… in 1821

An illustration of a pilgrim reading a book
Welcome to Amherst. The new college is founded this year by descendants of Massachusetts Puritans. It follows that your life is indeed puritanical: At sunrise, the College bell wakes you up for morning prayers. You attend chapel and your first class before breakfast. Prayers are held in a borrowed village church. It is unheated. There is no summer vacation. You get one six-week break at Christmastime.

Piety is central to college life. The nation is experiencing the Second Great Awakening, a time of Protestant religiosity.

Meanwhile, in the Massachusetts legislature, your school is fighting for its life. Williams College—angry that Amherst “stole” its president, Zephaniah Swift Moore, and 15 students—leads a long and nasty campaign to nip Amherst in the bud. It is not at all clear that either college will survive. But Ralph Waldo Emerson feels Amherst’s incredible energy. Following a campus visit, he describes the new college as “an Infant Hercules. Never was so much striving, outstretching, & advancing in a literary cause as is exhibited here. The students all feel a personal responsibility in the support & defense of their young Alma Mater against all antagonists.”

All but three of your fellow students are New Englanders. In this first year of the College’s existence all your classmates are white. But next year, Edward Jones, class of 1826, will arrive from South Carolina. He will become the second African American in the nation to earn a college degree. He will join the ministry and be named the first principal of Fourah Bay College in Sierra Leone.

If you are very poor, you eat bread and milk in your room. If you can afford more, you hire a local family to serve you three hot meals a day at their boarding house.

Most of your classmates are the children of struggling local farmers. Painting with a broad brush, English professor Theodore Baird will describe the sort of young man who wants an Amherst education: “Again and again there appears, almost as the only type, a boy or young man whose bodily strength was so feeble, whose health was so frail, that it early became apparent he could be of little use on the farm.”

You get water from the College well. You saw wood for your own fireplace. At night you study by firelight and perhaps a couple of foul-smelling candles made from rendered animal fat.

If you are a wealthier student, you bring your own furniture for your dorm room. If you are needy, you borrow furniture and bedding from townspeople devoted to charitable works. The “Ladies of the Faculty” also help keep bedding and clothing in good repair.

There is no dining hall. If you are very poor, you survive on bread and milk in your room. If you can afford better, you hire a local family to serve you three hot meals a day at their boarding house.

All you do is study: There are no organized leisure activities. However, many students smoke and drink. Otherwise there would be no need in 1830 to found the Antivenenean Society. Veneate means “to poison.” The society’s motto is “Water Is Indeed Best,” and its members pledge to abstain from alcohol, tobacco and opium.

The senior class of 1822 is composed of three students. President Moore meets with them daily for recitations, using as a classroom the bedroom shared by two of them, Pindar Field and Ebenezer Snell. In terms of resources, here is what they have: four chairs.

Still, the College aims high in its quest to provide a classical education. The trustees have decided that Amherst’s admission requirements and curriculum will be the same as those at Yale. President Moore made it clear, before agreeing to leave Williams and come to Amherst, that he does not want to be associated with an “inferior” institution.

To enter as a first-year, you must demonstrate knowledge of vulgar arithmetic (“vulgar” means fractions), Virgil (in Latin) and the New Testament (in its original Greek). Once at Amherst, you and your classmates all take the same courses. You study “fluxions”—Isaac Newton’s term for calculus. But most of your classes consist of recitations. This means you memorize a passage in a dead language and then recite it in front of your classmates. In your first year, you read Jedidiah Morse’s Geography Made Easy. The textbook contains sections on zoology as well as geography, and its listings of “wild quadrupeds” begins:

“Like the Elephant, they were armed with tusks of ivory; but they obviously differ from the elephant in size, their bones proving them to have been five or six times as large.”

Morse is speaking of the mammoth.

… in 1871

An illustration of a man lifting a barbell

The College is still mourning those who died in the Civil War. There are 37 altogether, including Frazar Stearns, class of 1863, son of the College president. 

But 1871 belongs to a time of Reconstruction and rebuilding. “Muscular Christianity” is a national trend, and Edward “Old Doc” Hitchcock Jr., class of 1849, returns to Amherst with ambitious ideas about physical education after graduating from Harvard Medical School. And so, four times a week, you head to Barrett Gymnasium to perform calisthenics and lift barbells with your classmates. Accompanied by piano, no less.

On campus, scientific interest has risen. Walker Hall, the College’s new “Temple of Science,” has just been completed in 1870. At the same time, however, Amherst remains extremely devout: 40 percent of graduates have become ordained ministers—an extraordinary number, even for the era.

Amherst is not yet highly selective, but to enter you must have a solid background in the classics. Admission entails traveling to campus to take a written exam given twice yearly, and presenting testimonials of your “good moral character.” As in 1821, you must be able to parse works in Latin (Virgil, Cicero) and in Greek (Homer’s Iliad and Xenophon’s Anabasis). Math requirements have gotten stiffer: you are now examined in geometry and algebra. English grammar has also been added to the admission test—including orthoepy (the proper pronunciation of words). 

Of Amherst’s 244 students, nearly half hail from Massachusetts. But the College is also starting to draw students from farther afield. There are seven international students, mostly sons of missionaries. Amherst’s first Asian student, Joseph Hardy Neesima, has graduated in 1870; he will go on to found Doshisha University in Kyoto. In 1873, Amherst’s first African American student since the Civil War will arrive: Madison Smith, class of 1877. 

At mid-century roughly one-third of Amherst’s students received scholarships. With the Industrial Revolution gaining steam, however, Amherst is fast becoming a college for well-heeled young gentlemen.

Now you can choose among extracurriculars, from the Shakespeare Club to the Pedestrian Club. There are two Eating Clubs—students still take their meals off-campus—including one wittily called Eta Nu Pi. Some of the College’s most enduring institutions are already in place, like The Olio yearbook (launched in 1855), the Glee Club (1865) and The Amherst Student (1868). There are two sports teams: baseball and crew. In 1872, Amherst’s crew team wins the national collegiate championship. 

Four times a week, you head to the gym with your classmates to perform calisthenics and lift barbells. Accompanied by piano, no less.

More than half the upperclassmen belong to fraternities, still called secret societies. Mandatory morning chapel, held daily at 7:50, continues to be a sore point. There are also complaints about cheating. “The A’s and B’s are always directly under the eye of the professor, and a more virtuous set of men cannot be found,” writes one student. Meanwhile, students with S–Z names sit in back, where they have “the finest opportunities for ‘cribbing’ and ‘ponying’ that a heart could wish.” The writer suggests changing the seating order once a term. Note: By 1871, Amherst’s dropout rate is high, with more than one-third not graduating. 

Science courses have improved dramatically, and Amherst now owns 100,000 natural history specimens, including the world’s largest collection of dinosaur tracks and an outstanding collection of minerals. Only juniors and seniors can take electives, including astronomy, botany, Spanish and anatomy. 

The College is obsessed with the art of public speaking. For a senior, there is no greater honor than being chosen Class Orator. The finest speakers of the day come to Amherst, including prominent minister Henry Ward Beecher, class of 1834, and abolitionist Wendell Phillips, who champions the rights of women and Native Americans.

This year sees a major push for Amherst to become coeducational. Two women apply, a Miss Frazier of Watertown, Conn., and a Miss Lidd of Lynn, Mass. Several trustees argue in favor. One is Beecher, who states: “Amherst is for universal education. If a man be Black, and is fully prepared, or a woman, and is fully qualified, its doors will be open to them.”

That effort fails. “As yet we cannot announce the arrival of any female Freshmen,” states the 1871 Olio, “nevertheless the time may not be far distant.” That prediction turns out to be overly optimistic: the first women won’t graduate until 1976, a century later.

… in 1921

An illustration of a brain
Goodbye, mediocrity. Suddenly your college is prestigious. At the turn of the 20th century Amherst was known as “an agreeable, leisurely, semi-educational country club, where by doing a modicum of work you could spend four pleasant years and come away with a college degree,” to quote The Amherst Student. 

That was before Alexander Meiklejohn. It would be difficult to overstate his impact on the College, which he reshaped into a place known for its excellence and intellectual seriousness. Appointed president in 1912, he tosses out Amherst’s previous devotion to Christian piety and replaces it with his own educational philosophy: “The task of the teacher is the making of minds.”

How does Meiklejohn work his magic? He completely revamps the curriculum and forces out underperforming faculty. 

Admission has changed drastically since 1871. First of all, did you attend prep school? Then you’re in luck. Since 1891, the College has allowed graduates of “certain preparatory schools” to be admitted without taking entrance exams. You simply need a certificate from the school stating that you have the academic background Amherst requires. (Among those “certain schools” is Dunbar High, an all-Black public school in Washington, D.C.) 

If you are not so fortunate, then Amherst spells out elaborate expectations for your high school studies. In addition, you must take an entrance exam, and all applicants “must present satisfactory testimonials of good character.” 

Meiklejohn completely revamps the curriculum and forces out under-performing faculty.

Amherst, with about 500 students, is markedly more diverse in 1921 than 50 years earlier. The change is evident in the incoming freshmen. Meiklejohn has publicly endorsed the idea that Amherst should look more like America—rather than remain an exclusively “Anglo-Saxon college.”

There are four African American freshmen, the most ever for an Amherst class. Of them, three hail from Dunbar, including William H. Hastie, who will become the nation’s first Black appellate judge. 

Another member of the class of ’25, Stanley Marcus of Dallas, stays only one year before transferring to Harvard. There—unlike at Amherst—as a Jewish student he can join a fraternity. (He will become CEO of Neiman Marcus.) 

In 1920 Meiklejohn launches a bold initiative: offering courses taught by Amherst professors to labor union members from Springfield and Holyoke. The idea is unpopular with conservative alumni, who find it “bolshevist.”

In the Roaring Twenties, the atmosphere on campus is swank and jovial, and despite Prohibition the alcohol flows. Very likely you will join one of the 13 fraternities, unless you are Jewish, Asian or Black, in which case you are excluded. Amherst’s fraternity dances are the “most popular social occasions of the Connecticut Valley.”

To graduate, you must fulfill two majors, study a modern foreign language, take a class in public speaking, join either the chorus or orchestra and attend P.E. The many requirements include one year of Latin or Greek and two years of science. 

In 1915 Meiklejohn pushed hard for a series of required interdisciplinary courses that strove to make students “aware of the moral, social and economic scheme—the society—of which they are members.” But the faculty pushed back, reducing his idea to a single elective.

Graduation rates remain low. In the class of 1925 the non-graduates (96) outnumber the graduates (81). No one graduates summa. This seems consistent with Meiklejohn’s belief in high standards, which, he says, brings its own rewards. 

And under his tenure, the faculty diversifies, if only briefly. In 1918 Amherst hires its first woman instructor, Madeleine Bôcher Utter, to replace a French professor “ad interim” during World War I. In 1921 the College hires Robert Percy Barnes ’21 as an instructor in chemistry for one year: In 1933, Barnes will become Harvard’s first African American Ph.D. in chemistry. 

As for the College’s graduates, the dean of Harvard Law School says, “Amherst has sent us regularly, for the past five or six years, a little group of men who have stood absolutely at the head of the Law School. Their prominence has been out of all proportion to their numbers. How the miracle has been wrought, I don’t know, but they are sending us men who know how to think.”

By 1923, when Meiklejohn is forced to resign, the College has earned a national reputation. Walter Lippmann, a leading journalist of the day, comments that Amherst under Meiklejohn has “produced as remarkable a student body as I have encountered.” Likewise, The New Republic comments: “For several years it has been generally assumed that a recent Amherst graduate might be expected to display an unusual measure of intellectual vigor, of personal and moral distinction.”

… in 1971

An illustration of three fists being raised in the air in front of a building
In the era of sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll, Amherst undergoes what one member of the class of 1971 calls “four years of constant turmoil.” This period of student activism begins at Amherst in 1966, when 20 seniors walk out of the Commencement ceremony to protest U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara’s receipt of an honorary degree. McNamara has been a powerful advocate for escalating the war in Vietnam.

In the years to follow, the campus is rocked by several major actions: Spurred by student protest, classes are suspended for two days in April 1969 to discuss the war, race relations and coeducation. The faculty votes to add a Black studies program in the following academic year. 

In February 1970, African American students from all Five Colleges take over several buildings, including Converse Hall, to advocate for increased Black enrollment, more resources and a Black professor of Black studies. In May 1970, Amherst students participate in the nationwide student strike in protest of the Vietnam War. Following the Kent State killings of four unarmed student protesters in Ohio, the Amherst faculty supports a student proposal to cancel classes through the end of the semester.

The Vietnam War looms over everything. In actuality, few Amherst graduates serve in the military unless they choose to, given that college students are eligible for draft deferments that can be extended until age 24. The draft ends in early 1973. Amherst’s new president, John William Ward, is inaugurated in 1971. He will make national headlines in 1972 when he is arrested at an anti-war demonstration, along with 500 others, at nearby Westover Air Force Base. Ward is the only college president arrested for protesting against the war. 

In 1971 Amherst’s catalog states for the first time: “Admission to Amherst College is highly competitive.” The acceptance rate stands at about 20 percent. Retiring in 1971 is Eugene “Bill” Wilson ’29 as dean of admission. During his 25 years on the job, he has made Amherst less of a gentlemen’s club and more of a meritocracy, in part by reaching out to public schools. 

A period of student activism begins in 1966 and continues through the early 1970s.

In the wake of student protests on campus, in 1971 Amherst accepts 50 African American students, but only 22 matriculate; Amherst’s Black students in particular want the College to intensify its recruiting efforts. 

In refusing to admit women, mostly due to alumni intransigence, Amherst lags behind most of its peers. The class of 1971 has very few Latino students and no Asian students. In 1971 two students try to form a gay organization on campus, but it draws little support. 

Amherst students have a heavy workload, but many also party hard. “The esthetic of Amherst cool was not to let anyone see you work,” said Peter Lobdell ’68. “Every fraternity house had its own bar and taps. We regularly invited the faculty over for drinks.” In Susan Berman’s Underground Guide to the College of Your Choice, published in 1971, she describes Amherst men this way: “Cats are generally lukewarm hip and have that ‘Amherst cowboy’ look complete with jeans, lumber jackets, work boots and moustaches.”

In the two decades after World War II, Amherst had been famed for its demanding and highly structured “New Curriculum.” Freshmen endured a kind of boot camp: their English course assigned an astounding three papers a week, and their yearlong class in calculus and physics was taught by a notoriously difficult professor. 

But the times, they are a-changin’. As Amherst diversifies, the College recognizes that the strict cookie-cutter approach to the curriculum no longer works. The faculty votes out the “New Curriculum” in 1965, and Amherst swings in the opposite direction. Instead of a highly restrictive curriculum, it will offer one with very few restrictions, soon to be known as the “Open Curriculum.”

Amherst’s 150th birthday passes without much hoopla.

… in 2021

An illustration of the top of Johnson Chapel in a bubble

The COVID-19 pandemic has created unprecedented challenges, upheavals and uncertainties that will be described by Amherst’s writers of the future. But even before the isolation imposed by the virus, students often referred to life at Amherst as “the Bubble.” For many of them, the College feels self-contained and at times shielded from the wider world.

Amherst receives some 14,000 applications every year. (For the class of 1971, the College received about 2,000 applications.) In part this is because the internet and the Common Application have made it far easier to apply. Roughly a quarter of applications come from international students, as the College is among just a handful of U.S. colleges and universities to offer them need-blind admission and no-loan financial aid packages. The highest numbers of international applications come from students in China, India and South Korea.

Amherst no longer conducts admissions interviews, either on campus or with alumni volunteers. Alumni interviews were discontinued in the early 2000s, as they were perceived as giving an unfair advantage to privileged students. In 1971, Amherst was predominantly white. But since 2005, the College has made a tremendous effort to diversify. In the newly graduated class of 2021, 14 percent self-identify as Asian American, 11 percent as African American, 11 percent as Latinx, 6 percent as multiracial and 0.5 percent as Native American.

Some 14,000 students apply for admission, up from about 2,000 a half century ago.

Socioeconomically, Amherst is also far more diverse than most liberal arts colleges. For the class of 1971, 35 percent received financial aid, compared to 55 percent for the class of 2021. More than 10 percent of the 2021 class represent the first generation in their families to attend college; as Meiklejohn Fellows, they received dedicated advising, institutional support and stipends. In 2021, Amherst has returned to its founding mission from 1821: educating promising students of limited means. In this sense, Amherst has come full circle.

Varsity athletes make up a sizable chunk, about 35 percent, of Amherst’s student body.

The College has increased from 1,200 students in 1971 to more than 1,800. The states with the highest numbers of students are now New York, California and Massachusetts. International students come from more than 50 countries, from Canada to Kenya.

The administration supervises students’ social life to a degree not seen since before fraternities were founded in the mid-1800s. Amherst asks that all parties be registered with an online form. In 2014 Amherst banned underground fraternities, which had often hosted parties in their off-campus houses. Then, in 2016, the College tore down the last three “Social Dorms,” another traditional site for parties.

As for academics, math is hot. In 2011, 20 graduating seniors majored in math, compared to more than 60 in the class of 2021. Overall, the College is seeing rising enrollments in STEM classes. In the class of 1971, the top 10 majors (including double majors) among graduating seniors were, in order: English, political science, independent scholars, American studies, economics, biology, fine arts, history, psychology and philosophy. In the class of 2021, the top 10 are: economics, mathematics, psychology, political science, computer science, English, history, statistics, biology and neuroscience.

Note that 50 years ago Amherst did not have a computer science department. And while it was popular to be an independent scholar in 1971, by 2021 it is a rarity. Amherst still offers what it has traditionally done best: fostering critical thinking and what it calls “close colloquy”—ongoing conversations between students and faculty. For many students, those conversations are life-changing.

In 1921, an Amherst Centennial booklet stated: “People die, customs change, monuments fall and buildings crumble, but a college goes on from generation to generation eternally.” 

Now, who dares to predict what Amherst College will be in 2121? 

Pick is a former newspaper reporter and the author of several books about history and science. This article is excerpted from Eye Mind Heart: A View of Amherst College at 200, which is the signature book of the College Bicentennial. Learn more about this and the other two Bicentennial books at amherst.edu/go/books200.

Illustrations by Adam McCauley