Amherst Magazine

College Row
Debate.U.S. foreign policy experts Andrew Bacevich (left) and Ronald Steel had Iraq on their minds during an Interterm Colloquium on the United States as an empire.

Teach-in

Is the United States an imperial power? What would happen if the Mexican border were closed? Should tax dollars fund private schools? In January, students, faculty and national experts met on campus to tackle these and other questions. The meetings were part of a new series of mini-courses and public forums, called Interterm Colloquia, designed to offer divergent views on pressing topics of world concern.

Two authorities on U.S. foreign policy—Andrew Bacevich, a professor at Boston University and a retired U.S. Army colonel, and Ronald Steel, a professor at the University of Southern California and a Pulitzer Prize finalist—led a colloquium on the United States as an empire. Mexican-American writer Richard Rodriguez and Hoover Institution senior fellow Victor Davis Hanson offered a colloquium on immigration. Public Education Network president Wendy Puriefoy and University of Chicago professor William Howell presented a colloquium on public education.

The American empire session opened on a Saturday morning in the Octagon, where Steel said the United States, while it views itself as anti-imperialist, has always sought to expand. “This is a kind of empire in denial,” he told the 25 students and professors in the room. The next night, Steel maintained that the American empire is in trouble: “It’s like the Wizard of Oz. It shakes and makes a lot of noise, but its effective power is far less than it seems.” The talk centered on Iraq. “We only embark on missions of liberation,” Bacevich said, “when we have important interests at stake, when in fact we are pursuing this project of expansion, which produces abundance, which produces freedom for you and me.” But expansion comes at a cost: Bacevich said it has also produced Iraqi insurgents, U.S. dependence on foreign oil and a massive national debt.

At the immigration colloquium, speakers and students talked of living both literally and figuratively along the U.S. border with Mexico, and the discussion turned to broader issues of foreign policy. “We’re entering a neoisolationist movement,” Hanson told the 15 students in Alumni House. Asked how the U.S. might effectively close the Mexican border, Hanson suggested felony charges against employers who hire illegal immigrants. Rodriguez cautioned that shutting out Mexicans would be a mistake. “Psychologically we’ll have the sense of cutting a part of ourselves off from the rest,” Rodriguez said. “It won’t free us but will enclose us.”

Two days later, in a colloquium on public education, Howell presented data on school vouchers, through which students receive public grants to attend private schools. “I see that as money being funneled away from the public school system,” said one of the 30 students in Alumni House. Howell countered: “So these kids ostensibly have the obligation to stay in those failing schools for the benefit of others?” When Howell and Puriefoy met later to debate the No Child Left Behind Act, Puriefoy argued that the federal law should stop holding public schools to higher standards than private ones.

Julie Kim ’08, a religion major from Montville, N.J., took part in the education colloquium. “I had talked about issues in public education with my friends and parents and had not really known the facts,” she said. By the end of the colloquium, she had seen the data and had set a new goal: she now hopes to intern at Puriefoy’s Public Education Network.

The Interterm Colloquia, organized by the President’s Office, were funded by Mike Keiser ’67 and Andrew Cader ’81.

—E.G.B.

Listen to Steel and Bacevich and Puriefoy and Howell online.

Next: In memoriam: Calvin H. Plimpton ’39 »

Photo: Samuel Masinter '04