Required Perspective: The Merit of a Mandatory Gender Seminar
Volume XXXIV, Issue 3, December 14, 2012
Amherst College does not physically exist. It does not pass the poke test; when I stick out my pointer finger and try to touch Amherst College, I find that there is nothing to touch. Amherst College constitutes no more than a set of agreements made between a set of individuals.
One differentiating feature of Amherst College is its freedom. Although many people do not have the right or ability to be part of Amherst College (as evidenced by our acceptance and hiring policies), all members of Amherst College have the right and ability to withdraw from Amherst College at any time. Withdrawing from Amherst College frees an individual from all obligations to or from Amherst College. As such, it is an institution like Amtrak and the United States; it is an institution somewhat like Christianity and Bank of America (which variously limit withdrawal); and it is an institution not like the penal system or Medieval ghettos (which forbid withdrawal).
Every day, we have the choice to continue or cease being a member of Amherst College. Almost all of us choose to continue.
We agree every day to pay the requisite fee in return for a set of services that Amherst College pledges to provide. On what grounds do we make our choice? What does Amherst College offer us? As an institution, Amherst College puts forward its Mission Statement in order to clarify the set of principles governing the services provided to us by Amherst College. When, as freshmen, we chose to attend Amherst College, we signed onto the Mission Statement of Amherst College. We continue to sign onto the Mission Statement of Amherst College every day.
Of course, Amherst College as an institution is much thicker than our Mission Statement. The Mission Statement does not mention dormitories or food or athletics or religious life or The Indicator or the Counseling Center. It also does not mention sexual assault. Nevertheless, the institution of Amherst College does address sexual assault, as part of Amherst College’s Honor Code. Sexual assault happens between members of Amherst College, and it impinges peoples’ ability to participate in and fulfill the Mission Statement. The Mission Statement thus justifies the Honor Code’s prohibition of sexual assault, as it justifies (and must justify) all facets of Amherst College.
Sometimes (frequently) members of Amherst College put forward changes to the set of agreements that constitute Amherst College. How should we, as members of Amherst College, evaluate those changes? Changes that further the Mission Statement of Amherst College should be implemented, and changes that do not further the Mission Statement of Amherst College should not be implemented. In this way, the Amherst College of which we all chose and choose to be members stays the same Amherst College. After all, we signed up for the institution Amherst College, not a different institution.
Many students are unfamiliar with Amherst College’s Mission Statement. Here it is:
Amherst College educates men and women of exceptional potential from all backgrounds so that they may seek, value, and advance knowledge, engage the world around them, and lead principled lives of consequence.
Amherst brings together the most promising students, whatever their financial need, in order to promote diversity of experience and ideas within a purposefully small residential community. Working with faculty, staff, and administrators dedicated to intellectual freedom and the highest standards of instruction in the liberal arts, Amherst undergraduates assume substantial responsibility for undertaking inquiry and for shaping their education within and beyond the curriculum.
Amherst College is committed to learning through close colloquy and to expand the realm of knowledge through scholarly research and artistic creation at the highest level. Its graduates link learning with leadership- in service to the College, to their communities, and to the world beyond.
That is a great mission statement.
I sign onto that mission statement every day.
The Mission Statement allows me to sign on by including me in “men and women”. I am a man. I am an adult. I have standing to make my own decisions. One of my decisions is to sign onto the Mission Statement. Another of my decisions is to “seek, value, and advance knowledge.” I do those things all the time. Well, I do the first two, and I pretend to do the last one. That is good enough for me.
The Mission Statement states, “Amherst undergraduates assume substantial responsibility for undertaking inquiry and for shaping their education within and beyond the curriculum”. This sentence manifests itself in the Open Curriculum. Amherst College students know what they want to learn and how they want to learn it. Amherst College provides students with tremendous resources to pursue their education, like faculty who teach small classes and meet and talk with their students. It also requires all first-years to take a Freshman Seminar. Freshman Seminars are part of the institution of Amherst College because they display the variegated resources of Amherst College to newcomers, so that newcomers can best take advantage of Amherst College. The only unifying threads between the multifarious Freshman Seminars are their smallness, their first-year constitution, and their emphasis on resources; although every first-year has to take a Freshman Seminar, Freshman Seminars are not a violation of student decision-making freedom. Freshman Seminars are thus justified by the Mission Statement.
Amherst College is an educational institution. It treats me as an adult and lets me identify how to best use its resources in my own best interest. It provides numerous services so that I can maximize its educational value. It advocates for the freedom of all its members, not with an institutional agenda that indoctrinates its students using limitations on choice, but with a wide set of services provided to an intelligent and critically-thinking student body that at any time can individually accept or reject each service. Ultimately, it educates me so that I can live a “principled life of consequence”, which is just the kind of life that I want to live. I am thankful for Amherst College exactly because Amherst College gives me an opportunity to live (and learn to live) that kind of life. It is for these reasons, and because of these reasons, that Amherst College, in its own way, exists.
Amherst College educates and provides and advocates. Amherst College does not relegate or parent. Therefore, I believe that establishing Gender Seminars at Amherst College is an unjustified (and thus) bad idea.