Taking Yourself Too Seriously


(Thomas Matthew)– Through his musings on the “epidemic” of student loneliness at Amherst College, Professor Thomas Dumm, William H. Hastie ’25 Professor of Political Science, attempts to communicate a message that is equal parts compassionate and philosophically exhortative. He graciously acknowledges the quiet struggle faced by many students both here and at comparable institutions, assuring us that he and other like-minded faculty members are aware of that pain and are committed to being resources for those who wish to process it. Professor Dumm urges us, as multidisciplinary students, to earnestly pursue the study of “self.” He rightly encourages us to be deliberate about providing for our own emotional and psychological well-being in addition to our intellectual growth. To do so, according to Dumm, is to “take yourself seriously.” The strength of Professor Dumm’s message lies in its idealized, but ultimately realistic expectation of what it should mean to get an education at a place like Amherst College.

However, what gold there is to be mined here is almost irretrievably obscured by the self-congratulatory, presumptuous tone that saturates the entire essay. Dumm aims harsh censure at Amherst College, claiming that the school’s desire to mitigate the problem of loneliness is misguided and reflective of a fundamental misunderstanding of loneliness as a concept, which of course could only mean that the administrators had not read his brilliant book on the subject. Dumm insinuates that by formulating and implementing new programs to induce student participation and inclusivity, the school’s administrators are complicit in the deliberate expansion of an “empire of bullshit.” According to Professor Dumm, the only worthwhile educational pursuits are those that are strictly academic, or those that comprise regimented introspection. Therefore, the crisis of loneliness may only be solved by first eliminating all of the “extra-curricular bullshit that steals time from you.” Professor Dumm’s blanket critique of extra-curricular activity is startlingly myopic, and detracts from the overall rigor of the piece.

According to Professor Dumm and his opportunistically cited pal Friedrich, extra-curricular exploits are “at best pleasurable distractions from what ought to be the main event of [Amherst students’] lives here, the serious cultivation of your mind and soul.” I can only accurately represent my own experience with 100% confidence, so, unlike Professor Dumm, I will only attempt here to speak for myself. One of my multiple extra-curricular activities—identities—is as an athlete. Athletics represent, to me, something to be accomplished every single day. Every time I plan, begin, struggle through, then overcome a workout, I’ve successfully demonstrated to myself—in miniature—that I am physically capable of enacting what I hope will be the overall thematic arc of my life. It’s incredibly encouraging. I haven’t found a way to reproduce that sensation while sitting in Frost. In his essay, Professor Dumm insightfully recognizes the metaphysical value of physical exploration, writing, “I have gotten to know many of our scientists, who generally seem to me to be humanists avant la lettre.” Given this astute observation, it is surprising to me that Dumm would be so flippantly dismissive of those extra-curricular activities that require students to probe the boundaries of our own physical limitations, a process that has, for me, been a consistent source of humanistic revelation. Further, Dumm specifically warns us of the danger of “killing time.” Participation in athletics requires me to remain diligent in order to efficiently prioritize my academic and personal obligations. It keeps me focused and repels any impulse to simply “coast” through any particular portion of my life. I am confident that I would waste far more valuable time if it were not for the structure of my schedule. At this stage in my life, I find athletics to be central to who I am as a person and to who I wish to become. Professor Dumm wisely urges us to accept the responsibility of providing for our own self-discovery and happiness—becoming proficient in the task of self-care. I am confident that Dumm could understand the ways that even the contact sports that concern him so deeply might contribute to “the more general therapeutic role” of a liberal arts education, rather than amounting to nothing more than distracting bullshit.

The point I am clumsily trying to make is that neither Dumm nor any philosopher can tell you with certainty how best to cultivate your own external environment to promote internal growth. Our personal identities are the result of an unfathomably complex process of socialization and individuation—the result of which are an unlimited array of unique experiential inputs. Who is any one of us to say which inputs are or are not significant, even indispensable, to another person? It is exactly for this reason that the administrators at Amherst College should be commended for their persistent efforts to provide for a more inclusive community, despite clearly marginal results. Maybe sports aren’t your thing. Maybe music isn’t your thing. Maybe performance art isn’t your thing. Maybe volunteer work isn’t your thing. But they might be someone’s. It is unfortunate that Professor Dumm’s empathetic and hopeful message was crippled by his own narrow perspective and self-satisfied hyper-intellectualism. I think that our campus climate could benefit from acknowledging that there is no such thing as a “one size fits all” educational model, and that others’ lives and experiences are just as vivid and complex as our own. In the end, it all comes down to empathy.

Read Professor Thomas Dumm’s “Taking Yourself Seriously” here