1999 Convocation Address - The Short Course

September 6, 1999
Tom Gerety

In the last few weeks most of you have gone through the course catalog with a mixture of enthusiasm and dread utterly incomprehensible to outsiders. You have alternated, I am sure, between an impulse to take everything and an occasional urge to take nothing at all. You have wondered what intellectual and human virtues lie hidden in the names of our faculty. You have read the brief course descriptions the way some people pore over holiday brochures. You may even have had the craven thought that it would be easier if Amherst told you what to take. It's hard enough to choose a freshman seminar from the twenty-eight that we offer.

This is the Amherst College curriculum. I welcome you on behalf of the faculty and staff to its delights and desperations. Reduced to requirements it can be summarized quickly: you must take roughly four courses each semester for four years; you must take a first-year seminar this fall; and within two years you must choose at least one departmental or interdepartmental major with various requirements that you must complete in time for graduation.

Each year when the Dean of Students and I stop in for conversation in the dormitories the discussion goes back and forth over these matters. There is lots of talk about getting one's thirteenth choice in the first-year seminars or, more seriously, the large size of many of the courses that Amherst students choose in the first year. There is one constant in all this. When I ask how important Amherst's curriculum was in the choice of a college, nearly everyone every time says that it was very important or even decisive. There is no mystery about what students mean by the word curriculum either. It means to them—to you—what the college requires of you, what courses you have to take to make it through to graduation.

I want to talk to you about the Amherst curriculum tonight, but I want to do it in the larger context of college curricula—plural. More precisely I want to tell you something about the Amherst curricula, the many curricula that Amherst has put forth over the century and three-quarters of our institutional life on this hill, with this chapel building at the highest point and center of our campus. I want to do this because I believe that our curriculum today will succeed or fail largely on the basis of your own choices and the knowledge and imagination that you bring to these choices. It can be the best curriculum for you; it can also be, if not the worst, still a sharp disappointment.

Let me begin with the word itself. Curriculum is Latin for a little course, a short running course in track and field events. Early on it became a metaphor for the run of life or work. Career is another such word, also from Latin and its descendants, and also embodying a kind of dead metaphor about life as a race. The words curriculum vitae—course of life—sums this up almost too neatly. So let me be clear at the outset: our curriculum is not a race; many good students who make it through do so with a year or two off. What is helpful in the etymology is the sense of the whole, and perhaps the idea that the whole is bigger—and certainly longer—than the parts that make it up.

A curriculum is often narrowly understood as a collection of courses, some required, some not. Its first usage in English was in seventeenth century Scotland where the Scottish universities described their courses of study with what many took to be a Latin diminutive: the curriculum was the 'short' course, the brief description of the overall course of study, put in a few words and over some set term of years, three or four or five depending on the field. This is very close to present usage here and in many other places. I ask you all to keep this in mind as you begin your course of study. We can agree that it takes four years and thirty-two completed courses to earn an Amherst degree. But more important than the requirements is the sense that there is a course in this; a path through choices and requirements, one that you will be able to describe in various ways, now and as you go along and as you finish and look back on it. There should be surprises along the way, oddities, whimsy, serendipity; but there should also be themes and connections and some direction. Each of you should think of yourselves as having your own curriculum here, your own path and, no doubt, your own shifting ways of describing it.

When Amherst began, everything was required. Our students took what was offered and they took all of it, like everyone else in colleges in America in the early nineteenth century. They had no choices, nothing to elect within the curriculum. There were no majors. The course took four years and set you to learn Latin and Greek, some mathematics, a little general science, and lots of what we would now call theology. In this chapel the president taught every senior in a course on morality. (The seniors probably still need my advice and direction in this, I acknowledge.) The fixed curriculum was offered in a more or less fixed spirit: these were truths that were taught, not opinions or interpretations. None of this was offered in the spirit of choice. And if human life, however regulated, remains always full of choice, the range of careers chosen by Amherst men in those days shows what now seems like remarkable unanimity. In keeping with Amherst's mission to educate poor young men for the worldwide ministry, nearly all of them went on to be Congregational ministers and teachers of religion--often in mission outposts where they founded colleges and schools after the Amherst model.

Amherst was founded with a point of view, and bad grades and suspension would come to those who differed too noticeably. But Amherst, however conservative, was also founded at a time when America was changing decisively. Within the first decade our curriculum was subject to repeated criticisms. It was too narrow; there wasn't enough science in it; we taught Latin and Greek but no modern languages. For a brief time we experimented with a less classical alternative towards the bachelor of arts degree. But then, in the words of our own professor Hugh Hawkins, an eminent historian of higher education, "Amherst retreated completely from curricular innovation." It would take a whole generation before Amherst returned to reform and choice in the curriculum. Nonetheless the criticisms seem to have gradually and almost silently moved us to accept European languages and more and more serious science. You could not have a first-rate faculty without dissent and criticism and eagerness to push on with new ideas and new disciplines. Physical education was organized and required at Amherst long before other colleges did so. Chapel was required long after.

 Gradually the ideal of the pious man gave way before the more secular vision of "the whole man." This vague American blend of the protestant Christian, the Roman citizen and the renaissance classicist was to bewitch this and other colleges for more than a century, well beyond the disillusionments of the First World War. It justified many requirements and impositions, and no doubt many prejudices. But above all it justified the college's stubborn resistance to wide-open inquiry, by students and faculty. In its own way it was a new piety, a new orthodoxy.

Yet it had the distinct advantage of allowing and even inviting its own eventual subversion.

The years after the Civil War witnessed America's economic and geographic emergence as an expansionist world power. Across this land, colleges and universities were founded, private and public, small and large. Women were beginning to be educated, first in this valley, over at Mount Holyoke, and then in New England and then everywhere. The Black colleges were founded and flourished despite poverty and racism. Universities emerged from colleges. Graduate schools were created and doctorates conferred. Specialization was all the rage on faculties, including ours.

Now naturally Amherst resisted some of this. It resisted curricular reform, it resisted expansion into a university, but more to the point Amherst resisted the surrender of its sense of itself and its purposes. To this resistance we owe our greatest strength and distinction, our commitment to undergraduates.

Many at the turn of the century—including many Amherst graduates—predicted the death of the liberal arts college. It would go down as a silly anachronism, a provincial and inadequate little hold-out against the superiority of the universities. Others held on more fiercely than ever to ideals of the close relation between scholar and student, ancient ideals that we see most vividly in Plato's writings about Socrates.

It was in these crucial years as we began the twentieth century that Amherst quietly embraced choice for undergraduates. It was an inescapable reform: many of our faculty had Ph.D.'s, from the German universities or Johns Hopkins or Harvard, places that took specialization seriously; the sheer number of disciplines made knowing a little of everything silly and more and more obviously either narrow or superficial. At Harvard, Charles William Eliot had led a kind of academic coup that gave him the power to impose his vision on not only the students and faculty but the corporation as well. He served forty years as president, from 1869 to 1909, and everywhere preached the gospel of elective study and free inquiry. Amherst scholars have done as much research on this period as anyone, not only Hugh Hawkins, in his magnificent book Between Harvard and America: the Educational Leadership of Charles W. Eliot, but many others, most recently professor of English Kim Townsend, whose Manhood at Harvard, published in 1996, probes the ideology of masculinity and identity in this period of American history.

At Amherst itself, first seniors and then juniors and finally sophomores and freshmen were allowed to "elect" sciences and languages and other courses. Professor Hawkins reports that around the turn of the century Amherst students could choose most of their courses. We had no majors in place then, no requirement of courses to be chosen across the disciplines, and only a few relic-like required courses for all to take in time for graduation. Those were the days to yearn for.

Then, as often happens, the alumni got into the act. In a notorious report in 1910, they attacked the free Amherst curriculum as lax and undisciplined. Within two years, Amherst, like Harvard under Eliot's successor at the very same time, had a kind of counter-reformation underway. Alexander Meiklejohn, a truly distinguished First Amendment scholar, became Amhers's president and espoused what he argued was a "balanced" set of requirements, emphasizing the humanities and philosophy in particular as the core disciplines of Amherst's curriculum. An odd compound of radical and conservative in curricular as well as constitutional debates, Meiklejohn wanted something of a return to the "whole man" period. But his was a more intellectual and certainly less religious vision of the liberal arts at Amherst. Meiklejohn was an impatient and brooding man as well as a beguiling one. Despite his eloquence, he never gained the power with the faculty or the Board to put his vision fully in place. Yet in a sense he triumphed over those committed to choice and electives.

Over many years, the Amherst faculty gradually amended the curriculum with requirements. First, at the alumni's suggestion, they required science and languages. Then later they divided the curriculum into the famously inexact three divisions—the humanities, the sciences, the social sciences—and required students to take some of each. This so-called distribution requirement is now a feature of virtually every curriculum on every campus save the few, like ours, that have returned to what was once called electivism.

In the late '40s and early '50s, an extraordinary group of faculty, headed by a professor of philosophy named Gail Kennedy, created a New Curriculum at Amherst. It adopted Meiklejohn's idea of a junior and senior college experience and imposed its requirements on the first two years. By this time majors were de rigeur everywhere in America, a quiet and universal reform that remains unquestioned still as another century closes.

The new curriculum received national attention for its rigor and inventiveness. Students reading about it now—and indeed alumni recalling it to memory—emphasize, naturally enough, its requirements. On arriving at Amherst the freshman student was enrolled in a curriculum that left him almost no choices for the better part of two years. The entering student at Amherst was enrolled in three separate sequences in both semesters of the first and second years: Science 1 and 2, emphasizing physics and math; Humanities 1 and 2, focused on Western European history; and, perhaps most important, English 1 and 2, the then well-established creation of Professor Theodore Baird in English, a kind of crusty, local Socratic genius who taught often without readings or books and who may be the greatest teacher that Amherst has ever known.

Baird had come to the College in the '20s and not long after began to develop his writing course. He would put nearly impossible questions to a couple of generations: "Describe what it is like to be angry without saying anything about what made you angry." "Draw a picture of the Holyoke Range. Now tell me what you did but don't tell me that you drew a picture of the Holyoke Range." For a time, a long time, the English department (and in some sense the whole faculty) was in the intellectual thrall of this man (some of whose writings Professor William Pritchard has just edited in a new book, The Most of It). The New Curriculum was not really new, even at the start: it was at least as old as Baird's career at Amherst. He had dissented sharply from the loose generalizations and pieties of the curricular thinking of the 30's. Finally, in Gail Kennedy's deft work, the entire curriculum was remade on the template of English 1.

It is an important template even now at Amherst, if a dramatically simple one. When you read Kennedy's rambling book about the New Curriculum, called Education at Amherst: The New Program, you come away with the sense that no one has ever quite said what is going on in the reform, what it is that was improved upon with the new requirements and the new courses. Kennedy and his colleagues on the long-range planning committee repeatedly quote the American philosopher John Dewey on "learning by doing." They speak of "laboratory courses" in various subjects but give no exact definition or concrete examples of what they had in mind with this image.

When you speak with Amherst faculty colleagues of theirs and with the alumni who were their students, you get a somewhat different impression of their particular interpretation of Dewey's famous educational pragmatism. Dewey and Whitehead and the other pragmatists had their greatest influence on primary and secondary schools where learning by doing meant field trips and experiments and exercises of various kinds. Some of that undoubtedly crept into the Amherst curriculum during this ferment. But the distinctive transition in the New Curriculum was towards a more specific version of learning by doing, Baird's kind, I think: learning, that is, by writing. It was not new, I think, even when Baird joined the faculty in 1927 or Robert Frost in 1917. If anyone deserves credit for its intense usage as a tool of learning and teaching, it is Baird himself; but he gave the credit to Frost. In Robert Frost's teaching there was a startling emphasis on words and their sounds. "As for me," he once said, "I side with those who do something, like playing a game to win or writing a poem."

This is Amherst's most fundamental curricular commitment. If you can think it, you can say it; and if you can say it, you can write it.

Coming from high school you may still associate this discipline with English classes. That is an example of an important fallacy, the fallacy of localizing what you have just discovered, of failing, that is, to generalize it and understand how widespread it may be. I met up with it in a certain place and so that's the only place it exists. Here at Amherst you will find that good writing—good explaining—is prized not just in literature classes but more or less everywhere: in the studio, the laboratory, the radio station—and, yes, even in the administration. In the sciences, in the arts, in the humanities and the social sciences, many of us on the Amherst faculty believe most deeply in learning by writing. Careful, articulate, often surprising writing is the real mark of Amherst's distinctive culture. Yes, we talk and argue, almost ceaselessly. And we read whatever we can get our hands on. We paint and we sculpt and make films. But in the end Amherst people seem to write: our faculty writes and our students write and our graduates write. And after a while—not after four years necessarily but perhaps six or eight or ten—Amherst people tend to write fairly well. This is the real course in Amherst, a course in writing as the first and fundamental discipline of thinking and imagining.

If Warhol was right when he said that each of us gets fifteen minutes of celebrity, then a corollary may be that each curriculum gets a run of twenty or thirty years. The New Curriculum at Amherst was soon the old curriculum. New faculty did not relish teaching courses devised by others and imposed on them and their students. Science 1, English, and the other courses--all required passion and could not simply be passed to those who did not really believe in them. And so Amherst, starting around 1966, dismantled our old curriculum and its elaborate structure of requirements. First there was a new course for first-year students, called Problems of Inquiry and later the Introduction to Liberal Studies, team taught by professors from different disciplines. It took on great themes or concepts such as the nature of light or the concept of evolution. But this course evolved as well: team teaching was not always practical; professors wanted to offer the seminars on their own, on subjects of their own choosing and design. As recently as two years ago the faculty recognized both the importance of first year seminars--small courses exclusively enrolling first semester students--and the need to open up the scope of faculty choices in designing these courses. And the overall Amherst structure has evolved as well. Thus, over decades, even as we have imposed fewer and fewer general requirements, our departments and programs have continued to strengthen the majors with new structures and new requirements.

Moreover, no account of Amherst's curriculum would make sense without acknowledging how much we have changed the offerings themselves with new disciplines and interdisciplinary programs. We realized, too slowly, how for more than a century we had dismissed the imagination and the arts in our commitment to reasoning and explaining. Similarly, if earlier, we realized how much of the world we ignored in seeing ourselves exclusively as heirs of Europe's culture and Europe's institutions. We now seek to embrace in our curriculum as much of the world's experience as we can know and teach, and as many of the arts as we can hold in our small college.

"So what?" Baird might have said. How does all this touch you who have only just joined us. Let me make a small effort to include you in this not-so-local history. The shifts at Amherst—between choice and structure, between depth and breadth—have caught up with you and with all of us at an odd angle to the prevailing wisdom. Some twenty or thirty years ago the demands for curricular choice (and all sorts of other choices as well) reached a crescendo. Many, many colleges opened up their curricula to student choices. I say many: not all, and none that I know of all the way. No college in America granted or grants degrees to those who have not accepted structure that was unknown a century ago. This is true—and grows more true of us—as you and we put so much emphasis on the majors. But the historical terrain ought to be unmistakable: very few colleges in America allow as much choice to students as Amherst. Even Brown, the Jacobin revolutionary in this, whose curriculum is said to have been designed by a student, albeit one long passed on into wealth, notoriety, and middle age, even Brown now proposes a required course in ethics in addition to the major requirement. And we at Amherst have consistently required some variant on the freshman seminars that you are now enrolled in. But the point remains: you have much more freedom of choice in what you study here than your colleagues at other institutions around the country and indeed the world.

You have had sermons aplenty on making a responsible use of your freedom. I will add only this. Camus said that after 40 your face is your own responsibility. Your mind becomes your own much sooner than that, much sooner than even 20, I should guess. So I say to you that now at Amherst—and from now on—your mind is your own. Your intellectual development depends less on us than on you.

This is perhaps always true, whatever the requirements of a given setting or institution. But you are here for a reason. You are here because you choose to become not just someone with a degree and courses behind you but an intellectual: someone for whom ideas, the push and pull and play of ideas, are powerful and interesting and, above all, un-intimidating. Issues of freedom and structure, of depth and breadth, haunt all intellectual life at age 16 or 60, in 600 B.C. as much as 2000 A.D. The difference is that now, here at Amherst but more to the point here in you, you must take on these issues—with guidance, with structure, but with a remarkable range of choice. College may seem to mark a kind of high point in your lives as intellectuals. The choices before you must seem nearly infinite. But this is only the beginning of your freedom and your exploration. Good luck.


Botany Students