1995 Convocation Address - Roommates: A Reflection on the Campus as a Residential Community

Convocation 1995
Tom Gerety

I had three roommates my freshman year. On the first or second day they agreed that I was in big trouble. They had interrogated me and found that in addition to other oddities of character, I had some strange convictions that might endanger my health and happiness (or even theirs): I intended to avoid all college mixers ; I did not drink or smoke; I hoped as soon as possible to take part in a social revolution; and, most curious of all, I was found out as a church-goer more than once a week. None of them accepted the argument that I liked my life as it was. They emphatically rejected the tolerant wisdom of live and let live. No, no, they chortled, we ve got to turn you around--and fast. Give me one month, said Felix in his formal British way. Do as I do for one single month and you will learn the error of your ways. You re missing out on all that makes life worthwhile.

Nah, Felix, it s not that easy, said Wendell, Gerety s been this way for a while now. Let s take a year and do it right. We ll take him to mixers; we ll force him to drink; we ll make him skip church. By the end of the year he ll be almost normal.

This was 30 years ago; I never did make it to a mixer or smoke much of anything; I tried revolution but didn t get far; and my Puritan views have slackened a bit, I admit.

When I first got the notice of who my roommates would be I felt terribly let down. This was in the summer of l964. I was coming back from Paris. I don't know what I imagined, but I remember asking for "people different from me" on the form for roommate preferences--the form that asks about smoking, staying up late, noise-making, and so on. All of us, I learned, had gone to boarding schools. This suggested to me that we would all be the same in some important way. It didn t quite turn out that way.

I came the shortest distance, so, predictably, I got there last and got the last assignment. There were two singles across an open hallway: they went to the early arrivals. Wendell was from Michigan and Kim was from New York City. Then there was a double with two beds. When I got there one was already taken. Bags were strewn on the bed and on the floor; one of two dressers was taken. Hours later I met my roommate, Felix Downes-Thomas, from the Gambia, in West Africa. His mother ran a taxi service in Bathurst, the capital city (now called Banjul). Felix had been to Taft School for a year before coming to Yale. "Gerety," he called me, in a deep African British accent. He and Wendell, across the hall, were a year or two older than I. I am in touch with both of them, one often, the other less so but with no less delight when we connect by letter or phone, in an airport or Grand Central Station. The third I have not seen since the year after graduation.

I want to put the simple question: What's so important about roommates? More generally and less metaphorically, what has residential life got to do with a college education? Were we stripping college down to its essentials, and building it up from the bottom, we would start, I take it, with teachers and students, a library, laboratories. Why not stop there? City College, in New York, joins the tradition of European universities that begin and end with these essentials. By residential life, I mean dormitories, a dining hall, fields and grounds, a gymnasium. Why do we need or want all that? Is it really helpful to us?

The question matters not because the economics of education forces us to consider a round of cutbacks; we're not at the point of selling off the Campus Center, or renting out the Chapel. The question matters because we --and by we I mean not just Amherst but the family of colleges and universities in our tradition--we have lost our way in residential life: we're no longer sure (if ever we were) of what our ends are in residential life, and less sure still of whether we're achieving them. This year at Amherst I will ask everyone to participate in a review of residential life, and of its fit with our curriculum and our ideals.

When Amherst was founded, residence halls (and a house for the president) went up immediately. The village was tiny: only about 2,000 people lived here. The residence halls, called South and North, were necessary if more than a handful of students were to enroll in the new college. There was room for l20 students, two to a room, with fireplaces but no other amenities. We had a president and two or three faculty, all residing, like the Dickinsons, within a field or two of this chapel. All over the country, colleges were founded with faculties, classrooms, a shelf or two of books, a microscope, a telescope--and residence halls. In a thinly populated country there was no alternative. Farm boys roomed with farm boys from distances that then seemed immense, though today we might cross them in an hour s drive or an hour s flight. Social life seems to have consisted of adolescent pranks and, after 1837, flirtation with young women from the village and from the Female Seminary in South Hadley.

"The students of Amherst in those early days, wrote William. S. Tyler, an early historian of the College, were comparatively free from exciting and distracting circumstances. They came here to study, and they had nothing else to do."1

Was there an ideal, or set of ideals, in these residential and dining arrangements? An echo of Oxford or Cambridge, or, more far fetched, of Plato s Academy and Aristotle s Lyceum? Not as far as anyone can tell. Monasteries might have seemed the nearest analogy to the fierce religious convictions of most of Amherst's early faculty--or perhaps Sparta s training camps for young soldiers. (Alumni, by the way, still speak fondly of the boot camp rigors of our core curriculum of just thirty years ago.)

By 1890, when Calvin Coolidge came down by train from Vermont, Amherst was a well-established college, with graduates in every field and a reputation for intellectual vigor. Coolidge got off at the station on Main Street and went looking for a boarding house, one run by a family friend, in fact. By this time the first of our dormitories, North and South, were used almost exclusively for classes, laboratories, and study halls. Only a handful of students remained in residence on campus. The rest roomed and ate in town, occasionally with professors families. Most students would join one of the newly fashionable Greek-letter societies. In a wealthier period, before Coolidge was long gone, the fraternities built the great houses that now make up perhaps half of our dormitories.

Coolidge started Amherst twice: the first time he dropped out on his second or third day; his father came down to retrieve his feverish son after one day of the notorious entrance exams in classics, history, and mathematics. His second start, a year later, went better. He took the exams, found a boarding house, and began classes. He wrote home that college life..more than meets my expectations in the large amount of work required: I recite 16 hours a week beside chapel, lectures and gymnasium... As befitted a Puritan and even Calvinist school, Amherst left no room for free choice in its curriculum. Even workouts at the gym were required, with showers or sprays part of the discipline.

Social life then was free: you were on your own as a student at college, fending for yourself in housing, meals, and entertainment. I shall like [Amherst] better as I become better acquainted, Coolidge wrote his father at the outset. But the loneliness was not much disguised in the admission that I don t seem to get acquainted very fast... He went to everything but participated little: in the fall there was a cane rush between the freshmen and sophomore classes, a brawl for the possession of a broomstick; Coolidge enjoyed watching his classmates in this struggle. He went to athletic events not only on campus but in Springfield, where Harvard and Yale played before thousands of students from around New England. Tall, thin, somber, usually alone, Coolidge remained for nearly four years an outsider on campus, with very few friends. An Ouden--Greek for not or nothing --when it came to joining the fraternities, he was one of only a handful not asked to join during freshman year.

I bring up Coolidge not because of his later career but because of the vividness to me of his experience here as a student, and because of his loneliness. I should tell you that he managed before it was over to escape from the worst of the loneliness. His chance came in class when required to give a short speech. He amazed his classmates with the wit of what he had prepared and the confidence with which he spoke. In his senior year he was chosen to give the Grove Oration and to preside over various toasts at dinners and parties. That year he is said to have shot a college gardener in the seat of his pants with a beebee gun. He blossomed senior year and even joined a fraternity.

Many of you who are freshmen today will find college lonely at first. Students here and everywhere complain of the lack of social life. A portion of that is a deeper complaint about how hard it is to connect with others and to make friends. It is hard, and, try as we may, we teachers and administrators cannot be of much help. You will see our residential system with its various services striving, not always successfully, to make college less lonely for you. No one in the nineteenth century would have seen it quite that way. Doc Hitchcock, who instituted physical education at Amherst, lectured Coolidge and others that at bottom each one of us is solitary, alone with God... It is a paradox of our age that you are at once much freer than your predecessors and much more fussed over; you may also be lonelier. In social life, the college can do little more than set the stage for your own efforts. Two of the most volatile issues in your personal lives--sexuality, and the use of alcohol or drugs--are at stake. We on the Faculty and in the Administration would be awkward tutors in the very personal choices you will make. We can give medical and psychological advice and we can share what we know from our own experiences. Both literature and social science teach the lesson Doc Hitchcock taught. We cannot expel loneliness, and we cannot watch over you from morning till night.

Professor Hugh Hawkins of our faculty, a historian of institutions like ours, believes that the residential system is a remnant, a leftover, of our past, and that it serves no particular purpose. At first, we had no place to lodge the students in a small village: dormitories were necessary. Later on, when the village grew, we gave up the dormitories that we had. But then the fraternities stepped in, eventually building houses for most of our students. With the Second World War and later with coeducation, the student body grew again to the point that Amherst either needed to build dormitories or to return to the age of the boarding house. In the event, we built the dormitories we needed. We have been trying to make sense of them ever since.

To Professor Hawkins and many others, this brief history suggests what he calls an accommodation with our past rather than a coherent set of ideals or purposes for our future. His colleague at Williams, Professor Frederick Rudolph, argues that the collegiate ideal can be a trap for a kind of rustic well- roundedness that often will not abide serious intellectual standards. The notion, he writes, is that a curriculum, a library, a faculty, and students are not enough to make a college. The collegiate way requires sports, dining halls, dormitories, and much else. But it is permeated," he says, "by paternalism, by hand-holding and spoon-feeding. 2 It makes a college not so much an intellectual center as a special kind of late-adolescent retreat. As a Wellesley president once put it: Merely for good times, for romance, for society, college life offers unequalled opportunities. 3

The unequalled opportunity that I most remember from my own first months of college was the simple and obvious one of talk, of a particular kind of talk. It was sometimes with one other person, sometimes with three or four, almost never with many more. We were new to our setting and to one another; we were new to the freedoms of college and the peculiar mix of lenience and discipline that our studies permitted, or even required. We stayed up late; we crammed for exams and papers; we ate meals at strange hours; we washed only occasionally. Most of all, we talked. And most of our talk was, I am sure, of ourselves, although politics, novels, sex, science and history all made their way into the conversation--often in the guise of grandiose schemes for our later lives.

As I reflect back on it now, the ideas ingredient in these conversations were nothing to write down for future generations. Like the talk of lovers, what we said enthralled us at the time above all because it was about us, about who we were, or more exactly who, briefly, passionately, we yearned to be. The unleashing of these yearnings--their articulation and exploration--was, for many of us, breathtaking, liberating. I suppose we felt liberated from childhood, from the oversight of parents, from the small choices of childhood towards the larger ones of adulthood. There was exaggeration in this, but it was a motivating and even inspiring exaggeration which would gradually draw us on to the balance of choice and acceptance that we all must find in our adult lives.

How can the College foster this sort of conversation? The best of it, for me, was probably after class, as one idea led to another and the themes of the lecture or seminar flowed into the themes and anxieties that were mine and my friends . But if I had to choose the next most important contribution of the College, it would be the meals. The commons--the tradition, that is, of meals in common--rivals the classroom as a setting for conversation. Even without dormitories, the commons would gather the student body together for conversation. Amherst s greatest lack in the time of Coolidge was a commons. And it was a lack that students much less lonely than he felt intensely. We know this not only because they went to great lengths to organize class dinners and picnics, but because they themselves created dining clubs in the fraternities in those years, fragmented and imperfect versions of the commons.

But what of the dorms themselves? They are convenient, surely, and they gather the students into groups near the library and the classrooms. Would Amherst be much worse off without them--with the students dispersed, as European students typically are, in pensions and apartments around the town and in the nearby countryside? There is a wonderful passage in the writer P.F. Kluge s memoir of a year teaching at Kenyon College, his alma mater, in which he calls the dormitory where he stayed for a semester the anti-college :

"I'll never again make the mistake of thinking of dormitories as part of the College. They are the anticollege, college refuted, an opposing universe, negative and opposite, a building-beast where animals play golf hockey, swinging golf clubs, using the ball like a hockey puck, racketing at midnight right above my head, a place where animals nest in cages filled with comic books, video games, pizza boxes, unwashed clothing, and endless noise." 4

Kluge found comfort, months later, in the thought that, bad as it was, his dormitory was a welcome relief after faculty meetings.

The dormitories at their best contribute to the endless seminar that I felt in the first few months of college and that you should feel here. People will tell you, as my father told me, that you will learn more out of class than in class. How do you mean? I remember asking him. You ll see, he said. "It s not all study. There will be bull sessions, you ll make friends talking late into the night, over meals. He said it with all the wistfulness of a depression kid who had to put himself through night school and board with an aunt and uncle.

Amherst student Scott MacMillan, of the class of '96, says that the good dorms here are not the ones with the best rooms but those with the best hallways: Valentine, over the dining commons, is his favorite; Moore is another dorm with good 'hallway culture,' with something going on outside your doorway at any given moment of the day or night. A good dormitory is quiet enough for study yet, like a good city street, active with people and conversation until late at night. Like the College itself, the dormitories should bring students together from around the country and around the world, from backgrounds that differ and occasionally clash. The reason we oppose fraternities so strongly is because they tend to close down this exchange and limit it to like minds from like backgrounds.

Let me very specific: we will sometimes preach to you that your roommates or your classmates, in their diversity of backgrounds, will teach you a great deal about the world. Is this true? Is that what I learned from them? I cannot back up this wisdom with much from my own experience. Felix and I became friends. We talked endlessly. But at the end of an academic year together I knew only a little more about the Gambia than I knew at the outset. (To be precise, I knew three additional facts: that Wolof was the predominant native language; that peanuts were the main crop; and that Bathurst, small as it was, had a flourishing taxi service.) He knew one American much better but did he know America better? I doubt it. What we both had learned was to like one another, to get round our differences, to break through to the things that we had in common.

What you also learn from your roommates is something very particular about yourself: how spoiled you can be, how fussy, how much effort it takes for you to get along at close quarters with someone who is simply different. And different not so much because they grew up thousands of miles away or in a different setting or with different resources: different because of the most elementary difference: they are not you; they do not react as you do or in harmony with you. Hegel said there is no individual. What he meant was that the self is a self only in relation to others. You will learn from your roommates and hallmates and classmates that it is hard to be neighbors, that it takes work. I hope you will learn as well that it is worth it.

Many of this College s leaders over the years have emphasized the moral tasks of education. In the earliest years at Amherst this was a matter of religion. Amherst had a duty to see to the moral and religious formation of its students. By Coolidge s time, the pious ardors of our faculty and president burned at a lower temperature. The duty of Amherst was more this-worldly and citizenly. Character, said President Stearns in 1872, is of more consequence than intellect. 4 Courses, even required courses, could only accomplish so much with respect to the shaping of strong and virtuous characters. The residences, meals, the gymnasium, sports --all these answered to the sense that character was what was really at stake in the rigors of college.

As individuals, we must still put character before intellect; but as a college we must put intellect first. That is our competence and our institutional purpose . Neither our curriculum nor our residential and extracurricular life will guarantee you a good or strong character. Yet there is an ambiguity in our rejection of the old Amherst of character-building and moral conviction. Implicit in what we do are moral convictions and moral commitments of our own.

Amherst has extraordinary human and material resources; it will present you with extraordinary opportunities. Every day you will have to choose among them: to take French or Arabic or Chinese; to push yourself into fields you don t know or to hang back safely; to try a new sport or the radio or the paper or start a magazine; to stick with friends on a Saturday night or at lunch at Valentine or introduce yourself to someone new. Alumni press me wherever I go about a core curriculum at Amherst. Choice is the real core of our curriculum: informed, knowing, free choice.

Nor do we leave one another to make choices without challenge. Classes, laboratories, studios, and games--all these structure and discipline but also challenge your choices. The Faculty will challenge your intellectual choices at every turn; so will your classmates.

The challenge of the residential system is more tacit: We have put it here in large part so that you can make the most of our curriculum: not only are your classes and laboratories and the library virtually at your door, but your lives are taken care of --meals served, entertainment provided, and friends and acquaintances gathered nearby. It creates a free way of life, free of many of the small duties that clutter life for most of the rest of us most of the time. If you do not quite fish in the morning and edit in the afternoon, as Karl Marx once lyrically described an imaginary socialism, you do study Japanese in the morning, sociology or psychology at noon, argue politics over lunch, run our hills at dusk, and act in a play (or write one) in the evening.

All of this is artifice: a feat of human craft and design, for the College, like a plane or boat, is a structure that we have put together with great thought and at great expense. What does it do, really? What s it for? The simplest statement I can give is that it helps us to choose--intellectually, of course, but because intellect itself serves larger human ends, it helps us to choose the lives we will lead and the work we will do. In helping us to choose as knowingly and freely as possible it helps us to make the most of our lives, to make them the best lives we can live, for ourselves and for others. This is a moral end, and we should embrace it without any post-modern diffidence or embarrassment.

Honesty, openness, a passion for the truth: these are plainly the ingredients we reward--and dishonesty and the like, if discovered, we scorn here at Amherst. In the classroom you will look to the Faculty for guidance as you learn to make the well-informed intellectual choices that are the basis of a good intellectual life. In the dormitories there is no faculty. This is not a boarding school and faculty members neither live in nor intrude much into the residences of students.

To room with another person is to be forced to converse about the most basic order of the room and the day: you sleep here and I there; you put your stuff over here; what time shall we set the alarm for and when shall we be quiet. It is to make oneself vulnerable to the other--in one s person, in one s goods, and , if there is any trust at all, in one s ideas and ideals. To share the campus with others is not so different. We are not always open to one another; we cannot always trust one another; we cannot always trust ourselves . A hundred identities can rear themselves up to separate us in anger or anxiety: athletes against aesthetes, men against women, poets against scientists, race against race and so on.

I hope that tolerance is only the first lesson you learn by living and working together here at Amherst. I hope that campus life pushes you further than that. I would like to say--I would like to hope--that it pushes us all towards the most difficult and elusive form of knowledge, and the one on which, morally, all the others depend, a knowledge of oneself. Thank you.

 

1William S. Tyler, A History of Amherst College (New York, Frederick H. Hitchcock, 1895), p. 35.
2Frederick Rudolph, The American College and University (New York, Vintage Books, 1962), p. 108.
3Ibid, p. 89-90.
4P.F. Kluge, Alma Mater: A College Homecoming (Reading, Massachusetts, Addison-Wesley Publishing Co., 1993), p. 70-71.

Information about Calvin Coolidge at Amherst comes from the excellent book by Hendrik Booraem V, The Provincial: Calvin Coolidge and His World, 1885-1895 (Lewisburg, PA, Bucknell University Press, 1994).
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