The DeMott Lecture was established in 2005 by Alan P. Levenstein’ 56 in honor of Benjamin DeMott, a cultural critic and much-loved member of the Amherst English faculty from 1951 until his retirement in 1990. Inspired by his example, the DeMott Lecture seeks to expose incoming students to an engagement with the world marked by intellectual originality of thought and concern for issues of social and economic inequality.

DeMott was the author of more than a dozen books, including The Imperial Middle: Why Americans Can’t Think Straight About Class; The Trouble with Friendship: Why Americans Can’t Think Straight About Race; and Killer Woman Blues: Why Americans Can’t Think Straight About Gender and Power. He was also a frequent essayist for popular publications, including The Atlantic and Harper’s.

A photo of Min Jin Lee

The DeMott Lecture 2019

The 2019 DeMott Lecture was given by distinguished author, National Book Award finalist, and writer-in-residence, Min Jin Lee.

Danielle Allen

The DeMott Lecture 2018

Danielle Allen, the James Bryant Conant University Professor at Harvard University & Director of Harvard’s Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics, delivered this year’s lecture. 

Rev. Phillip Jackson ’85

DeMott Lecture 2017

The Rev. Phillip Jackson ’85 inspires the class of 2021 through the story of one from the class of 1915—civil rights visionary Charles Hamilton Houston, mentor to Thurgood Marshall.

Paul Smith delivers the DeMott Lecture

DeMott Lecture 2016

Paul Smith ’76 has argued such landmark cases as Lawrence vs. Texas, but some of his greatest lessons on tolerance have come from the justices themselves.

DeMott Lecture 2015

On September 30, 2015, author and activitist Naomi Klein spoke to the incoming first-year class about her 2014 book, This Changes Everything: Capitalism v. The Climate.

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DeMott Lecture 2014

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August 31, 2014

Claude Steele, a prominent social psychologist and the executive vice chancellor and provost at the University of California, Berkeley, delivered the annual DeMott Lecture to Amherst College's first-year class in Johnson Chapel on Aug. 31, 2014.

Over the summer, the class was assigned to read Steele's book, Whistling Vivaldi: How Stereotypes Affect Us and What We Can Do. The book is an examination of the phenomenon of “stereotype threat,” whereby one’s performance on a particular task can suffer if one is aware that some aspect of one's identity—such as age, race or gender—leads other people to expect one to perform poorly on that task. In effect, stereotype threat can turn a societal stereotype into a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Using examples from the feature film 8 Mile, the documentary A Class Divided, a news interview, his experimental psychology research and his own personal life, Steele spoke about stereotype threat and some ways that organizations and individuals can combat its negative effects. He emphasized to the students the power and creativity of scientific research, as well as the importance of diversity in academia. Such diversity, he pointed out, not only helps to break down the stereotypes and stereotype threats that students face, but also leads to expansion and progress within academic disciplines.  

Steele’s talk was followed by a question-and-answer session with the students.

DeMott Lecture 2013

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This was not your typical “go forth and change the world speech,” but rather a sober twist on it.

Writer and Amherst parent Elizabeth Kolbert addressed some 460 new Amherst College students who gathered in Johnson Chapel for the eighth annual Benjamin DeMott Lecture during Orientation 2013, telling them that they already have changed the world, more specifically the environment, through their very existence on the planet.

Kolbert said the state of the earth is much worse than she described in her highly acclaimed nonfiction work Field Notes From a Catastrophe: Man, Nature, and Climate Change, originally published in 2006. The ice cap over the Arctic Ocean is quickly shrinking, carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels is being pumped into the atmosphere at a higher rate than scientists predicted a decade ago, and oceans are being acidified as result, with ominous consequences for marine life.

Kolbert’s book was assigned to all first-year students and was the subject of discussions with faculty and staff during Orientation. A former New York Times journalist, Kolbert has been a staff writer at The New Yorker since 1999.

Acknowledging that her message was a “grim welcome” to the college, Kolbert offered no easy solutions, but this bit of encouragement:

"The truth is you also may come up short, but that does not mean that you do not have an obligation to try. Though I can't provide you with any answers tonight, I still believe in changing the world and working to make a  positive difference. I suppose that really does show you the power of a college education."


DeMott Lecture 2012

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August 27, 2012

In the 2012 DeMott Lecture, David Nevins ’88, President of Entertainment at Showtime Networks, Inc. and producer of movies and television series such as “Friday Night Lights,” “Arrested Development,” and “Lie to Me,” discussed the influences of an Amherst education on his career as an award-winning creative force in one of the world’s most exciting and influential industries.

DeMott Lecture 2011

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“We’re Freshmen Together”

August 29, 2011

It’s been a few years since he began his studies at Amherst College, but being a freshman U.S. Senator has brought back some vivid memories for Christopher Coons ’85. In delivering this year’s DeMott Lecture to an appreciative crowd of first-year students in Johnson Chapel on Monday, Coons noted that being a recently elected legislator and being a first-year are similar in many ways.

For example, Coons said he’s been “humbled and amazed,” both at Amherst and in the Senate, by the breadth and range of his classmates.

But he gave the edge to Amherst students for their “incredible and amazing” backgrounds.

Coons asked the students to close their eyes and think about their high schools, imagining the atmosphere, their teachers, their friends, their worries. 

“Now open your eyes,” he said. “That’s all gone. You have an opportunity to redefine yourself at Amherst.”

He urged students to get to know each other during their time at Amherst, study abroad, take classes outside of their majors and take full advantage of all that the college has to offer.

“Promise me you’re going to do it all,” he said.

Coons—and Amherst—rocketed to national prominence in fall 2010 when Christine O’Donnell, his opponent for the Delaware senatorial seat, targeted an article in The Amherst Student titled “Chris Coons: The Making of a Bearded Marxist.”

Though the article described Coons’ more gentle political transformation from staunch Republican to moderate Democrat following a trip to Kenya, and ultimately it did no lasting political harm, the phrase “bearded Marxist” reverberated during the campaign.

When the article ran in 1985, Coons recalled, his mother had waved it in his face and warned, “This will come back to haunt you when you run for the Senate.”

“I said, ‘Mom, that’s ridiculous. I’m never going to run for the Senate.’”

But he did, and after the article garnered so much attention, the dutiful son placed a call to his mother, telling her, “Once again, you were right.”

After his speech, Coons fielded questions from students for about 20 minutes and then invited all those who hadn’t had their queries answered to Charles Pratt Dormitory. That conversation began at 10:30 p.m. and was still going strong at midnight—evidence of the students’ intense curiosity and Coons’ willingness to engage with them. See photos of the conversation.

—Peter Rooney

DeMott Lecture Archive
Harold Varmus ’61, DeMott Lecture, 2010

DeMott Lecture 2010: Harold Varmus ’61
Video—August 31, 2010

A Nobel Laureate in Medicine, Varmus discusses what the lives of Romantic Age astronomers William and Caroline Herschel tell us about science: what it is, who does it, who pays for it, what it offers to society and how it is related to the arts and humanities. Watch video.

Paul Rieckhoff ’98, DeMott Lecture, 2009

DeMott Lecture 2009: Paul Rieckhoff ’98
Video—August 31, 2009
Rieckhoff is executive director and founder of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, a non partisan non profit with tens of thousands of members in all 50 U.S. states. Rieckhoff’s book, Chasing Ghosts, is a critically acclaimed account of his experiences in Iraq and activism afterwards. Watch video.


Demott Lecture 2008: David Freudenthal ’73
“History is shaped by ordinary people doing ordinary things… So don’t be afraid to try and don’t be afraid to fail,” David Freudenthal, governor of the state of Wyoming and Amherst College alumnus, urged the members of the school’s Class of 2012. Read news release and hear audio.