While I agree with much of the thrust of H.R. Coursen’s letter in the Winter ’03 Amherst, I think he tends to perpetuate the misuse of the term “conservative.” Would it not have been better to use the word “reactionaries”? True conservatives are those who wish to hang on to what past experience has found sound, enduring and worthwhile, but remain convinced that change is inevitable and must be addressed open-mindedly and objectively. True conservatives are centrists and the strength of the U.S. political system, what Arthur Schlesinger Jr. called “the vital center” and Herbert Agar described as “the price of union.” The two major political parties overlap in the center, and republican votes participated in much of the liberal legislation of the past generation. The GOP has its reactionary right and the Democratic Party has its extreme socialist left, but the really constructive legislation is the product of cooperating centrists.

I.B. HOLLEY, JR. ’40
Durham, N.C.

Your last issue contained a startling letter from a member of the Class of 1954, Herbert R. Coursen. It has appalled a goodly number of his classmates who have asked me to write you on their behalf. Coursen’s thesis seems to extol the virtues of having 100 percent of Amherst’s faculty configured as either liberals or democrats or, oxymoronically, both. Is this his utopian wish for the Fairest College? My dictionaries list the synonyms for “fair” as follows: “just, equitable, impartial, dispassionate and objective.” Whoa there, Paige’s Horse! It’s time for a quiz. Are we to assume that presenting a fair and balanced classroom diet of political views is now a forgotten prerequisite for sending sensible and sensitive graduates out into the real world? Has the long-cherished, ingrained, responsible duty of a professor—to teach fairness and tolerance along with fair, balanced viewpoints, no matter what the course—a policy of the past? How in the world does Amherst’s quest for a student body representing diversity make any sense if there is no matching collective diversity in the faculty? Does a single political prism represent the best possible value of a four-year, $100,000 education? Is this the Amherst that wants a continuation of robust alum financial participation? Don’t we want our kids and grandkids to give Amherst, along with other of the finer institutions, their serious consideration for a reasonably fair and balanced college education? Are we currently looking at liberal arts at Amherst as orthodoxy and close-mindedness? Should we now examine the admissions policy of faculty recruitment?

"Collegiality" is another good word. One member of our class writes, “I guess the gospel, according to Coursen, is that the great majority of intelligent and well-educated people are liberals.” Another angrily states, “What can you expect of academics or movie stars or professional athletes? The have no economic stake in society, no ownership of the tools of production, no employees, no real estate, no capital goods; in short, nothing to conserve. Why should they not advocate the redistribution of people’s property?”

Our class has reached and exceeded the college’s highest imaginable standards of measurable excellence. A long time ago, we took to our hearts Professor Robert Frost’s observation about Amherst: “It asks of us a certain height.” In fact, our performance is so far above any post-WWII class that it isn’t a fair contest any more. Why? Because we are dedicated to inclusiveness, to the celebration of our diversity, fairness, tolerance and balance. We are the products of 100 percent fraternity rushing. Next spring, we will return to the campus, in triumph, for our 50th reunion. We like to think of ourselves as “The Fairest’s closest.” We hope our Coursen comes back with more fairness, more balance, more tolerance, more thoughtful grounding and more honest intellectual examination than the blindered coarseness of his letter otherwise indicates. In any case, we will embrace him liberally.

President, Class of 1954
Bristol, R.I.

Ashley Ebersole’s letter, “Politically homogeneous faculty,” in the fall 2002 edition of Amherst put me in mind of my time at Amherst in the mid-1960s. The difference was that back then, large swathes of the student body,
rather than the faculty, appeared to be politically homogeneous and illiberal. Faculty members with whom I came in contact had strong political opinions, but I never found that these intruded in their lectures. In fact, I retain a
high regard for their fair-mindedness and remember some, such as Professor Johnson of the Spanish Department, with great affection.

I came to Amherst from an old-fashioned liberal background, where it was expected that both sides in an argument would be given a fair hearing, after which one would then make up one’s mind based on an assessment of the merits of each side’s arguments. In addition, this background entailed a certain innate sympathy for the underdog. I was, therefore, surprised by the closed minds and political homogeneity which some students at Amherst and elsewhere manifested.

I would like to illustrate this with three examples from my time at Amherst:

I once wrote a letter to the Amherst Student in which I questioned the orthodox view on some current issue (important at the time but now completely forgotten). The then-editor of the Student telephoned me to ask if my letter was serious or whether I was being satirical. I responded quite reasonably that there might be another way of viewing the issue. Such heterodoxy appeared beyond his comprehension, and the conversation ended quite swiftly.

During my time at Amherst, we were fortunate to have speakers representing all shades of political opinion come to address us. I attended many of these meetings and recall that speakers representing liberal points of view were heard in respectful silence, whereas at least one conservative commentator was subject to constant interruption and heckling. As a result of this barrage of noise, I could not hear him properly and was unable to make any sort of objective assessment of his views.

In the 1964 presidential election, the republican candidate was a complete no-hoper. However, given the overwhelming support enjoyed by the democrats in the college community, I put up a republican poster out of a sense of sympathy for the underdog. Within less than half a day, it had been defaced and by the evening had been destroyed. Since the faculty did not penetrate the far reaches of South College, where I then resided, I could only presume that a fellow student, not liking this apparent threat to the campus’ political homogeneity, had destroyed the poster.

Evelyn Beatrice Hall in The Friends of Voltaire distilled Voltaire’s views on free speech into the following quotation (usually, though wrongly, attributed to the great man himself): “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

In the light of Ashley Ebersole’s letter, it would appear that the political homogeneity of some students of the 1960s has metamorphosed into a largely politically homogenous faculty at Amherst in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Perhaps for people such as these, the above quotation should be rewritten, “Provided I approve of what you say, I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

Surrey, England

When I was a freshman in 1956, Valentine Hall had three dining areas and one menu. Outside West Dining Room was a pay phone in a large paneled closet (from which the Smith telephone, JU -4-2700, invariably gave a busy signal). Next to that phone closet was a bulletin board, with notes seeking to buy or sell textbooks or athletic equipment, and seeking or offering rides for the weekend or for the forthcoming vacation.

A large proportion of those notes had added to them “Call Cliff Tuttle, DU,” which unsuspecting freshmen did in good faith. And the guy at DU (that’s Delta Upsilon, now Porter House) would invariably say, “Sorry, he’s not here. Don’t know where he is.” All of which was true because Cliff had graduated before I entered high school. Cliff, I don’t know why you were the one they always named for the prank. And I never knew, until you appeared in the Winter 2003 Amherst inside rear cover, who you were.

By the way, do you have that used copy of Holton’s Introduction to Physics?

Northampton, Mass.