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Amherst College > News & Events > Amherst Magazine > Archives > Spring 2004 > Erôs and Insight
Joel Upton and student stand before Japanese garden
Joel Upton and Caitlin Rhodes ’07 practice contemplation in the Yushien Japanese garden behind Kirby Theater.

Erôs and Insight

By Leanna James

1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | An Introduction to Amherst: First-Year Seminars

It’s 11:25 on a crisp September morning, and every seat in Fayerweather 117 is filled. Thirty young people from the Class of 2007, clutching sharpened pencils and notebooks filled with clean white paper, are waiting for the first college class of their lives to begin. The tension is palpable and deeply familiar to anyone who has ever walked into a classroom for the first time. Rows of eager young faces. The low hum of nervous conversation. Papers rustling, feet crossing and uncrossing, an empty chalkboard staring out into the room. This timeless scene unfolds every fall, and what follows—lectures, textbooks, 10-page term papers—is generally as predictable as the changing of the seasons. For this group of expectant newcomers, however, something very different is about to happen.

Erôs and Insight, scheduled to begin in five minutes, is a First-Year Seminar that challenges common beliefs about the very nature of education. The students may not have been aware of this when they signed up for the course. They may have chosen this First-Year Seminar because the class meets pleasantly late in the morning, or because “erôs” sounds especially promising. A First-Year Seminar is required of all incoming students during the fall semester, and the college offers a dazzling array from which to choose.

Erôs and Insight stands out among the list, perhaps because the first sentence of the course description is actually a question: “What would it be like to experience yourself, those around you and the world through deliberate and disciplined contemplation?” Reading further, one discovers that the seminar “will define and then explore contemplative knowing as attentiveness, openness and the act of sustaining contradiction…[and] seek common ground between the seemingly opposed realities of art and science, erôs and insight.”

Clearly, this course defies easy categorizing. As the wall clock strikes 11:30 (universal law decrees that classrooms everywhere contain a loudly ticking clock), Joel Upton and Arthur Zajonc, veteran Amherst professors who created and jointly teach the class, enter together from the back of the room. Upton, professor of fine arts, begins taking roll. Professor of Physics Zajonc (pronounced like “science” with a “z”) smiles as he distributes photocopied handouts. The students quietly regard their new professors, hope and wariness mingling in their expressions. Zajonc has a kind, engaging face, gold-rimmed eyeglasses and a low voice; Upton is trim and energetic—pacing as he speaks, drawing on the board, gesturing with his hands. It is too soon to tell what these teachers will be like, but the students’ anxious curiosity pervades the atmosphere. What will the professors expect? How much work will be assigned? Will Upton and Zajonc be strict? Fair? Demanding? Try unorthodox.

Upton opens the class by inviting each student to “honor” this extraordinary moment in time—the first class on the first day of college. It is the beginning, he tells them, of a new adult life, “as wonderful a day as the day of your birth.” The students consider this notion in silence, puzzled smiles on their faces. Veterans of A.P. classes and S.A.T. preps, admissions offices and athletic fields, they are unaccustomed to language of this sort, which sounds a little exalted, a little, perhaps, like poetry. And poetry is precisely where Upton is leading, reading aloud a short excerpt from T.S. Eliot’s “Little Gidding.”

“Everything we do this semester,” Upton explains, “will lead back to this poem, these words: ‘We shall not cease from exploration / And the end of all our exploring / Will be to arrive where we started / And know the place for the first time.’”

Continued >>

Photo: Frank Ward


Online Extra

Interviews with Joel Upton and Arthur Zajonc.

Experience "beholding" with Joel Upton's slides from class.

Participate in a virtual version of an Erôs and Insight lecture by Joel Upton: 'Waiting' with Hendrick Corneliz. van Vliet.

See the Erôs and Insight syllabus (PDF).


"Spirituality in Higher Education," by Arthur Zajonc (PDF 5 MB)

"Beholding the Berlin Madonna: A Contemplative Guide," by Joel Upton

The New Physics and Cosmology: Dialogues with the Dalai Lama, edited by Arthur Zajonc

Catching the Light: The Entwined History of Light and Mind, by Arthur Zajonc

"Dawning of Free Communities for Collective Wisdom," by Arthur Zajonc, on the Collective Wisdom Initiative Website

"Buddhist Technology: Bringing a New Consciousness to Our Technological Future," Schumacher Lecture at Williams College, by Arthur Zajonc

"Goethe's Theory of Color and Scientific Intuition," by Arthur Zajonc (PDF 6.4 MB)

Amherst College Department of Fine Arts Website

Amherst College Department of Physics Website

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