Thoughts on Campus Culture

coleassembly1(Marie Lambert)– There is no denying it; our college feels like a contentious place to be right now. Looking at the last couple weeks of AC Voice articles alone, it’s pretty clear that many recent issues on campus have struck strong chords—sometimes opposing chords—in the student body. Week after week, another new and controversial matter seems to arise: E-board elections, conservatism at our liberal college, an unfortunate email, rumors of a “dry” orientation, etc.

Is this year unique in its degree and frequency of controversy? Perhaps. The conversations that began in the fall with our campus’s sudden awakening to the realities of sexual assault provided the impetus for us to speak out more passionately about what else we find problematic about campus culture. But let me remind you that last year wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows either. Remember the “Think” pamphlets? Or this cartoon? Or even E-board elections last year? The roots of these issues are deep-seated in Amherst culture. We have talked and will continue to talk about alcohol policy, fraternities, and how we view race/class/gender.

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about the “campus culture” here at Amherst. It’s a phrase that seems to be thrown around a lot, including by me. Sociologically, culture is the collection of the material and the ideal that defines a specific group. Material means physical, tangible objects or spaces, such as Val, the proliferation of Macs and iPhones, red solo cups, and various Amherst apparel. The ideal is the non-tangible ideas, practices, and values behind these objects: drive for success academically and socially, the infamous Amherst Awkward, the inwardly focused “bubble” mindset, and our obsession with free T-shirts. Some of these things are more general products of the culture of youth or of a small liberal arts college, while some are unique to Amherst itself. While this is a grossly simplified explanation of the theory of culture and of Amherst culture in particular, it provides structure for thinking about the reasons certain issues become more controversial than others.

How much control do we have over our own culture? We can choose on an individual level what we value and how we express it, but implementing it on a campus-wide level is a complicated business. In the application to be an Orientation Leader, one of the questions was about imparting our community values to the incoming first-years. This begs the question, what are our community values? Optimistically, I would say tolerance, pursuit of knowledge (or at least success), and the betterment of the world at large. But our community is not homogenous, and neither are our values. As diverse as our backgrounds are, equally diverse is what we individually value and how much we value it. Granted, there is some level of consistency in the values of those who actively choose to attend a small, elite, and liberal school such as Amherst, but there are always exceptions to the rule.

I came to Amherst from what is considered a fairly progressive city in the Midwest, but where nevertheless I would often find myself at odds with the opinions and values of my community and peers. While at Amherst I fit in much more with the liberal demographic; oddly enough it is here that I have really learned that it is possible to disagree with people while still remaining friends. I’m not talking about major conflicts of values along the lines of befriending racists or Holocaust-deniers, but more general ideological differences. I believe the reason behind this is that at Amherst I expect there to be a baseline level of intelligence and ability to engage in rational discourse. While I may disagree with someone, I can at least (for the most part) see and debate their reasoning behind such opinions.

Out of all of the values that we may have at Amherst, reasonable public discourse is one of the most important to me. For almost all other values we want to foster in the community—respect, open-mindedness, scholarship—it is necessary to be able to communicate with fellow community members in a productive and logical manner. It is my hope despite whatever issues may arise—from now until the end of the year and especially in the future—we can come together (not necessarily in complete agreement) with a mutual candidness and trust to improve our community as a whole. I know it sounds corny, but after a year like this one I think it’s something that needs to be said.