Amherst: Steward of Hope
By Joshua M. Epstein ’76
My father, Joseph Epstein, was the first Jew on the Amherst faculty—or, as he used to say, “the first admitting Jew.” He joined the philosophy department in 1951, a time when professors were required to periodically address Sunday Chapel. Beyond being a decidedly atheist Jew, my dad was a logician with a particular interest in the undecidability of Kurt Gödel (whose honorary Amherst doctorate he arranged). So, his chapel talk was an exposition of Gödel’s Theorem, complete with blackboard. He was never invited back to chapel, which, of course, was precisely the point.
He died as the Crosby Professor of Philosophy at Amherst on May 23, 1993, and on a sunny May 23 in 2010, I was awarded an honorary doctor of science degree from Amherst. A lot happened to me en route to that day, and I owe a great deal of it to the college.
Amherst was a forgiving town in which to be a high school dropout in 1969, which I was. Every Sunday morning, there was an hour-long peace vigil (where I’d always see Professor Bob Romer ’52) against the Vietnam War and, as a general proposition, one could make most of the mistakes kids made at that time without permanent damage. I dropped out or, more precisely, was invited to leave Amherst High (pun intended) to play in my rock band; I was a committed hippie (whatever that meant) and participant in Woodstock. I loved music but had never been serious about studying anything in school.
UMass admitted me without a high school diploma, on the strength of a piano audition—a story in its own right. Before being invited to discontinue my secondary “education,” I’d been invited to stop clarinet lessons with Joe Contino, a UMass music professor. I was 9. Joe always thought I was gifted musically but felt there was no point in continuing lessons, given that I never practiced. When I finally got serious about working at music, my dad and I went back to Joe, who made us a deal: If I could pass a piano audition, he’d get me into UMass as a music major. So, on the beautiful 1893 Steinway B that now lives with us in Bethesda, Md., my father and I did nothing but piano for six months. I passed the audition and studied music composition, conducting and piano.
In addition to everything else, my dad was a wonderful musician and pianist. (He himself had dropped out of The City College of New York to study piano.) In fact, Rich Rothman ’83 (now my colleague in emergency medicine at Johns Hopkins) remembers my father lecturing in a hall where there happened to be a piano. At some point, a student had the temerity to compare Liszt to Beethoven. Incredulous, my dad exclaimed, “Liszt comparable to Beethoven? You can’t be serious! How can you compare this… to this…?” And in between, he reeled off passages by the two composers.
Even while enrolled at UMass I was always at Buckley Recital Hall practicing and consorting with fellow musicians including Marty Brody ’71, who founded the Asparagus Valley Ensemble. I was even assistant conductor of the Amherst-Mount Holyoke Orchestra for a time, and one of my pieces, a quartet, was performed at Buckley. But in the conservatory setting of UMass music, the only thing I’d actually studied was music. It was time to get an education!
With no high school diploma or even SAT scores, Amherst was a real long shot for me. But I had excelled at UMass, and Amherst’s dean of admission—the great Edward Wall—ran a serious risk and accepted me.
That was the main turning point in my life, and it has made all the difference, not because of credentials, “skill sets” or connections, but because the habits of mind developed at Amherst—rigor, independence, openness—equipped me for a lifetime of critical inquiry and continuous learning that has led to my interdisciplinary position at Johns Hopkins as professor of emergency medicine and director of the Center for Advanced Modeling in the Social, Behavioral and Health Sciences. “A long way,” as my brother Sam says. A long way for sure, with far too many twists and turns to recount fully here.
But the main lesson is really very simple: The liberal arts education—that is to say, real education—is the all-terrain vehicle. It is allowing me to pursue what I hope is a life of consequence, to invoke Amherst’s credo. But far more importantly, liberal arts education is the only reliable hope for truly open, broadly informed and analytical dialogue and, thus, for humane civilization. My father would be proud that this highest of hopes, and the form of education which is its steward, are alive at Amherst.
Epstein (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a professor of emergency medicine and director of the Center for Advanced Modeling in the Social, Behavioral and Health Sciences at Johns Hopkins.