Getting Philosophical In Schwemm’s

“I keep moralizing about hurricanes.” -Overheard at Pub Night

It is Thursday night in Schwemm’s, recently dubbed “Pub Night” by the AAS. However, this night is distinct from Pub Nights of the past: November 7th marks the inaugural “Philosophy on Tap,” a specialty Pub Night that invites professors to come to Schwemm’s to “drink with students, chat about anything and everything, and get to know each other.” Opening the series was Professor Barbezat of the Economics department, who I had never met but was promised to be worth the trip to Keefe.

The event begins quietly and without fanfare—six of us sit around two small tables with Professor Barbezat at the head. Although there are several seniors present, no one is drinking, alcohol or otherwise. When prompted, our guest only requests “a bottle of fizzy water, please.” We have all angled our chairs toward him, waiting for someone to give us a sign for how to begin. Professor Barbezat seems to be waiting as well.

After a round of obligatory introductions, someone finally opens the door to conversation by mentioning Typhoon Haiyan. But after a collective expression of sympathy, the subject is soon exhausted, and none of us seem to know enough about one another to feel comfortable discussing current events or pop culture. Before long, the topic shifts to something everyone has an opinion about: life at Amherst.

“It all comes down to the question: why have a residential college in the first place?” Professor Barbezat presents the question as though he already knows the answer but is going to take his time teasing it out of us, liberal arts style. Everyone is unsure how to respond. We are trained to read professors’ questions in class for cues, when to answer and when to listen. But this is more intimate than a Merrill lecture hall, and we do not have laptops or notebooks on hand to place between the questioner and ourselves. “If every act cultivates something, what is everything cultivating? ‘Lives of Consequence?’ Consequence of what? That’s what this place should be about.”

Schwemm’s is more crowded now; we have pushed several more tables together to accommodate latecomers. The soft-spoken Barbezat has to compete with the Oregon v. Stanford game on the new flat screen hanging on the wall above the bar. People come and go as he continues to speak, sometimes just pausing to listen for a moment while they wait for their order of cheese fries.

Several times students break in with questions; these people seem to be current students of Professor Barbezat, and their questions often relate to issues of economics—value, risk, and demand within this question of how we should “cultivate” ourselves and our community. Everything always comes back to Amherst. Barbezat describes how we have failed to live up to our potential as a residential college: the fragmentation of our population; the divisions between faculty, staff, and students; and the “poles with little red buttons on them everywhere. I view them as monuments to the failure of the environment.” Shaking his head, he calls the idea that he can walk around with relative safety at night, whereas his daughter cannot, “un-fucking-acceptable.”

A group of first-years sit down, swelling the audience to around fifteen. They are more willing to ask questions but cling to the formality of raising their hands and waiting for Barbezat to make eye contact before they speak. Someone asks about practical solutions to our problem of community, and after a few halfhearted suggestions about ways to force socialization (in light of the recent Social Cup proclamation), the group falls silent.

Professor Barbezat’s advice is more abstract: it all comes back to the idea of cultivation. How we choose to spend our time, the types of questions we ask, what we find meaningful—this all plays into cultivating our individual selves as well as our community. He encourages us to “push into our discomfort,” to question our conception of the “Amherst awkward,” as well as to rethink our concept of an Amherst education: “this is the environment to inquire about your meaning, not to determine it.” Barbezat looks around the crowd of us as he speaks, trying to make eye contact with us all. When he looks me I feel like I should nod as though I agree or understand, even if I don’t completely follow.

There is no pre-determined end time for Philosophy on Tap, but after ninety minutes have passed and we reach a lull in the conversation, Barbezat sits back in his chair with a sense of finality. To officially put an end to the night, he offers us the option to continue the conversation with him another day. We know our cue to leave, and the room is filled with the scraping of chairs pushed back and mutters of “thank you professor” as we file out of Schwemm’s.

As I walk out of Keefe, the weight of my immanent work and obligations settles once again on my mind. For a moment, part of me berates myself for not using the past ninety minutes to chip away at the mountain of work I know awaits me. But Professor Barbezat’s words are still fresh in my mind, and I can reassure myself that my ninety minutes at Pub Night were well spent toward a different kind of cultivation than work can afford.