Amherst: Studies First, Parties Second
Small College Boasts Excellent Faculty, Deflated Fraternities
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.
This high percentage of accepted applicants and the comparatively superior record of Amherst men at the business, medical, and law schools over university graduates would seem to be partial proof at least that the original American College form of education, through small classes, teaching professors, and an intimate community, is not dead or outdone by the larger colleges with their "great men" and "superior facilities." Once the fraternity menace to higher education, in the form of its emphasis upon mere "good fellowship" has been partially subdued to its proper perspective, as at Amherst, the dream of vigorous small college scholarships becomes a reality.
The central Massachusetts college was founded in September of 1821, 45 miles west of Worcester as a seminary called the "Collegiate Charitable Institution." It has as its nominal founder men like Noah Webster and Samuel P. Dickinson, the grandfather of the poet Emily, but was largely made possible through the contributions and physical labor of more than thirteen hundred citizens of the neighboring countryside. Although it still instructs in "all branches of literature and science," it long ago adopted the surname of the renowned Indian hunter and has long since extended its influence beyond the sons of the Connecticut Valley farmers. Now a national institution, it tends to draw most of its students from the upper-middle, suburban classes of the middle, western and seaboard cities.
The first secret society was organized in 1832. Other societies followed so that today the common is surrounded by eleven national lodges, two local fraternities, and a college club, the Lord Jeffrey Amherst Club, founded in 1935 for all undergraduates who did not wish or were not asked to join one of the fraternities. By the 1930's the transformation from the combined social and intellectual societies of a hundred years ago to the present purely social societies was completed. In the decade immediately preceding World War II the fraternities' contributions to the student and to the college were of such an extremely negative nature that from many quarters it was urged that the organizations not be allowed to return to the campus after the War. When the two parallel and independent reports considering the post-war college were submitted early in 1945: "Amherst Tomorrow" by the alumni committee and a report on Long Range Policy by a faculty committee and a report on Long Range Policy by a faculty committee, both also recommended abolition of the fraternity system.
A section of the alumni report stated: "The majority finds little in the recent fraternity tradition or character calculated to give assurance that fraternities at Amherst can be made important supports and leaders toward intellectual interests and attainments." Yet as significant as the accompanying recommendation was, it was one of the few in the report that was not entirely followed. The fraternities were instead reformed. The main concern of both committees, however, the development of Amherst's "New Curriculum," has now been in operation for six years.
It is a little known fact but a source of pride to all Amherst alumni and faculty that its survey of post-war education slightly preceded Harvard's celebrated and supposedly original "Report on General Education." Remarkable point about the Amherst program is the number of its observations and recommendations that later appeared incorporated in Harvard's report. The "new curriculum" went into effect with the class entering in the fall of 1947, and now serves as the basis of Amherst's realistic approach to education.
The program is in general more drastic than General Education. Like Gen Ed, it centers on the first two years and organizes the curriculum into three basic divisions: the mathematical, physical and biological sciences; history and the social sciences; and literature and the fine arts. But unlike Harvard it does not permit a wide range of choice within each of the divisions. Every Lord Jeff freshman and sophomore with few exceptions must take exactly thhe same courses as all his classmates. Only one completely free elective is permitted before majoring begins in the junior year.
From the standpoint of the many young, active instructors and professors on the Jeff campus this discipline and control over the academic life of the student represents Amherst's greatest single attribute and attraction to them. With such a community tough, radical courses, which would never be selected by the students in a free elective college, can be required of an entire class. As instructors candidly admit, they have a captive audience.
"There aren't enough 'great men' to go around," points out one of the men who helped set up Amherst's unique English 1-2 course in communications; "so the idea is to decide what you want the student to do and then make him do it." Another professor points out: "Many professors at Harvard are still working on the 'great man' theory; the trouble is they just don't happen to be great men."
If Amherst does not have all great men, it has some of them, and many good men. One of the "greats," Professor Packard, teaches the only remaining lecture course ("European Civilization") in the freshman-sophomore curriculum. Most of the good men--including professors--prefer to take one of the small sections in the basic course pertaining to their field. For at Amherst the method of teaching is that of intimate student-teacher contact through small always under 25 classes. In English J-2, for instance, every associate professor in the English department must teach a section. Although Amherst might not have enough money to hire only "great men," it certainly does have enough money to hire what is one of the best small college teaching faculties in the country. The members of the freshman and sophomore classes have the opportunity denied students at so-called "robot-controlled" universities like Harvard of meeting, knowing, and often being inspired by these men. In the last two years, all honors work must be done partially in required seminars, giving further opportunity to know intimately at least one full professor.
Yet these small college advantages in varying degrees might occur in many small colleges. The unique aspect about Amherst is its "New Curriculum":
It is built around the "laboratory" type course and has a two-fold purpose: to provide for reinforcement of certain basic skills in mathematics and languages and to round out the student's general education by providing a body of common knowledge that will serve as a basis for later specialization in any particular field. A certain amount of lectures are still given to provide background material: Professor George Taylor who heads the new sophomore American Studies course calls them "a bout with traditionalism." At the heart of the curriculum are seminar sections based on the principle of "learning through doing."
The basic "New Curriculum" courses are organized, in the humanities and social sciences as well as natural sciences, around broad topics or problems chosen to introduce students not specifically to a certain amount of facts but to the kind of work done in a particular field. For instance, Taylor's American Studies is based around twelve problems, such as "The New Deal: Revolution of Evolution?" or "National Health Insurance." The idea is to investigate each problem through reading and lectures and reach a conclusion about it, pro and con, stating reasons for the decision in a short paper. At the end of each two or three week problem session, small two-hour seminars are held to thrash out the problem. Taylor says he doesn't care about a student's position as long as his reasoning is vaild. By thus emphasizing practice, that is, by relating the abstract portions of a subject to a student's experience, the College hopes to give the subject matter greater meaning and vitality.
So far, it would seem to have succeeded. Graduating seniors who four years earlier cursed text book-less, communication-teaching English 1-2 as the most confusing bewildering course they had ever taken, today call it the most valuable of their college education. The same is true of other courses like Science 1-2 which flunked almost a third of the present freshman class at mid-years. The belief is that through such courses Amherst men will be best able to comprehend intelligently their present complex society and will best be able to understand how their specific function as doctors, lawyers or loafers fit into the pattern of society.
Some Wear Beanies
In the first year, new Lord Jeff students with or without their beanies depending on whether or not they won the annual bell fight with the sophomores, must take a Science course, a European Civilization course, English 1-2, and a Foreign Language, unless the requirement is passed. In the sophomore year, sequences in Science, American Civilization and Humanities are required.
The Science 1-2 course, which requires Mathematics through calculus of all freshmen, is regarded as the toughest of the "New Curriculum." Professor Arnold B. Arons, who studied under Professor Leonard K. Nash in G.S.A.S. and advocates many of Conant's ideas, make his course purposely tough "to jolt the boys out of a rut and make them exert a real intellectual effort." Unlike Harvard's Natural Science courses, Arons' Science 1-2 and 3-4 serve as the basic courses for science majors as well as other liberal arts concentrators.
Using Harvard Professor Holton's textbook as his bible, Arons in this typical course emphasizes not how high a stone goes when thrown into the air, but an understanding of the conceptual schemes leading to a description of that event. The burden is on the student. He must talk.
But might not this same course, excepting the calculus requirement, be included among the Natural Sciences at Harvard? No, says Arons.
"We are fully aware that any success the course attains is predicated upon the pragmatic fact that we are dealing with a captive audience. If softer alternatives were available this course would not be elected regardless of its good repute, and eventually everything would degenerate to a substantially lower common denominator. We feet, that our approach is practicable in a small, homogeneous college and have serious reservations about its practicability in a broader context."
While it bears many of the earmarks of an extended prop school, this college of just under 1,000 students can boast of several departments that match or extend beyond the best of the big universities.
The Biology Department, with its