Amherst Magazine

College Row

Educational activist Jonathan Kozol addresses a capacity crowd in Johnson Chapel on inequality in edication.

New textures for lectures

The “Amherst bubble” got a bit more porous this fall, as a full calendar of lectures, debates and symposia provided students—and others—with numerous opportunities to hear from some of the nation’s leading scholars and thinkers.

President Anthony W. Marx—who last year announced his intention to spark engaged discussion through talks by Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia and American Civil Liberties Union leader Anthony Romero, among others—continued to expand the scope of the classroom with an energetic program of public lectures. At the beginning of the semester, in connection with the college’s new honor code, Marx asked David Callahan, author of The Cheating Culture, to speak about issues related to academic honesty. Just a week before the national elections, Marx drew an overflow crowd to the Cole Assembly Room for a debate between former Kennedy School dean Joseph S. Nye and Weekly Standard founding editor William Kristol (the event was sponsored by the Victor S. Johnson Lecture Fund). In November, psychologist Robert Jay Lifton spoke on “Americans as Survivors” and participated in a panel on national security and academic freedom with Marx and Gerald Fink ’62, the American Cancer Society Professor of Genetics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The very next day, another overflow crowd packed Johnson Chapel for a talk by author and activist Jonathan Kozol, who spoke on inequalities in public education.

Beyond these presidential lectures, there were dozens of other presentations on topical issues. The student-run Program Board organized a pre-election debate between conservative author Ann Coulter and New Republic editor Peter Beinart. (This event and the Kristol-Nye debate were both broadcast later by C-SPAN.) And through the President’s Initiative Fund, a new program designed to encourage faculty and student collaboration around interdisciplinary projects, some 32 faculty from 18 different departments sponsored lectures, discussions, readings and workshops on topics including science in law, environmental science, human rights and “global sound.”

These events go a long way, Marx says, to connecting Amherst students to the world beyond the campus. “Outside lecturers bring a variety of perspectives that should be heard, even if they jostle the community,” Marx notes. “If our students are to contend with complex ideas in the world beyond Amherst, then we should provide opportunities for them to hear these ideas directly and grapple with them here, so that they, and we, can refine our views about how to contribute to society.”

Outside speakers also help enhance intellectual diversity at the college, Marx notes, by bringing students into direct contact with distinguished scholars and thinkers beyond the Amherst faculty. A PIF lecture on the urban imagination provided an opportunity to hear from Pritzker Prize-winning architect Rem Koolhaas.

Of course, the audience for these talks extends beyond students, faculty and staff. Almost all Amherst events are open to alumni—and to the general public—at no charge. Moreover, several programs make a point of involving alumni in events designed to connect students and graduates with similar interests. Perhaps most notable in this category are the ongoing Colloquium on the American Founding and the Colloquium on the Constitution and the Imagining of America, organized, respectively, by political science professors Hadley Arkes and Austin Sarat. The Amherst Today program, for example, brings alumni back to campus for weekend courses. The college is currently exploring plans for even more such events.

And thanks to technology, one needn’t be in Amherst to participate in these events. With the help of the student-run Amherst Recording Council, audio and video clips of many talks and debates have been posted on the Amherst College Website.

“What is being debated in society should also be debated on campus,” Marx notes. “But our campus culture provides an opportunity for informed, engaged discussion—discussion that is not ad hominem but that can be evaluated on its own merits.” As Marx noted at the end of the Kristol-Nye discussion, “The future of our republic—and beyond our republic—rests on our capacity to debate in this way. I am certainly proud that Amherst provides that opportunity for our own community, and I’m delighted that we’ve had, with our guests tonight, the opportunity to extend that kind of debate to the nation.”

Next: New committee to consider the college’s long-term academic needs >>

Photo: Frank Ward