Remarks at the Campaign Kickoff - The Charity Institution on the Hill

Remarks at the Campaign Kickoff
November 8, 1996
Tom Gerety

I have often met with alumni who will ask about the professors they remember best. The professors' names will be familiar to me: from scholarships and fellowships, from chairs in their honor, from recollections at a winter party or exchanges at the spring reunions, from occasional anecdotes in the histories of the College. Some of the remembered professors will live on in South Amherst or up in Pelham. Sometimes, as with Ben Ziegler, who died last month, it will be someone with whom I have talked over books and ideas.

In the time it takes a child to grow to adulthood, to study and start a life's work or a family, in that time an institution's human face will change over more or less completely. An alum returning to campus after a long absence will no longer recognize most of the staff in the library or the dining commons, most of the professors in the classrooms or the coaches on the playing fields. Time moves quickly enough in our own lives, but even more quickly, and much more decisively, in the life of a college. And so we have this paradox: the institution that holds out for most of us a fixed point in time, in memory, is itself a kind of stream, reminding us of the constancy of change.

One hundred and seventy five years is not by many measures a long time. In the many thousand year span of our species, it is what my German professor called an Augenblick--a blink of the eyes. But human arrangements are fragile, and for an all too fragile, all too human institution, Amherst College has endured and prospered through astonishing changes. Those who were here at the beginning would no doubt carp now, like some of our most attentive alumni, at the dress code of our students or the readings assigned in some of our courses. But they would embrace, I think, what we are about. They, too, put their faith in this place where scholars and students gather.

For Colonel Rufus Graves and Hezekiah Wright Strong, for lawyer Samuel Dickinson and wordsmith Noah Webster, for the ministers and farmers, for their widows and wives and children--for all those who gave their savings and their labor, their lumber and bricks to what they called "the Charity Institution on the hill," the faith was religious: orthodox, as they would have said, a missionary faith. They believed that our students would bring the light of their learning to all the many corners of the world. Elements of their faith still call out to us today in words and ideals that we can embrace whatever our own religious convictions.

The founders of Amherst were not just the few men who served on the Academy Board or gave substantial sums to the Charity Fund of 1818. The whole town and valley joined in to found this College. There was a spirit of equality, of openness and community, in these rural New Englanders and their work. One widow was said to have given 8 cents. Farmers brought horses and mules to haul the materials for our very first building, South College. Craftsmen camped out on the hill the first summer to work from first to last light. At one point the effort ran out of cash altogether. The various rescues mounted by Dickinson and the rest--along with the speed with which the first building went up--showed more than determination. Grit and imagination were required along with shrewdness, practicality, and a powerful dream of a college on a hill. There was a willingness, too, to fight for their ideals. Williams was not to be robbed of a president--and the better part of its student body--without hurt feelings and angry complaints. Yes, there was a religious vision to all this, but its first and strongest expression was in a commitment to the classical or liberal courses--to the liberal arts that stood then as now, for rigor and disciplined study, for depth and breadth in inquiry, for searching curiosity, for untrammeled imagination, and for ideals of compassion and service to others.

The light our graduates would give to the world was never a sectarian or narrow one, but all along a generous, open light, one that would bring their curiosity and energy to a world understood to hold paradoxes and disappointments, a world full of change, and full of challenge.

Amherst has touched each of us in many ways: It has chosen each of us (some of you were even told of the choice by the great Dean Wilson himself). It has given all of us a chance to prove ourselves intellectually, and morally. Amherst has set the mark high. It has shown each of us not only rigor but generosity as well. It has pointed all of us towards the truth, and told us to go after it in our own ways, with tenacity, courage, and passion. In this beautiful place we have come to love beauty.

Amherst has made us proud--proud to be part of its argumentative, independent traditions; proud of its skepticism and questioning; proud of its achievements and ideals; proud of its understated dignity. And there is enough of the missionary in most of us to believe that, in the end, knowledge must be tested by compassion.

We gather here the best scholars and students we can find, from all over America and much of the world. We recruit our students with no attention to the means of their families. Come to Amherst, we say, whatever your wealth or poverty; come because you want to study here among scholars who will push you intellectually as you have never been pushed before; come because you will reside here among us for four years in an apprenticeship in the liberal, liberating, arts that will make you conversant with the most powerful and probing tools of human knowledge.

Here we engage our students in a marathon conversation about ideas. Our faculty of scholars wants no intermediaries between them and the young scholars who are our students. Here it is student and scholar facing each other--known to one another--in the laboratory, the library, the classroom, the studio and stage. This is the best way--in a sense, the only way--to educate the brightest students.

We ask neither scholar nor student to give much quarter to mere practicality. We have in mind a higher practicality. Give each other no rest in these four years; bother one another; pester if you will; ask the next question and try the next theory. The best minds should be formed on the hardest questions and the most rigorous study and ideas. This may not always be a comforting procedure, I know. Its highly personal method, its attentiveness, its conscientiousness-- all this comes at a high and continuing price. But it is worth it to each of us who can say, we are Amherst: Amherst has changed us irrevocably.

This is a time to say again what Amherst is and why it matters so much. Here students forge identities strong enough for a lifetime, identities fired by the imaginations of great scholars, honed in the give and take of the dorms, dining halls and playing fields, polished in the quiet corners of the library and the laboratory. Amherst's greatness is the promise of these young minds. Their powers and gifts will touch the lives of many who will never see this campus. And our students will follow you: Nobel Prize winners, shapers of national policy, inventors and entrepreneurs, astronauts and physicians, lawyers and teachers, writers and artists, those who have changed the world and those who have held out a hand to a child. This is the difference Amherst makes: those we teach, teach others, and the fire of their reasoning and imagining goes forth from this College on the Hill to light up the world.
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