By Meghna Sridhar ’14
Volume XXXIV, Issue 3, December 14, 2012
Last week, a racial slur was written in the snow in the Lord Jeffery Inn parking lot. At around the same time, students overwhelmingly voted against moving a resource center that is designed to tackle conflicts that threaten minority student security and sanity, in order to keep a pool table and a jukebox on the first floor of Keefe.
Last year, a woman (or several) was raped on campus and told to shut up about it by the Amherst administration. At the same time, a magazine that told the stories of many more women who had faced similar violence on the Amherst campus was published. The magazine was largely ignored, and the issue was suppressed until it exploded in an ugly and public fashion, receiving attention only when national media began to hold Amherst accountable.
Here are a few things Amherst likes: the open curriculum and “freedom of choice.” Here’s another thing Amherst likes: the status quo. While there’s always something questionable about liking the status quo, it is more odious when the status quo is that left by an institution that has been traditionally white and male with a history of racist, classist, and sexist acts embedded in its culture. It is precisely for that reason that we should challenge the open curriculum and Amherst’s traditions, and push for a radical change in how our education is organized.
First-Year Seminars should be modified to center around discussions of power, politics, and privilege as they pertain to race, gender, class, and sexuality. They should do more than provide a cursory social justice education, though—these classes should force us to critique ourselves and our place in the wider Amherst community, and how our relationships with ourselves and with other people are mediated through the forces of patriarchy, racism, and heteronormativity. If the examples I provided above aren’t enough, consider this: It took a shattering student account in a newspaper, an extremely violent t-shirt and a day of cancelled classes to expose the majority of the student body to a concept of privilege basic to how our relationships with each other operate. It took us two anonymous magazines, one suicide note, and two student protests to question our own community and system.
Do we need further proof that we, as a community, are woefully unaware of the realities of institutional oppression that our peers face at Amherst? Do we need more proof that we lack a shared vocabulary and shared knowledge base to even begin talking about these issues? What else are we going to wait for and ignore to maintain the status quo—another horrific rape? Another hate crime? Are we simply going to blindly react to these things as they happen? Or are we going to proactively take charge of our education and our institution, challenge it, and change it for the better of all and not the privileged few who can savor their “freedom of choice” at the cost of other students’ exposure to institutional violence?
Why not do this through the classroom? The belief that there should be a gap between what we study and who we are is disrespectful to the basic integrity of our education. Education is designed to engage us with real ideas held by real people. To distance that from your experiences, ideologies, and the way you act as a member of the Amherst community is to be dishonest about and disengaged from your education. A First-Year Seminar that engages academics with identity, experience, and oppression can only enrich you by encouraging a truly active and honest relationship with ideas. A First-Year Seminar that interrogates assumptions ingrained not only into your thinking or that of an author, but that of your professors, the institution and its values, your peers and your community, and ultimately of the system you live in is crucial to a valuable education.
A First-Year Seminar needs to teach students how to connect ideas, academic theories, lived experiences and realities. It should push at questions of what and why we learn, what assumptions are built into what we think, and how our education matters beyond a degree. It should allow you to examine Amherst as an institution with an agenda. More than anything else, it should be a class that enables—not teaches, enables—you to be able to critically question everything you will encounter in the next four years, to rip into the heart of an argument and understand every implication of it: where it came from, how it affects lives and communities around you, and what it means for who you are and how you act and how you live.
This wouldn’t limit the amount of choices that are presented to us, but modify the kind of choices that are offered, and who gets to tailor those choices. These questions of power, oppression, and institutional violence are so pervasive that a seminar on Literature or History or Art or Sociology could all probe at the same ideas and encourage the same kind of questioning. Think TD: The T-shirt, its odious message, and its origins can be discussed from the perspective of art history (how does artistic performance reify social oppressions?), black studies, literature or even anthropology.
Despite the merits of a First-Year Seminar that would educate us more holistically and empower us to tackle systemic problems of institutions around us, there are arguments that such a move would injure our “freedom of choice.” To these dissenters, I ask: What about Amherst, as a private educational institution, strikes you as particularly free? We are limited to certain ideologies and modes of thought on the basis of what readings our syllabi offer, what classes our professors choose to teach, what professors our departments choose to hire, and what leanings our senior faculty choose to hold. Amherst has a desire to bring a certain kind of student and a certain kind of alumnus into the world. You may be free to choose which professor teaches you this ideology, but by the involuntary force of limited choice, you are necessarily always trapped into taking classes that make you think a certain way.
So what is freedom, then? An offer to kick start a student’s academic career with a class that can question these limitations and empower them to learn from, relate to and also challenge their education? Or is it a freedom to stay ignorant, a freedom to turn a blind eye to institutional violence, a freedom to never having to come to terms with the non-freedom of your own education? I urge the student body to think about what is more valuable to them, and what is actually more indicative of real freedom.