an institution. The problem, however, is that the notion of success upheld by these institutions often doesn’t have any real place for public service. Elite schools like Amherst that only pay lip service to public service, still simultaneously uphold a number of hidden systems and incentives (like those that sent a third of our 2021 graduates to Wall Street) that have given and will continue to give us a corrupt and disreputable elite.  Amherst owes it not only to us, but to society at-large, to uncover these hidden incentives and seek to change them — because Amherst, and its peer institutions, owe our democracy its future leaders.

One might say the entire system of elite education is more focused on reproducing the class system than it is on producing future leaders. Students here at Amherst are overwhelmingly wealthy, and disproportionately choose to go into wealth-making professions like finance and consulting. We are, in some sense, no better than the aristocrats of old. We frequently take advantage of our privilege at the expense of society at large, and there is no doubt that the entire system of elite education is at fault. The very things that get us into schools like Amherst — the crafting of pristine resumés, working endlessly to achieve a high gpa, even at the expense of learning — no doubt, are at fault. We begin the rat race in our high school years, and colleges like Amherst often never compel us to step outside of it and think about what our responsibilities to the world may be.

There is the question of whether or not Amherst encourages its students to learn to be responsive to the needs of our democracy. I believe it is not currently doing enough. The very idea of the college campus was born out of a need for elite institutions to find a way to protect America’s best and brightest from the corrupting influences of nearby cities — and Amherst was no different, with some buildings here being built to intentionally face away from the town. While the idea of constructing secluded campuses to protect students from public vice has since fallen out of favor, one can still see its effects exemplified in issues like the town-gown divide, or the divide that exists between college students and the residents of the town in which the college is located. Amherst College is as a castle on a hill — and students can easily fall victim to a cloistered elitism, which encourages them to grow unresponsive to the needs of their community simply because they don’t have to be.

While many students here at Amherst do manage to successfully bridge the town-gown divide, the problem here is these students had to independently go out of their way to do so. Initiatives that encourage students to learn outside of the Amherst bubble, should be opt-out, and not opt-in. Here, I would advocate the proliferation, and perhaps requirement, of community-based learning courses. These courses “link learning both inside and outside the classroom,” mandating that students not only learn from their textbooks, lectures, and in-class discussions, but from the world around them. A new club, Amherst Students for Democracy (ASFD), has recognized not only this need, but is pushing it to the forefront with their upcoming pledge for students to do social impact work during their time at Amherst.

We, as Amherst students and democratic citizens, find the need for strong, responsive leadership renewed and ever-so-urgent in our time of imperial decay. However, as it currently stands, there is much more Amherst could be doing to counteract current trends in the production of our democratic elite. Among them would be working to shift the culture within the college, and bridging the town-gown divide.

William Deresiewicz once powerfully noted that “the disadvantage of an elite education is that it’s given us the elite we have, and the elite we’re going to have.” What we’re facing in America is a crisis of leadership — and it is the responsibility of Amherst and its peers to once again take up the task of educating responsive, civic-minded leaders. The fate of our nation hangs in the balance.

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