Reflections on Why the Amherst Social Culture Falls Short

I’ve been trying for a while to put my finger on what it is that defines the social problems at Amherst.  I couldn’t figure out exactly what makes this place feel so much less like a cohesive community than did my high school.  Finally, over a phone conversation with my brother, an alum, some of the problems started to make more sense.

 

 

I went to a high school that, on paper, looks a great deal like Amherst.  It’s 100% residential, in the middle of nowhere New England, and very diverse.  Yet everyone said hi to one another on the path.  Everyone had a wide variety of friends.  Everyone played several different sports and/or was a member of several groups.  Football players acted in the plays.  A Cappella singers were on the debate team.  There were maybe four cliques that existed at most.  What makes Amherst different?  Why don’t we say hi to one another on the paths?  Why do we have negative associations with people before we’ve even met them, solely based on the sport they play, or the publication they write for?

 

 

Because at Amherst, almost everyone is defined by one single factor within the community: the club or sports’ team he or she is on.  Being on the football team or in the AAS isn’t just an activity you take part in, it’s your identity as far as the rest of the campus is concerned.  In defining ourselves in such a limited way, we also define ourselves as the things we are not: “I am an athlete, so I am not a NARP.”  “I am a NARP, so I’m not a student activist.”  “I’m in this group, so I’m not one of those people.”  Such a type of thinking and shaping of identity breeds well-defined separation between, and judgment of, other groups.  We see the people who are not part of our group as the “other.”  This creates a culture where we’re frequently jerks to the people outside of our group, and we blame them for the school’s social problems. 

 

 

Now, I’m not in a fraternity and don’t know too much about them, but one thing that fraternities at Amherst have the ability to do is to bring social groups together: athletes and non-athletes, American and international students, freshmen and seniors.  They are the only groups that exist at Amherst solely for the purpose of socializing.  You don’t have to play soccer or do improv or be a SWAGS major in order to be part of a fraternity.  Fraternity members are brought together not by a singular interest or skill, but simply because they want to socialize, have fun, and meet people.  I understand that Amherst has a long and complicated history with frats, and maybe this recent all-out ban has been in the works for a while given the original decision to ban frats thirty years ago.  But if Amherst bans frats, it has to find a new way to bring people of different groups into a new, all-inclusive group, whether that’s by fostering stronger dorm communities or faculty adviser groups, or whatever it is that we can come up with. 

 

 

I don’t think that the social divides at Amherst are the fault solely of the athlete culture, or the hookup culture, or the frat culture, or all those other specific groups that we are quick to blame.  I think they are the result of the fact that on a campus where the social events are organized exclusively by clubs and activities, we define ourselves too heavily based on those clubs, and this does not make for a community of kindness.  My advice to underclassmen–and I’m sure you’ve already heard this, but I hope you take it to heart–is to be open-minded in all of your interactions and to try your hardest not to pigeonhole people based on the team, or the affinity group, or the publication, that they are a part of.  Say hi to people on the path.  You lived down the hall from that kid freshman year.  It’s not like a few months later you’ve both magically stopped recognizing each other all together.   Try not to ask. “What team are you on?” within the first five minutes of meeting someone.  We create the environment we live in, so if you want to go to a school of friendly, open-minded people, make the effort to be friendly and open-minded yourself.                      

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