A Case for Social Justice Education
Issue   |   Tue, 02/17/2015 - 22:51

Amherst College’s admissions brochures love to tout the open curriculum. Save for the first year seminar, which has such a range of options that it can hardly be counted as a required class, we are free to explore our interests without restriction. If you hated French in high school, you can say “au revoir” to it for good here. Loved by more than enthusiastic tour guides, our open curriculum is almost universally seen as a boon for our academic careers. Before we go any further, The Amherst Student’s editorial board would like to clarify that we love the open curriculum. However, we would argue that it could use some tweaking.

The mission of our college is to prepare its students to lead “lives of consequence.” Granted, beyond that, that ideal is pretty vague. Amherst is in no way pre-professional nor does it create many expectations beyond major requirements. Yet, this freedom leaves students at somewhat of a deficit when it comes to social justice issues. The fact is that any pre-med, econ or even English student can get away without taking a single class that explores social constructions of race or gender. In reality, it is entirely possible for an Amherst student to be as ignorant of political issues integral to their participation in our democracy as when they walked in. To put it another way, Amherst students should know the words “check your privilege” as something more than a catchphrase used by a few campus activists.

A mandatory half-credit class on race, gender, privilege and social justice would solve this fundamental issue. This class could be once a week and held during a first-year student’s first semester here. The essential idea would be to make sure that every Amherst student has a basic knowledge of social issues to not only have the conversations that the Day of Dialogue strived to create but also to create better democratic citizens in the long run that can articulate solutions. These issues should not and cannot be relegated to political science or sociology classes, since our perceived social identities affect us in all aspects of our lives. A once-a-week, mandatory survey class created in collaboration with the Black Studies, SWAGS, Political Science, History and Sociology Departments along with the MRC, QRC and WGC could push Amherst students to critically think about their future “lives of consequence” without forcing us to abandon the open curriculum we hold near and dear.

Students cannot lead lives of consequence without actually understanding that racism is still rampant, that colorblindness isn’t the answer and that feminism doesn’t mean hating all men. It would be foolish to dismiss this claim by saying that Amherst students are the “cream of the crop” and should somehow intrinsically understand society better than the average citizen. If the Day of Dialogue showed us anything, it’s that many of us often don’t know or care enough about issues of race, racism and gender inequality. Some have argued that the very nature of being in such a diverse environment forces us to have conversations about privilege and social justice. But Amherst cannot, in good conscience, rely on random late-night conversations between friends to educate students about these essential issues. Students should have informal conversations about race, class and gender, but the onus to start these conversations and educate should be on the institution.

Amherst '12 (not verified) says:
Wed, 02/18/2015 - 13:02

Pulled the trigger on the April Fool's edition a little early there, y'all.

Roman Lifson '89 (not verified) says:
Wed, 02/18/2015 - 16:51

“A Case for Social Justice Education” is a nice euphemism for “A Case for Further Indoctrination.” You unabashedly suggest that the only truly required class at Amherst should be one which pushes a politically liberal ideology on each student. There is not even a pretext of balance. No suggestion, for example, that amidst the required self-flagellation over privilege there should be an examination of the responsibilities of the allegedly oppressed. Instead, you unhesitatingly articulate the viewpoints that you deem are so unassailable that they should be enshrined in a required course. For example, you present the course as essential to teach all students that “racism is still rampant, [and] that colorblindness isn’t the answer.” Really? Affirmative action now has become an irrefutable good? The professors teaching this course will be expected to teach it from that pulpit instead of encouraging a discussion about what kind of racism exists and what means are best to combat it? Isn’t the Amherst experience already laden with “social justice”? (Incidentally, a nice usurpation of a phrase, suggesting that anyone who disagrees with any plank in the “social justice” platform must, by definition, be bigoted or, at least, socially unjust.) From the overwhelmingly leftist faculty, known to lead protests against sitting Supreme Court justices setting foot on campus, to political correctness run amok, does the College now need to legislate a course to indoctrinate all students into the mindset that you find acceptable? Your suggestion forgets the true mission of the College, and of any college – to foster independent thought by inquisitive minds, not to dictate ideology.

Anonymous (not verified) says:
Fri, 02/20/2015 - 11:05

I believe that a mandatory Social Justice class would be damaging the community even more than some of the dialogue has been recently. Right now, Amherst is not an open place, where people can share their ideas in a safe space. People who have a dissenting opinion from the majority are censored or shamed, and many things go unsaid for fear of social reprisal. For example, you say matter-of-factly that “colorblindness isn’t the answer,” when that is a discussion to be had, not at all factually enough to be an official stance that every student should adopt. These types of statements encourage silence, exclusion, and even active attacks between differing political groups. This mandatory course would only serve to make that censorship official, and replace conversation with doctrine. The scary part is that the many students at Amherst who would support such a doctrine, and would be completely okay with replacing a conversation with a lecture, are the same ones who do the shaming and censoring.

This article also makes the mistake of thinking that the formative period of our college education, specifically inside a classroom, is the only time or place where a person can engage in this type of conversation. This statement in particular, “Students cannot lead lives of consequence without actually understanding that racism is still rampant, that colorblindness isn’t the answer and that feminism doesn’t mean hating all men,” is completely false, and immensely disrespectful to the students and alumni who feel differently about racism or feminism. Statements like these also result in the attempted establishment of a moral hierarchy, where the more "socially righteous" that you are, the more consequential your life or career will be. This is an opinion, and people who don't agree with you have the right to opt out of that ideology in a truly open environment.

To say that a student cannot live a life of consequence without having taken a specific type of course at Amherst is an insult to the people who choose to engage those topics on their own terms, in places that they feel safer in. A person’s ability to live a life of consequence does not hinge on a class, or even choosing to come to Amherst. If the college brochure or website touted the open curriculum, but had some “check your privilege” nonsense on there, I would have chosen another school almost instantly. That type of political discourse is to be engaged with at-will, not set in stone and distributed to everyone.

Amherst student 174 (not verified) says:
Fri, 02/20/2015 - 12:35

Not everybody agrees that the Northeastern SWPL brand of liberalism prevalent among many students and faculty at Amherst College is the only way of looking at social justice issues. To require them to take a course that would literally force them to think this way (or receive a failing grade) is a violation of intellectual freedom and freedom of conscience. Many students at Amherst College hedge their future on getting high grades in all subjects and courses they take. Requiring them to go against their moral conscience in order to be able to fulfill their future potentials would make us no different from oppressive regimes in Communist and totalitarian countries.

Oh, you're surprised that your white-upper-middle-class-centered brand of feminism isn't relevant to everyone?

Embarrassed Alum (not verified) says:
Tue, 02/24/2015 - 11:08

I haven't looked at the student for some years but will confess that looking over the "controversy" over Lord Jeff and reading this editorial, the current issues at the school seem to be driven by Al Sharpton.

It is a sure guarantee that students graduating from Amherst, or any school, will never confront hundreds of issues important to society and their lives. This editorial is riddled with unproven assumptions, cliches and ideology. It reminds me of Communist China under Mao, where educated people were forced into "re-education" to make sure that they adhered to the prevailing views.

Amherst students are fully capable of deciding for themselves what moral positions they should take on issues of the day. And if they aren't, they shouldn't be there.

Check your attitude, not your privilege.