Our Shared Privilege
Issue   |   Tue, 02/07/2017 - 23:39

Amherst is often described as an elite institution, a label that typically carries positive connotations. Specifically, “elite” invokes prestige and rigor, framing Amherst as a beacon of achievement in higher education. To a large degree, our campus community embodies these ideals through the various academic, athletic and personal accomplishments on which The Student reports each week. While The Editorial Board is certainly proud of our college, we also wish to investigate the uglier side of the “elite” label. With the caliber of the institution on which we pride ourselves, Amherst also runs the risk of becoming an intellectually exclusive space. How do we express our thoughts without reinforcing hierarchies? How do we bolster intellectual conversation while maintaining inclusivity and accessibility?

Arriving at Amherst, a student faces high expectations for immediate success from the campus community. We, as students and faculty, intentionally and unintentionally pressure each other to perform and present the best versions of ourselves. We have little patience for people to make mistakes, inside and outside of the classroom. In an English class, perhaps someone will throw out an obscure reference to an author they know no one else will recognize without providing context. It is not the act of referencing that is necessarily problematic, but more so the motivation behind it. Sometimes jargon or obscure references can be unintentionally exclusive, but sometimes it can be an intentional move to build up an image or to feed one’s own pride. Exclusivity and elitism can also emerge in even the most well-intentioned circumstances, especially when it comes to calling out instances of bias or stereotyping. Of course, problematic behavior should always be addressed in some way, but the way in which it is addressed must be intentional. Of course, we should not compromise our values or our voice. However, we must be conscious of pretentiousness that can seep into our language. There are ways to be tough on people and take a hard-line stance on injustice without being condescending. In doing so, our voices might be more connected to our hearts. And the heart produces a more readable language.

As time passes, we all accumulate more and more educational privilege as students here. This is not to say that Amherst makes us all equal — legacies of our own personal histories and positionality will continue to play out for the rest of our lives. However, it is true that we all leave this place with a diploma. For some, it might be just that — nothing more than a piece of paper. For others, it will be about the knowledge shared and collected from intimate friendships and in classrooms. Most likely it will be a mix of the two, but no matter what we identify as the value of our Amherst education, we all will leave marked by this institution, for better or for worse. The Editorial Board wishes to emphasize how critical it is to acknowledge the privilege that a college education grants us. We need to remind ourselves of what it means to then go out into communities where college education is not the norm.

Moreover, our introspection must be nuanced. In acknowledging our privilege, we should avoid equating it to authority. Holding educational privilege is not about being better or having more moral authority than those who hold less of it. We should recall that all people have their own specific set of lived experiences. Having the resources to analyze those experiences with academic language should not prevent us from remembering the original life that is the subject of our analysis. Intellectualizing conversations about racism, ableism, sexism and other issues has its place. But using excessive jargon, especially in spaces where people do not have access to the definitions of specific terms, prevents people from engaging in conversation.

In today’s political environment, it is critical that we continue to engage in conversation. We must continue to call out cases of injustice and cut to the heart of these issues. But it is important to remember that there are more inclusive ways for us to continue holding conversations about the topics we care about. These conversations are imperative, but they require some acknowledgement of the innate privilege that each of us holds. In this same vein, the Editorial Board wishes to acknowledge its own privilege: the very nature of this editorial contributes to the same educational privilege that we hope to combat. This very article is constructed with frameworks and vocabulary that we have learned in the elite halls of our college. This relationship is obviously a precarious one, but a nuanced approach will serve us well, and hopefully create the inclusive Amherst that we all believe in — a place where conversations are approached with intention.

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