You made it through an intense few days of orientation. You probably have a dizzying array of impressions of Amherst. I’d love to know what they are and how you would articulate them.
Every college and university has a personality or a character. No two people at Amherst would describe the personality of this place in the same way, but there is something very distinctive about it. When I try to characterize it, I often think back to the document I was sent about Amherst when I agreed to be interviewed for the presidency. There was a summary statement about Amherst’s culture in that document that made me laugh: “Amherst,” it read, “with its independent faculty, committed staff and actively engaged alumni and students, has a distinctive, yeasty culture.” And then the drafter of that document had added for emphasis, the now overused reference to “a popular T- shirt sold at stores in town that bears the legend, “Amherst: where only the ‘h’ is silent.”
I had never thought about a culture being “yeasty,” so I looked it up. It turns out that the adjective “yeasty” has a figurative meaning that seemed perfect—characterized by unrest or agitation, in a state of turbulence, typically a creative or productive one. To some degree, yeastiness ought to characterize every college and university community. In an essay published in 1940, historian Carl Becker says as much in language I have always found compelling. He claims that universities have a character in a way that corporations don’t. Why would that be? Because presidents and professors who are any good, he says, “are likely to have distinctive, even eccentric, minds and temperaments.” There is a German saying he cites that defines a professor “[a]s a man who thinks otherwise.” Put all our professors together, and you have a community of “otherwise thinking” individuals “all resolutely thinking otherwise in their own manner,” all also wondering why all reasonable people don’t agree with their point of view. Becker describes the scene as a “spectacle.” He also points out that professors are people “who prefer to govern themselves or be governed by persuasion, rather than compulsion.” Yeasty. Amherst seems to have preserved this culture more than most. I got a taste of it before I ever arrived, from my visits with Amherst alumni.
In the summer before I officially became president, I made visits to alumni in various cities around the country. It was interesting to get to know the College first from the perspectives of its graduates. I noticed immediately how loyal they are and how intensely engaged with the College, even 30, 40, o4 50 years out. I also noticed that their storytelling focused on beloved professors almost invariably. Their stories of professors were colorful; they emphasized their brilliance, their high expectations, and their eccentricities. They highlighted memories of disputes between or among professors, some of which they might have embellished. I also observed that the alumni like to argue with one another, and I have experienced it many times since, good natured argument, but argument, nonetheless--abut what a professor said in this or that class, who taught what, whether the college was changing for better or for worse, and, always, about the open curriculum.
What their arguing proved to me was that Amherst faculty had done a great job of encouraging their students to think otherwise in their own ways and to value differences of opinion. It also showed the significance of colleges and universities as the sources of intergenerational ties. So many of these alumni enjoyed lifelong friendships with the faculty about whom they were speaking; they were still close friends with their classmates; they had made new friends that hadn’t known in college when they returned to reunions. College is, as much as it is anything else, a source of friendship and a source of concern for the welfare of people we barely know.
That is one of the important reasons that our alumni matter: our sources of social connectedness in this country seem to have shrunk; at the very least, they have changed. There are many reasons—busyness or the pretense at it, replacement of in-person with electronic social contact; lack of confidence in the value of political and civic participation, fragmentation of other kinds. Whatever the causes, college and university alumni bodies are among the strongest remaining sources of intergenerational community in the United States and colleges are the sources of deep love and devotion, even when they are the object of criticism. In my commencement address this past May, I read from an essay by one of my favorite writers, Marilynne Robinson, who made this point about alumni eloquently. She marvels at alumni commitment to generations of students who are 30, 40, even 50 years their juniors. They treat each new generation of students, she said, “as kin and as heirs.” If you think about the engagement and financial generosity of our alumni, the term “heir” is entirely apt. The strength of alumni attachment to the College makes the term kin appropriate, too.
I came away from those meetings expecting a bunch of wickedly smart, quirky, and demanding professors who allowed themselves to be “real characters.” That’s what I found. And that’s what you’ll find—teachers who will support you in developing yourselves as otherwise thinking adults.
For many, the value we place on “thinking otherwise,” each in our own way, seems at odds with the possibility of a community; but the freedom of inquiry and of personality that colleges inspire is itself the source of community and of love—freedom inspires a sense of responsibility to the community that grants that freedom, a point that the historian William Cronon makes as beautifully as anyone could. I’m afraid the beauty of this combination is lost on many critics of higher education; some wonder why the society should countenance the freedoms and the job security that professors have that are not granted in other domains. My answer. Democracy depends on it. Depends on the freedom to pursue truth wherever it leads, regardless of the political and ideological headwinds. I quote Becker again. “Democracy,” he writes, “assumes the worth and dignity and creative capacity of the human personality as an end in itself. It also assumes, he continues, that good will and humane dealing are better than a selfish and contentious spirit.”
Colleges and universities are experiments in democracy, and they are also keys to the preservation of democratic values.
The challenge, especially in a political divided society, is to resist what is happening elsewhere—the congealing of otherwise thinking into hard ideological oppositions, thinking otherwise in only one way, in opposition to other hardened views. I think it is in the DNA of scholars and teachers to avoid the forms of group think that some think they see in colleges and universities. But we have to work hard to preserve the kind of environment in which that DNA can be expressed.
During these four years, you are likely to encounter a greater concentrated diversity of opinion and people than you ever have or ever will again. I hope you will. This is an environment in which you can learn to define yourself and live by your own lights, but it will not always be easy, or comfortable, or fun. The yeastiness of a great college arises from the excitement, but also from the difficulties and discomforts of learning. Education is not simply the acquisition of new knowledge and skills, though it is that, but also the struggle to free ourselves from our learned attachment to ignorance.
We can be passionately attached to not knowing, and when we look at some of the debates that are occurring in the country, we see vivid examples of people’s attachments to denial—of matters of fact, of scientific evidence, of principle. Some of that denial is cynical, purposeful, political in the worst sense. Some of it is fear and the resistance fear causes. No one is immune to ignorance, bias, and denial. It is built into us by structures that impede our ability to see and, even when we do see, to acknowledge difficult realities. An educational environment of Amherst’s quality is devoted to helping us identify the impediments and, over time, to changing the assumptions they support—to allow our minds to change. There is no learning without unlearning; and real unlearning is sometimes unnerving. It involves moments of vertigo, perhaps even strains in familiar relationships.
This summer I read a book written by a member of the Williams faculty. I apologize for that. I was not able to help myself. The book is called The Making of a Racist: A Southerner Reflects on Family, History, and the Slave Trade and it was written by the historian, CharlesDew. Dew describes his upbringing in the Jim Crow South and attempts to explain how something as inhumane as slavery or the forms of white supremacy of the Jim Crow era could be absorbed without challenge by southern whites who were otherwise good people. He sets out to describe how he was made a loyal confederate boy by all manner of social, economic, cultural, and familial systems that were shaped by the so-called color line.
And he explains that he was changed by his experience at Williams, by his classmates, to some degree, and by his teachers, not because they set out to make him think like them, but because they showed him that neither logic nor historical evidence supported the views he held or the way he saw the world. They gave him the tools to subject his own thinking to logic and to truth, the truth for which there was endless historical evidence, the truth that assumptions of white supremacy are inconsistent with principles of democracy and with humanity itself.
The change brought him into painful conflict with his father, whom he challenged during one of his visits home from Williams. He argued with him about the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v Board of Education ending segregation in schools. He and his father did not speak for the remainder of the visit. Dew writes that they eventually found other things to talk about—football, in particular. That’s true for many southern families.
Charles Dew writes about his separation from the forms of racism that were stark, but unseen, perhaps un-seeable in his childhood and adolescence. He is able to sustain a loving relationship with his parents, despite their differences, even to understand more nearly what shaped their prejudices, accounted for their privileges, and magnified the fears that underwrote a rigid belief in white superiority.
There is no learning or unlearning without hard work, practice at the craft of thinking, and even bouts of even dizzying discomfort and sometimes strained relationships. That is why the work of unlearning and discovery is best pursued in a supportive community of people who are dedicated to that work, who are yeasty for good reason, but who also help provide the forms of respect and even safety that make learning possible, and are humble enough to acknowledge that no individual or group has a monopoly on truth.
Teaching and learning at their best are conversations with people other than ourselves about ideas other than our own in an environment where presence matters and friendship flourishes--friendship not only in the relationships we form more privately, but as a community value. So our differences are held in affectionate respect and do not devolve into insults and lies.
The high quality and yeastiness of conversation and exchange among smart, funny, decent people at Amherst is one of the greatest gifts you’ll be given here.
But we need to build a broader public sphere that is defined by humane conversation, interaction, and institutions. In Men in Dark Times, Hannah Arendt reminds us that:
… the world is not humane just because it is made by human beings, and it does not become humane just because the human voice sounds in it, but only when it has become the object of discourse. We humanize what is going on in the world and in ourselves only by speaking of it, and in the course of speaking of it we learn to be human. The Greeks called this humanness which is achieved in the discourse of friendship philanthropia, “love of man,” since it manifests itself in a readiness to share the world with other men.
I love convocation because it allows a kind of ritual consecration of the longstanding ideals of a college community; it also announces change. I recently received a poem from a friend, written by Dana Gioia, that captures those two features of ritual very well.
“Praise to the Rituals”
Praise to the rituals that celebrate change
Old robes worn for new beginnings,
Solemn protocol where the mutable soul,
Surrounded by ancient experience, grows
Young in the imagination’s white dress.
Because it is not the rituals we honor
But our trust in what they signify, these rites
That honor us as witnesses—whether to watch
Lovers swear loyalty in a careless world
Or a newborn washed with water and oil.
So praise to innocence—impulsive and evergreen—
And let the old be touched by youth’s
Wayward astonishment at learning something new,
And dream of a future so fitting and so just
That our desire will bring it into being.
Dana Gioia is a poet. He was the head of the NEA from 2003-2009, and is credited with having saved it; he spent a significant amount of time at General Foods as a businessman, and he is also a teacher. Gioia grew up in a working-class family. His father was Italian American and his mother Mexican/Native American. He has degrees from Stanford and he exemplifies a liberally educated person, who is capable of many kinds of work and contribution, and is continually giving back—the qualities I hope you will develop at Amherst.
Go forth and learn, master the subjects that are offered here and the intellectual skills that lie below the content, and ready yourselves to share the world with other people.
A future that is fitting and just will come into being not only because you desire it, but because you put it into action yourselves in your everyday lives with others.