Amherst Magazine

Letters to Class of 1963 Reunion Books

John Louis

Amherst Class of 1963 Twenty-fifth Reunion

Louis Law Firm, P.C.
HARLAN. IOWA 51537-0189
(712) 755-7203


December 4, 1987

Dr. Franklin E. Bragg
267 Forest Avenue
Bangor, ME 04401

Dear Frank:

I appreciate your English I assignment. Yes, paying attention to Amherst is something I do fairly often. Most recently what I do on those occasions is think about what an Iowa county seat lawyer's son had to do with a high-toned New England graduate school prep college. I also think about how roads taken and not taken, through and from Amherst College, led me to become, in turn, an Iowa county seat lawyer. And I think particularly about how English I-II, is at the center of what I am. It fixed in me the habit of introspection about the role of language in perception: what it was like before; then what happened; what was it like afterward; how do you define the usual terms we use to talk of that particular change.

My daughters are, in one case, and will be, in the other, the fourth generation of my family to graduate from Harlan High School. Since the decade following the Civil War, the Louis family has lived in a setting where it is possible to can see a community whole. People here are born, live their successes, failures and recoveries, among people who knew each other's ancestors. We see people corresponding to family patterns, sometimes transcending their apparent limitations, and adapting to the seasons of life among people who know a great deal of each other's history.

Not surprisingly, our young people are the source of great fascination, even among the older generations. At high school plays, concerts and sports events, the audience contains large numbers of people who haven't had a child in our schools for a quarter century. Some American writers have found such a environment cloying and mean. In my experience, it is a very tolerant and supportive environment, at least for those who do not characterize themselves as outsiders.

Of course, I could see very little of what I now see when I chose to characterize myself as an outsider and go off to Am-hurst College in Massachusetts. In fact, to see what I see now, I think I had first to put my self through try-works of a liberal education. More than just becoming familiar with the western intellectual tradition, I think I had to have the peculiarly Amherst experience of focusing on my own ability to perceive and to choose.

In non-Amherst terms, I believe that my college education was primarily about what it means to redefine authority from its external agents into my own conscious mental apparatus. Community, however defined, furnishes us a common-sense of language - a medium of exchange for the shell of meaning. Often, our communal language contains a freight of assumptions that are ill perceived and inappropriate to the uses we have for the words. The discourse of a strong and coherent community, such as I live in, has a very characteristic world of unexamined "truth" which may or may not be true for the individual who is trying to "have another say" at something serious. But I have also come to have respect for the fact that the common sense of a community contains the traces of collective wisdom. The intimacy and the distance we maintain with conventional talk, humor and irony through which we view our political and economic role in the nation and larger world, both tend to be pretty nearly right.

For me, a former teacher and teacher teacher, practicing law is primarily a teaching activity. How to run order through a factual and legal chaos, as one might say, is the business I think I am in. Figuring it out and selling my say at it to client, opponent, judge or jury, pretty well describes my daily life. What I find myself paying more and more attention to, and what makes me conscious of Amherst College, is the fact that it is a moral exercise. Ultimately, the persuasive argument has to appeal to the internal authority of the person being persuaded. The rhetoric of persuasion aims at consent. No one, after all, consents to what he or she does not believe to be true. Not only do I "gotta use words when I talk to ya," but also I gotta know what those words mean to ya.

And I also think about a limit to my Amherst education. Whether it is a fault or not, I now believe that introspective self discipline and a practiced sensitivity to the use of language is not a whole education. Ultimately a whole life is defined in terms of its highest values. The peculiarity of human language is that, at its highest use, it is both intrinsically individual and intrinsically communal. Unless the enormous value that we learned to place on our selves is balanced by an equally exalted value for community, we become -- as my favorite English professor complained -- "merely brilliant."

I'd like to think that there is some wisdom in a political system that has chosen to start the electoral system at the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primaries. Whatever its limitations and weaknesses, that venue reflects the values and wisdom of a traditional America. One might hope that, however imperfectly, places with a coherent sense of community may perceive which of our would-be leaders speak their language.

I hope to see you at reunion.

/s/ John C. Louis