There can’t be many graduates whose lives have brought them back more often than mine to the oasis that is Amherst. First as an undergraduate, then as writer-in-residence and more recently as a writer for Amherst magazine, I have again and again refreshed myself, and my life, from the College’s deep well.
The first drink of it came on a sunny September day in 1976. Having just graduated in the first coed class of a former girls’ high school, I now found myself entering the first coed class in a former men’s college, a nifty inversion. At Stearns Hall we were greeted by our dorm adviser, Jim Rehnquist ’77, the son of a U.S. Supreme Court justice and also—a more important datum to me—the greatest basketball player in the history of Amherst. At a welcome picnic in a pretty meadow south of campus, we were serenaded by the Zumbyes, whose sterling crooners included Jeff Deutsch ’77 singing “I Never Meant to Hurt You” and Kerry Brennan ’77 on “When I Fall in Love.” My awed and swooning response to the whole scene seemed to suggest that I was already falling in love with what President Bill Ward always referred to, obliquely and appreciatively, as “this place.”
How to comprehend one’s relationship to a college, conducted over—gasp!—close to half a century? I recall, as an undergraduate, seeing alumni of 30 years earlier returning for reunions, those bulky middle-aged men in sport coats and purple baseball caps, hailing each other with hardy shouts that seemed to signify friendships impervious to Time’s vandalism. And sure enough, my own first and abiding Amherst remains the Amherst of my friends. A long-ago commencement speaker—I can’t recall who—observed that eventually you realize life is not about where you’re going but who’s going along with you. The Amherst of my friends has not only ornamented my life but structured it—friends I have remained permanently in touch with, friends I have embarked on professional projects with and friends who surface intermittently, their visits lending conversation, laughter and encouragement. This past year I landed in a weekly Zoom group of Amherst people, and our discussions about politics, race, education and much else helped mitigate the isolation of Plague Time, serving up pleasures redolent of an Amherst seminar.
Which brings me to my professors. For an English major and future writer, this Amherst—the Amherst of my teachers—proved an extraordinarily nourishing place, and a challenging one. The English department aimed to shake you, wake you and remake you. In the “Modern Satire” course taught by Professor Bill Pritchard ’53, paper assignments posed various questions that were really one question: What interests you in this writer? In course after course, in the English department and elsewhere, we were both urged and trained to take responsibility for our own ideas—and, in doing so, to become thoughtful human beings. The method was, in the most encouraging way possible, to leave you no room to hide.
That might sound like a bullying kind of pedagogy, yet it was anything but. Such assignments as “Describe your interest in this passage” both imply and demand the existence of a self who can be interested. Who are you, reading this book? When President Alexander Meiklejohn undertook to remake the College at the start of the 20th century, he took a place conceived for “young men of Christian piety” and sought to install at its center the kind of liberal-intellectual education that would be “a preparation for life.” That kind of education would equip students with critical thinking useful across a range of careers; more personally, after decades of actual lived experience, I see it now as a way of maximizing the chance that when life’s difficulties came knocking on your door, someone would be home.
In the intergenerational conversation, the older party would do well to hold in check his instinct to judge.”
Making valued friends and encountering gifted professors would have happened at any college. But over the years I have wondered: Is there anything to what I absorbed as an undergraduate, some intellectual tendency or characterological tint, that is Amherst’s and Amherst’s alone? I recognize in myself a certain argumentativeness, an inclination to dig, to demonstrate, to defend and, perhaps above all, to play the devil’s advocate. That, plus a subtle but stubborn idealism. For better and worse I have retained, into late middle age, a default assumption that life is more than what writer Delmore Schwartz called “the scrimmage of appetite everywhere,” that ideas should outweigh mere vested interests.
Sometimes this has seemed like a lamentable naivete. Heading into a fractious city zoning meeting, for instance, armed with your sense that Policy X is the right thing to do can be a recipe for having Policy Y and Z people hate you, if their policies are grounded in guarding their personal interests. You dare to counter our profit with your principles? Yet at other times, and certainly in the civic life of our nation right now, the recourse to principle has seemed like the last, saving obstacle to the rule of mere power and a cynicism run rampant.
Even more than argumentative idealism, I received from Amherst a habit of caring about, and enjoying, the quality of the argument itself. In modeling a way of engaging with literature, Pritchard reached back to one of his teachers, Robert Frost, for the metaphor of keeping our arguments “in play.” In tennis this means extending a rally for the pleasures of the sport, but in a broader intellectual context I take it to signify favoring means over ends, paying attention to how you say things, embracing skepticism vis-à-vis dogmatic assertions and maintaining a sympathetic attentiveness to alternative points of view. Keeping things in play means elevating indeterminacy and ambiguity over conclusiveness and certainty.
In his memoir English Papers, Pritchard discusses how his best classes take a poem or story or novel and unsettle it, making it new again, making it happen. “The trouble with most books about teaching,” he writes, “is that … they put themselves behind some big idea that, if carried into practice, would alleviate or resolve crisis.” In contrast, the way of learning that Amherst provided my cohort is one that provokes small crises, opening up areas of doubt where meaning is up for grabs and a teetering uncertainty is the norm. We all know enough about life by now to recognize that personally, professionally and politically, any place where that creative uncertainty prevails is—to cadge a line from Hamilton—“the room where it happens.”
In the years before my pathbreaking class matriculated, Amherst was inflamed by the burning question of whether to go coed. At one point The Amherst Student published two position papers—one for, one against—that had been presented to the board of trustees. Both turned out to have been written by President Ward. Ward himself was a strong proponent of the change, and yet he had sufficient intellectual acumen not only to understand the opposing point of view but to articulate it better than some of its proponents could. This made him, to my mind, an avatar of liberal education, and I appreciated being at a college headed by someone with the suppleness, sympathy and skill to think that way.
I’m not sure how much of any of this—an attitude, an intellectual style—is portable from one generation to the next; I’m not at all sure that today’s undergraduates have any more affinity with me than I and my cohort did with those becapped, mug-waving, purple-clad men raucously singing beneath their reunion tents. Each generation has its own experience of the world, and its own Haltung, as Germans say: its default attitude to that experience. The education I got at Amherst emerged from the mists of premodern pedagogies, and it has in turn been pushed aside by new approaches.
Urgent about social justice and eager for systemic political and historical reckonings, students and professors today seem to me more inclined to pursue what they view as virtuous ends; in a way, the College seems returned to its roots as a place for educating young people of piety. I might not agree with every current priority or point of emphasis. But so what? In the intergenerational conversation, it is perhaps inevitable to find oneself talking at cross-purposes; and the older party to such conversations would do well to listen closely and hold in check his instinct to judge. Then again, why would you do otherwise, if you were educated at Amherst?
Cooper is the author of the novel The Last to Go and the story collection Big as Life. His work has appeared in The New Yorker, Harper’s, GQ, Esquire and The Atlantic, and in Best American Short Stories. He is a contributing editor at Commonweal.
Illustration by Hanna Barczyk