Amherst Magazine

When School's Out

By Emily Gold Boutilier

The morning of July 3 found Ilán Stavans, the Lewis-Sebring Professor in Latin American and Latino Culture and the Five College 40th Anniversary Professor, in Cole Assembly Room talking about the Statue of Liberty. “I wonder,” he suggested to a room of high schoolers, “if she is meant to represent motherhood.”

A student countered: “She looks like a guy with long hair.”

From there, the class debated immigration policy: Does the United States truly welcome newcomers? Did it ever? “How about,” Stavans offered, “we put in El Paso another female figure who looks more like a Central American mother, greeting with a flashlight the new immigrants?” Only near the end of class did Stavans turn to the assigned reading: the famous Emma Lazarus sonnet about the “huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”

The class was part of the Great Books Summer Program, which brought students to campus in June and July for one- and two-week overnight sessions. “The idea,” Stavans says, “is not to bang the kids with a hammer—to say, ‘This is literature. You have to read it’—but to connect literature with current events, to make it vibrate from the page, jump out.”

Amherst hosted a total of 30 programs for youth and adults over the summer. In addition to Great Books, they included an Upward Bound project, a host of Nike sports camps, the Yellow Barn Music School and Festival and the college’s Summer Science Program for entering first-years. Most of the programs (including Great Books, which an organization called Early Advantage runs) were not sponsored by the college.

Stavans created the Great Books program with fellow educator Peter Temes, a Columbia University professor. In 2001, about 30 students took part in the inaugural summer season, held at Amherst. Today, the camp enrolls more than 500 middle- and high-schoolers. While most come to Amherst, sessions are also held at Stanford University. This year, readings included selections by Dante, Mark Twain and Dorothy Parker, among many others.