President Michael Elliott addressing the Class of '26 during Convocation.

What is the purpose of higher education?

W.E.B. Du Bois, in his seminal work The Souls of Black Folk, argued in 1903 that, above all, the function of a college or university is “to be the organ of that fine adjustment between real life and the growing knowledge of life, an adjustment which forms the secret of civilization.” 

President Michael A. Elliott quoted this line on Aug. 31, as he addressed new students gathered in Johnson Chapel for Opening Convocation. 

“Du Bois understood that when it comes to the big problems that we face—whether racial injustice, pandemics, climate change—scientific and technological progress is not sufficient,” said Elliott, in his first major address since becoming president this summer. “We need a civil society that can reach consensus on solutions, a moral vocabulary that gives us the capacity to adopt them, and institutions that are capable of delivering them.” 

At a time when democracy is under attack in the U.S. and around the world, Elliott continued, it is vital to have leaders who are trained in critical thinking, who know how to evaluate scientific evidence, and who can make ethical judgments while working with inconclusive data. “Or,” he said, “to put it another way, a diverse democracy needs leaders who have received an education in the liberal arts.”

Not coincidentally, the same Du Bois quote that Elliott cited in his speech also appears prominently in the amicus curiae brief the College filed this summer with the U.S. Supreme Court. This brief is in support of the legality of a “race-conscious” college admissions process.

Faculty in academic regalia attending the Convocation ceremony at Amherst College in the fall of 2022.

In addition to the presidential address, Convocation featured other traditional elements, including a Glee Club performance of the song “Three Gifts” and the awarding of honorary master of arts degrees to faculty members who recently achieved the rank of full professor. This year those professors are Stefan Bradley, the Charles Hamilton Houston ’15 Professor of Black Studies and History; Sheila Jaswal, professor of chemistry and faculty equity and inclusion officer; Edward Melillo, the William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of History and Environmental Studies and chair of environmental studies; Lee Spector, the Class of 1993 Professor of Computer Science; and Amy Wagaman, professor of statistics.

Opening Convocation marks the official start of the academic year and is the first official gathering of the new class in Johnson Chapel, “the ceremonial heart of the College,” in Elliott’s words. As he addressed the first-year students and new transfer students gathered there, he said that he’d read each of their admission essays over the summer. He noticed a common theme to many of the essays: food. There’s a good reason for that, he said, as he quoted from one student’s essay: “In my household, food is not food. Food is a form of currency, not in the sense of capitalism, but rather in the form of compassion, love, generosity and honesty. Eating is not simply meant to fill our bodies with the necessary nutrients it needs; it is a cherished form of social interaction between kith and kin, and a bonding mechanism for strangers.”

The types of connections often forged over a meal are key to creating a healthy community, Elliott said—one that prizes wellness, that empowers its members, that cultivates the intellect and soul, and that offers room for respectful disagreement and self-reflection. A healthy community values collaboration, and enables members to learn with and from one another, he continued.

The Class of '26 gathers in Johnson Chapel for Convocation at Amherst College, fall of 2022.

Moreover, he said, a healthy community must be able to discuss “the most difficult problems” by using “facts and evidence rather than simply rumor and speculation.” Essential to this effort is a community’s willingness to discuss its past, “including the ways that it’s fallen short of its own ideals.” Doing so enables an institution to understand its present and chart its future.

Elliott also cited 19th-century political scientist and philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville and his thoughts on “associations”—that is, groups, clubs and orders. Amherst has many of these, Elliott noted. 

“For Tocqueville, associations are where we practice democracy with a lowercase d—where we are drawn out of our private worlds and where we learn to interact with one another, to understand how we are both like and unlike one another, where we listen and learn,” said Elliott. “So, as you are coming together here as students in all of these ways, you are actually engaging in preparation to advance a democratic society.”

He concluded, “Let us all try to develop our minds by enlarging our hearts, and by engaging in reciprocity and generosity with one another.”

Convocation 2022

Wednesday, August 31, 2022

During Convocation, President Elliott and the faculty welcome the students to Amherst College, and recently promoted professors are awarded honorary Amherst College degrees.

Transcript: Convocation 2022