An illustration of a pair of glasses with roses in the eyes
In what’s likely my last book of essays and reviews (Dinosaur Reflections, 2021), I adopted the persona of venerable or hidebound or petrified age in order to pronounce on matters related to education as I’ve experienced it. This dinosaur has shared a headful of poems with students and others, one of which that keeps cropping up is titled “In Those Days,” by the American poet and critic Randall Jarrell. It’s about a remembered time when a man and a woman were young. It concludes, “How poor and miserable we were, / How seldom together! / And yet after so long one thinks: / In those days everything was better.”

Though I have never been poor and not often been miserable, those final two lines speak to me as I think back from these days to another time. Then I hasten to correct myself—“No, not better, just different.” But the poets refuse to give in to such sensible correction: Kingsley Amis, author of the great novel Lucky Jim, also wrote a poem-lament for the Oxford of his undergraduate days: “A block of time, which like its likenesses / Looks better now the next such has begun / Looks, and in this case maybe really is.”

So, it’s dangerous to consider the past from the standpoint of age, since change is of the essence and sentimentalizing one’s past is to be avoided. Yet is it possible that in those days everything was better?

There is a further problem in speaking with some conviction about the past and its unrecoverable pastness. In T.S. Eliot’s famous essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” he confronts the problem in literary terms: “Someone said, ‘The dead writers are remote from us because we know so much more than they did.’ Precisely, and they are that which we know.” When I presume to make judgments about the past of Amherst College, I must acknowledge that—as with Eliot’s dead writers—that past is precisely that which I know. How then to achieve a perspective independent of that past which allows me to criticize it?

I find myself ensnared by the very phenomenon that makes such a perspective highly problematic, to say the least. I don’t want to bite the hand that has fed me. What I can do is say a word about the institution as I encountered it as a young instructor in the fall of 1958, not in the spirit of deploring its stone-age customs and behavior, nor as a time in which everything was better. It takes some play of mind to hold the two eras (were they really eras or something less daunting?) in any sort of balance, in tandem. Nevertheless…

It was all male back then—students, faculty, administration—and for the new instructor it felt like all classroom: three courses that met three times a week, Monday through Saturday. These were “Freshman Composition” (in two sections of 20 students each) and a sophomore “Introduction to Literature.” No lecturing; everything dependent for its life on the back-and-forth of teacher and class. Plenty of required written work: in English l (the composition course) students wrote short papers three times a week; these were the subject of next meeting’s scrutiny. At the end of the semester this amounted to roughly 1,300 papers to read (commented on but not graded). The literature course required eight or so papers of greater length. Classroom tones varied, but I tried to make mine lively, even aggressive, as I read aloud their paragraphs and made appropriate comments, usually seasoned with what I hoped was humorous, often sarcastic, delivery. A teacher’s comments might be brutally concise; one of my colleagues in the composition course drew a line under some sentence that announced, “I stopped reading here.” Another liked to scrawl “Mayonnaise” in the margin by way of suggesting the texture of a student’s prose. I got in trouble with a student in one of my sections who rebelled at being teased and (he thought) tortured. He dubbed me “The Impeccable Expounder of Dogma.”

“What I and others saw was order and agreement.”

This was but one department, and the composition course surely was an exceptional one. But for years in the required physics course, the lash of Professor Arnold Arons was felt by more than one student, and I think it’s fair to detect a combative atmosphere in more than one teacher’s approach. (Arons once invoked the teacher’s mission with respect to students as “taking a blowtorch to their fannies.”) When coeducation appeared (a major story in itself), there was some concern about whether young women would be or should be subject to the “tough” play “we” took to be masculine. It turned out that the young women were more than up to the challenge; but who knows whether and how much professorial behavior changed?

In my experience the existence of a more diverse student (and faculty) body meant that you had to watch your language a little more carefully. If your colleagues and your students are relatively un-diverse you don’t have to do this—argument, disagreement, aggressive measures can be carried out (so we thought) without regard to your opponent’s beliefs, assumptions, background. In the English department at least, there came a time when you were advised to be a little more careful, that not everything went. The result was a more polite but often less controversial atmosphere. Sometimes heated but good arguments were avoided out of cautiousness.

We’re now familiar with the phrase “remote learning.” I look back on my early days as a teacher at the College and find that remote as adjective can modify all sorts of activity. There was a time when the College sent out a New Year’s greeting card to all its members. It fell to me to select an appropriate bit of poetry to glorify the festivity. I looked for something that would truly express “Amherst” and decided on a heroic couplet from the great Alexander Pope, written when he was maybe 18 years old. The opening sequence from his poem “Windsor Forest” evoked a pastoral landscape of perfection: “Where order in variety we see, / And where, though all things differ, all agree.”

Was this not a perfect sentiment for this perfect little college? The card was duly sent out and provoked no response of any sort. But what I and others saw and took for granted was order and agreement rather than variety and difference. Easy to see why this sentiment would not fly on some New Year’s card the College would be sending out today. (And who reads Pope anyway?) In those days everything was… different. Yet, probably because I chose the sentiment for general application, a part of me holds on, surely mistakenly, to how that other poem really ends: “In those days everything was better.” Imagine thinking that lines from an early-18th-century poem, written by a young Roman Catholic with a disfigured spine (tuberculosis of the bone, they called it, later on) could be chosen by a Protestant from upstate New York who was soon to lose his faith? And his faith not just in the Episcopal Church but in larger matters of curriculum and conscience?

John Updike writes that for all the naivete of those convictions he held as a young man—in politics, religion, morality—he is unable to regard those he came to later as an adequate substitute. Something like that feeling informs my beliefs, if that is what they are, about Amherst College. The recent decision to replace Lord Jeff with the Mammoth (does it have a first name?) in the belief that it was a vital, important move, feels to this onlooker more comic than serious. Surely this was a move with the best, the highest, of intentions behind it. And yet what about those songs now to be sung no more? “And yet after so long one thinks…” How should the poem end?

Pritchard is the Henry Clay Folger Professor of English, Emeritus, at Amherst. His books include Frost: A Literary Life Reconsidered and Updike: America’s Man of Letters. His essays appear regularly in The Hudson Review, where he is an advisory editor.

Photograph by John Goodman

Illustration by Andy Martin