'Minutes' for Coffee Talk of 8-March 1998
Professor Austin Sarat
Intellectual Life at Amherst College
Professor Sarat addressed the notion of 'intellectual life' from two angles: the faculty's and the
students'. Sarat is one of many profs who thinks that many faculty members are disengaged from
intellectual life. He wonders how many students "love books" rather than "work through" them.
The topics that he perceives to occupy the thoughts of most students - politics, current events,
etc. - does not count as intellectual life. 'Hegel' does.
Sarat urged students to "live in a book," with book defined broadly to include any general
"pursuit of ideas" (scientists can be intellectual too). He spoke of the "camplike atmosphere of
Amherst" and wondered if that contributes to the rush to get through work.
Joshu Harris '01 argued that students cannot complete all of their assigned reading, much less
"live in" it. Worse, professors don't hilite what's most important in a huge reading.
Sarat responds: "too busy is ridiculous; you have time for 'coffee talk'."
He continued: it's not "easy or fun" to teach 19 year olds. That is the price of teaching at
Amherst; you teach undergraduates. Just when we're getting good, we leave.
Brennan, a senior, expressed anxiety that 'intellectual life' == 'Ivory Tower'. Indicator,
Outreach, etc., are all part of intellectual life. But, says Sarat, we're not paying $30K a year to do
the Indicator. What we are paying for is "psychosocial moratorium"; viz., to live without a family
and without 'real world' worries.
Paul Rieckhoff, SGO President, spoke. He lamented that the divisions within the faculty are so
odious and obvious that focus is turned away from students. The faculty needs to initiate an
internal discourse of some sort.
Sarat presented 4 Ideas for how to improve intellectual life @Amherst
1st Semester Freshman Year: No Grades. Pass w/ Honors, Pass, Fail.
2nd Semester Freshman Year: Tutorial system; opportunity to work one-on-one with a professor, to get a sense of what it means to really go at a problem.
Students should organize reading groups, perhaps with Faculty members.
Students should ask their profs: What are you writing about? They should ask
themselves: Why is the syllabus this way instead of another way?
Another problem he mentioned is grade inflation: 50% of grades are A- and above.
Noah Winer '01 asked those present "what do you think about lying?" That is, to trick pre-froshes into thinking that there is intellectual life at Amherst, get those sorts of people to come
here. The very fact that we think there's no intellectual life self-perpetuates the problem.
Sarat: Enough beating on whoever's here. Let's work with what we got. As it is, students don't
care about other students blowing off their 'intellectual responsibilities'. It's not socially
acceptable to blow off your a capella group, or the Indicator; why isn't the same true for work?
One freshman complained that everyone was complaining too much. "We are spoon fed."
Amherst life is great in so many ways, why complain about something as unimportant in things'
scheme as 'intellectual life'.
Sarat responded: "good reminder" that we must have perspective. Still, battle is one against
Recording Secretary, SGO