December 20, 2016

Dear Faculty, Staff, Students, Alumni, and Parents,

As the fall semester comes to a close, I write to wish all of you a restful and enjoyable holiday season. There are too few opportunities in our accelerated lives to be fully present to one another, to read, to wonder, to play, and to reflect. I hope you get a chance to do all of those things over the next couple of weeks and into the new year.

The end of this semester has been marred for many by reports of troubling behavior on men’s athletics teams at several colleges and universities, including one at Amherst. Given the growing number of such reports across the country, I worry that the problem may extend to other teams and that there will be more revelations—here and elsewhere. I am concerned that there may be groups beyond varsity athletics that engage in similar forms of “bonding” through behavior that involves ridicule, denigration, and vulgarity. Condemning such behavior and holding those who are involved accountable is a necessary but not a sufficient response. In this letter I want to reflect on the larger question of how we build positive forms of community.

Ultimately, education is the key to addressing the problems about which we have been reading. The education I have in mind has to be holistic; it has to be integrated by learners at more than a cognitive level; it has to engage people emotionally, put them in contact with themselves and one another, create opportunities that are interpersonal as well as intellectual, and engage them in efforts to serve a larger good. On campus and off, we need to acquire the skills to bridge our differences, learn anew how to talk with one another, think together about positive and negative forms of community, and change in ways that are lasting and rewarding. Amherst has always seen this kind of learning as part of the mission of residential liberal arts education. It has been the work of this College since its founding, when local townspeople pooled their financial resources and their skills to build a college that would provide education to poor young men of piety in preparation for the ministry. Access, opportunity, and education in the service of a larger good: these are still our animating values. Our goal is to ensure that graduates are academically prepared to do creative, rigorous work in their fields of choice, but also that they are intellectually versatile and that they develop as whole people. While they are at Amherst we want them to develop the positive forms of intellectual exchange and community that we urgently need in the world they will enter and eventually lead.

In this campus community we have the most talented group of students, faculty, and staff that it is possible to assemble in an educational setting. Our differences in background, experience, interests, and points of view increase our potential for understanding ourselves, one another, and the realities of the world we live in. We are fully engaged in the work of building an intellectual community that values individuality and has permeable boundaries. The work of community-building is particularly interesting and promising at Amherst. By design the College has a more diverse student body than its peers. We see the benefits of that diversity in creative curricular, pedagogical, residential, and cultural programs that preserve Amherst’s core values and adapt them to changes in the world. Building positive forms of community is a crucial part of our work. It takes patience, understanding, and ways of learning that go beyond the more cognitive dimensions of intellectual growth. We pursue this work in a national political environment that has grown coarser and more hostile. In our own community, we sometimes find ourselves yielding to the same divisions, hostilities, and prejudices that we see around us and that threaten to rend the fabric of the society as a whole. Giving free rein to mockery, slurs, and aggression is not a liberation from political correctness; it is a failure of decency, respect, and civility—qualities on which strong democratic institutions and human happiness depend. 

Promoting those qualities has become more difficult. The acceleration of work and life, the substitution of electronic for interpersonal communication, the 24/7 news cycle, and the emptiness of much political rhetoric have isolated and divided us from one another, made mutual understanding close to impossible, and bred cynicism about our core values. Sometimes our entertainment culture has us living from scandal to scandal, offering plenty of opportunities to express our outrage and to gossip, but making it harder for us to develop the language we need to express ourselves and to talk with one another. There are people on both the left and the right who operate as though they are exempt from any charge of unfairness, or as though their viewpoints could never be wrong. They operate on the basis of unconscious assumptions and biases that they are not willing to test by entertaining the views of others—by actually getting to know people about whom they have only stereotypes as guides. 

Building relationships and positive forms of community is hard. It takes time. It involves risk. It requires mutuality and an appreciation of the differences in our positions, circumstances, and points of view. It makes us vulnerable. Sometimes people defend against those vulnerabilities by projecting weakness, blame, and criticism outward onto other people, establishing a brittle sense of identity or community and creating bonds with those who are inclined to deny their vulnerability in the same ways. There are basic human tendencies and needs involved—needs for safety, the need to belong, to differentiate, to define. We have proven over and over that it is possible to develop identities, groups, teams, and communities without erecting barriers between “us” and “them” and without hate.

In my remarks right after the presidential election I cited the French Algerian writer, Hélène Cixous, on the dangers of politics when it is not inflected by poetry or by a poetic approach to other people and things. Cixous urges us not to yield to “the precipitate rhythm of the media” but to learn the “lesson of slowness”—taking the time that is required for sustained attention and the time required for listening without imposing our already entrenched assumptions on what we hear or see. I believe, with Cixous, that politics without a poetic approach to language, to people, and to things can kill, and that the opposite can also be true. On the evening after the election, I also cited Hannah Arendt’s Men in Dark Times. Arendt warns against the impulse to flee from the political realm in difficult times and reminds us that it takes work to make the world humane.  It does not happen automatically. We have to let a sense of political urgency or a need for solidarity be inflected by ‘the lessons of slowness’ so we do not lose our humanity. When we give up on the extraordinary human capacity to listen, learn, connect, and understand or treat those time-consuming commitments as mere inconveniences, we will have forgone the human-scale solutions that are required for democratic political systems to work.

When the Spring semester begins, we will renew our efforts to engage one another in discussions about the kind of community we want and how we will get there. We will be joined and helped in this ongoing work by some of our alumni and by a group of people who have made cultural change and community-building their life’s work. Their efforts will be embedded to a great extent in the ordinary rhythms and routines of the College and will be designed to help us have more of the conversations we want. Education in depth is the only possible way forward.  It has to be aimed at independence of thought and freedom of expression as well as at community.  That is where the poetic appears again, in the ability to combine independence with community, freedom with responsibility. The purpose of a liberal arts education is to free us from ignorance, from prejudice, and from superstition in pursuit of what’s true, however complex the truth may be, so we can avoid being duped, can be awakened to reality, and can serve a larger good. It takes time, persistence, and courage to build and sustain positive, open, and engaged communities. As individuals and communities, we all fail to live up to our ideals. The important thing is not the failure but the renewed commitment to those ideals. I look forward to continuing the work when the new semester begins. 

Enjoy the holidays!