Since Amherst began, the College has developed two traditions — distinct from each other but both integral to the school’s character. One is a tradition of social reform, the other a tradition of cultural exclusion. The first embodies the sort of progressive ideals we try to instill in modern Americans, the other a retrograde carelessness about the sensitivities of people who fall outside narrow, old-school categories. Lately, observers might have thought the progressives were winning Amherst’s culture-struggle, but last autumn’s sexual assault revelations and other recent incidents give reason to doubt that appearance.
The first tradition looks strong because it’s both reflective of modern society and embedded in Amherst’s original ideals. The Amherst Collegiate Institution was founded in the 1820s for the “education of indigent young men of piety.” Seeking out students of poverty made the school a social mobility engine in an era when the breezes of the industrial revolution and its resulting income stratification were gaining strength.
Putting the social reform ideal into worldly practice required Amherst people’s concrete actions. Henry Ward Beecher, class of 1834, walked out of Amherst and into U.S. politics with his famous anti-slavery convictions. Jerry Cohen, class of 1963, deepened his enthusiasm for American history at Amherst and then changed that history as an adviser and lawyer to Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers. Amherst president John William Ward was arrested in the 1970s for joining an anti-Vietnam War protest at nearby Westover Air Force Base. The college administration also institutionalized the social reform tradition by starting the Black Studies and Women’s and Gender Studies departments and generally accepting higher education’s late 20th century shift to multiculturalism.
But the second tradition was always present. The second tradition was also embedded in Amherst’s past: it was retrograde and embodied an old-money America ethos of social exclusivity and fraternity connections. This tradition involved classism, racism, sexism and other hallmarks of the “old boys club;” it rejected the claims of religious minorities, women, and people of color to places at the Amherst table. Though it was publicly dominant for much of the College’s history, as time went on, it went underground.
The second tradition also needed both people and institutions willing to put its exclusionary vision into practice. In recent years, this has meant individual acts of intolerance — a noose hung in a closet, the N-word scrawled on a car and the misogynistic “roasting fat ones” t-shirt. This past fall we learned of the College’s institutional efforts to dismiss the importance of sexual assaults in the face of individual incidents and a troubling broader culture.
What typifies the exclusionary tradition is insensitivity that is widespread, but not discussed. The issue of Native Americans at Amherst presents such an exemplar. At Amherst, jokes about Jeffery Amherst’s smallpox blankets abound. Students tell jokes at the dining hall, in dorms and at parties. They tell them publicly, without fear of reprisal, incorporating one into a lip synch competition skit in Johnson Chapel several years ago. They are institutionally sanctioned, as well. Recently, a biology department room featured a notice above its instrument-sanitizing autoclave machine that depicted unwitting natives asking Lord Jeff if he cleansed his blankets in the autoclave. Lastly, of course, is the mascot’s continuation. It’s hard to imagine jokes about past intolerance toward other ethnic groups being accepted so openly and so officially, and hard to imagine it being discussed so little.
That can change, however, and now is the perfect time. The sexual assault scandal that broke in October has created an environment for discussion and frankness that is probably better than at any time when I was a student. It has made students aware of the exclusionary tradition’s subtle persistence at the College. It presents a huge learning opportunity because minds and ears are now open to the lessons of Amherst’s other tradition, the social reform tradition.
The College’s social reform tradition provides a model for how to banish the exclusionary one from campus culture. Emulating the Jerry Cohens and Henry Ward Beechers and Angie Epifanos of Amherst will mean reclaiming anew a tradition of progressivism. It will mean aggressively confronting the retrograde tradition in the best of the Amherst spirit. The seeds of the College’s moral recovery are rooted in the College’s history.
Some people will argue that what’s at issue is change versus tradition, progress versus settled ways. Actually, it’s a choice between traditions. We know which choice will keep expanding the circle of people eligible for inclusion and celebration at the College. As a Native American of the Kickapoo Tribe of Oklahoma, I don’t expect Indians to be at the front and center, rather I want Indians to move away from the margins, where we’ve long been, and take a place in the Amherst community alongside everyone else.
The good news is that a resolution to the issue of Native Americans’ visibility at the College will result from a choice Amherst can make as a community of students, faculty, staff and alumni. It is entirely in our hands. One college tradition suggests that social reform efforts will be tough. The other suggests that they will eventually win. Let’s start now.