As one drives out of the rolling hills of the Holyoke Range past the white clapboard houses of the upper Connectient Valley into the sleepy little town of Amherst, Massachusetts, one is immediately impressed that here is a New England Village still in the original. Shade trees dot its broad, green common stretching away to the right and the left. Clustered among the trees on a knoll sit a group of New England type brick buildings dominated by a white-spired chapel.
Somewhere between a handful of stores at the far end of the common and the buildings on the knoll the town of Amherst ceases and the college, one of the top educational institutions in New England, begins. Beneath this quiet exterior lies the social and academic activity of a vigorous but somewhat conformist college community.
Amherst, a "fraternity college," has long been noted for its agreeable, all out week-ends. These two to three day festivities centering around one or more of the thirteen fraternity lodges, have long been the chief means whereby the college is known to the outside world. Hordes of nearby Smith and Mt. Holyoke girls are imported. A keg of beer is tapped upstairs and a smaller keg of gin downstairs. The furniture is removed to avoid breakage. The Amherst man dons his tie, and in the springtime, when the week-ends are the most enjoyable, his bermuda shorts. It is not ususual for 95 percent of the college to take part.
To the thousands of loyal and devoted Amherst alumni these week-end occasions, which have evolved out of the founding of the first fraternity, Alpha Delta Phi, as a literary organization in the 1830's, house their fondest memories. The chance outsider welcomed into the Spring House Party--more sophisticated and relaxed than Dartmouth's Winter Carnival--is apt to come away with the impression that the average Amherst man is such a polished week-ender, he could not do anything else half so well. Actually, this is not the case.
In a close-knit, intimate college of a thousand students, whose social life is dominated by a fraternity system, certain standards of conduct have inevitably arisen. Yet despite the weekends, at Amherst the emphasis is not solely on a social existence. It is rather a compromise on the "balanced life." The standard is pushed by the administration and adhered to by the student body. The feeling is that one should be adaptable. One should drink, but not too much, take girls out, hold a minimum of moral scruples, go out for athletics, try out for a position on one of the literary publications or other college activities, and should study, but not grind. The present undergraduate key to success is to do something of everything without extending oneself.
Such a social standard, with the power to back it up by possible non-admittance into a fraternity, does produce a uniformity, a rounding of edges among the Amherst student body that is not found at Harvard. It precludes to a certain degree mavericks, grinds, and what one Amherst professor calls "those strange, wonderful birds you have at Harvard." For when the Amherst undergraduate is persuaded to cultive a relaxed manner and invited to be an all around man, he cannot at the same time, as can the Harvard undergraduate, be just literary or social or dramatic or degenerate.
And yet if the Lord Jeff student is more inclined in any one direction, it is probably toward his studies. It is this inclination, partly natural on the part of the student, partly induced through close professiorial supervision in small classes, that Amherst should be noted for today.
The average undergraduate seems to want to do well; not just well enough to get by on a small college level, but well enough to get into a top graduate school. As at Yale academic success is respected with other success. If it is not rewarded quite as readily on the campus, it is the student's later acceptance into the graduate school of his choice. Proof of the desire to do well, if not brilliantly, is witnessed each year as over fifty percent of the junior class troops up to sign up for honors work.
Much of credit for the pride toward honors can be laid directly on the students themselves. Accepting only 250 freshmen out of 1600 applicants, the College can afford to pick only those who have shown some definite desire for further intellectual development. And intimate work with a faculty devoted to teaching is the reward of the serious students. Like hundreds of other school catalogues, Amherst's contains a sentence stating: "The real life of the College centers in he classroom, in the relationship between teachers and learners." Distinctive about Amherst's statement is the fact that it is to a large extent true.
Beneath the Surface
Actually, there is beneath an outer genuine feeling of community and friendship among all Lord Jeff students an inner unconscious struggle within each undergraduate between the social and intellectual sides of his community. As at any small fraternity college, part of his existence must be actively devoted to mere good mixing and congeniality. In joining a fraternity he pledges to uphold such living, and yet another existence must be devoted to serious pursuit of his studies.
Compromise has been found in development of the "balanced life" theory. The outstanding characteristic about Amherst, however, is that life around the grassy, tree-dotted common is not balanced at all. Since the conclusion of the War, the intellectual side has held a recognized and clear upper hand. This victory was signalled in 1945 when separate alumni and faculty committees, in planning for the post-war college, voted to abolish the fraternity system. Tradition proved too strong for such a drastic measure and the fraternities were merely reformed. But the victory has been none-the-less secured.