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CHOOSING THE RIGHT COLLEGE 2008-9THE WHOLE TRUTH ABOUT AMERICA'S TOP SCHOOLS
ISI BooksCopyright © 2007 Intercollegiate Studies Institute
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Chapter OneAMHERST COLLEGE
Amherst, Massachusetts www.amherst.edu
In 1891, while Amherst College was celebrating its seventieth anniversary, a young Calvin Coolidge arrived on campus for the first time. Most of the young men gathered in this small town in western Massachusetts sought to become teachers or ministers, but this student had come to prepare for a career in the law. Later, when he was asked to remember his time at Amherst, Coolidge waxed prolix for once, praising "the strength of its faculty," whose "great distinguishing mark" was "that they were men of character."
Things at Amherst have changed considerably since Coolidge's day. For one thing, during the time he was at Amherst, Coolidge was in the conservative majority. Today, the school of 1,640 students is one of the more famously (some say overwhelmingly) left-leaning in the nation, and this bias discourages diversity of thought. Of course, there are still "men of character" on the faculty-and women, too. Many are learned scholars and excellent teachers, serving a cadre of highly intelligent students.
However, certain institutional changes have weakenedthe educational experience at Amherst, as at dozens of other prestigious colleges. One of the traditional methods for building men and women of character has been the discipline of a liberal arts education-including the requirement that they master core areas of knowledge essential to their own civilization, even in subject matters which lay outside their own private interests or academic strengths. This was the main purpose of the old-fashioned core curriculum, which once served as a gravitational center for education at liberal arts colleges, including Amherst.
No more. The college no longer maintains a core curriculum or even distribution requirements. Here Amherst insists that less is more: "In my view, the open curriculum is one of the strongest points because it allows students maximum freedom to explore their own interests. If somebody is interested in Western civilization, he will actually have more time to study it with the open curriculum because of the lack of core requirements in, for example, math or science," says one professor. We're not convinced, and suggest that students who desire a traditional educational experience look closely at the courses recommended in the Suggested Core box appearing alongside this essay.
In 2003, Amherst welcomed Dr. Anthony Marx as president of the college and he appears to be gently, very gently, leading the school back in a more reasonable direction. Recent reports suggest that the school will add a requirement of one writing-intensive class, and perhaps even a course in mathematics. Such a writing course might have proved helpful to one well-known alumnus, DaVinci Code typist Dan Brown. Just think where he might be today if he'd also had to take a logic class....
Academic Life: Could I but ride indefinite
Amherst's good name was largely built on the school's one-time "New Curriculum," which required two years of basic coursework in the sciences, history, and English. But that curriculum was abolished in 1967, in favor of the current laissez-faire approach. The administration claims that its current laxity "ensures that each student in every classroom is there by choice." We're glad that Amherst no longer marches its students into math class at the point of a bayonet, but what this pleasant slogan really means is that the school can't be troubled to offer its students guidance about what they should learn and why.
The only academic regulation that dictates a student's curriculum is within his major field of study, Most programs at Amherst require eight courses, usually built around the fundamental topics of the discipline. Yet the various majors can have drastically different requirements. For example, the economics department requires students to complete nine courses; in addition, students must pass a comprehensive examination before they can receive their degrees. English majors complete ten courses for the major, but in this department students are completely free to choose the courses they take. Upon declaring the major, each English student writes a "concentration statement" with the help of his advisor, and before graduating majors must submit a five-page "concentration essay" summarizing what they have learned. In other words, the English department requires no coursework in the history of the language, Shakespeare, or even British or American literature. Students may instead opt for courses in film studies, cultural studies, or gender studies. As a professor says, "The most impressive part of Amherst is the intellectual caliber of the faculty and student body. The most disappointing things about Amherst are its cultural degeneration (as shown by its "Orgasm Workshops"), arrogance, elitism, and stifling political correctness." The history department, which calls for a capstone research project, requires nine courses distributed across at least three geographic areas-but none of those areas need include the United States. The Department of Political Science requires only one introductory course and no culminating essay or examination. Courses in this department are sometimes infused with teachers' personal views. "One professor referred to Forrest Gump as a work of Reaganite propaganda," a student reports.
Students seem to work hard at Amherst, especially if they are in the sciences. One physics major says that he and his classmates spend between four to six hours per night studying, but "although the workload is demanding, it is not usually burdensome. Most of the work is engaging and interesting."
The school offers some guidance to students in their extraordinary freedom by assigning a faculty advisor to each freshman. Each faculty member advises only five students, meaning that students who need time and attention will get it. By sophomore year the student selects a major area of study and an advisor within that field. This system does increase the risk that a student will be "made in his liberal advisor's image" instead of getting a liberal education, one undergrad warns.
Faculty are indeed thick on the ground; the school enjoys a student-teacher ratio of eight to one, and the average Amherst class has only fifteen students. According to college statistics, only 7 percent of all courses enroll more than fifty students. In such an environment, teacher-student interaction is, happily, inevitable. Says one student: "The political science department is one of Amherst's best. Most of the professors in the department are both experts in their fields and very accessible. Also, for a small school, it has a wide range of courses. The philosophy department is also excellent. The professors I've had are remarkably intelligent and the small class sizes are helpful. The classics department has even smaller class sizes than philosophy and the community of students and faculty is very close-knit. I've only had one science class, but I've heard biology, chemistry, neuroscience and physics are all excellent as well."
Outstanding professors at Amherst include Hadley Arkes. "He is a great antidote to the political correctness on campus; his Colloquium for the American Founding series brings speakers to campus that would otherwise be marginalized," says a student. Other highly recommended teachers include Javier Corrales, Pavel Machala, Uday Mehta, and William Taubman in political science; Jonathan Vogel in philosophy; Richard Fink and David Hansen in chemistry; Robert Hilborn in physics; Walter Nicholson, Frank Westhoff, and Geoffrey Woglom in economics; Allen Guttmann, William Pritchard, and David Sofield in English; Andreola Rossi and Rebecca Sinos in classics, and N. Gordon Levin in American studies and history. One student says of Levin, "He resists revisionist histories for reading and assigns noted scholars like Kissinger and Beschloss."
Through the Five College Consortium, Amherst students also may take courses for credit at the University of Massachusetts and at Smith, Mount Holyoke, and Hampshire colleges. For the student interested in broadening his course choices, this is a very real opportunity, especially since Amherst does not offer an honors program. "We have no great books or honors curriculum to speak of. But about 40 percent of the school studies abroad, so there are plenty of opportunities for Amherst students to study outside of the country," a student related. The school hosts an annual event that brings many of the overseas programs to campus so students can easily compare them.
Student Life: Industrious angels? Afternoons to play
The Amherst campus spreads over 1,000 acres. Campus facilities include the Robert Frost Library with more than 900,000 volumes and students have access to more than eight million books through the Five College Consortium. The recently renovated Mead Art Museum houses more than 15,000 works. The school also has a newly completed 50,000-square-foot life sciences building dedicated to biological research.
Amherst, Massachusetts, a town of 35,000 people, lies in the central part of the state, some ninety minutes west of Boston and three hours north of New York City. The town of Amherst "has a historic downtown that is well-lit, well-kept, and has a good collection of shops and restaurants," says one student. "There is not that much to do in the town, but for people interested in going to college in the country, yet who do not want to be cut off from the world, Amherst is a pretty good compromise." A bus system, the Pioneer Valley Transit Authority, provides regular free transportation between the surrounding towns. The tree-lined Freshman Quad, dominated on one end by Johnson Chapel and including several dormitories, forms the heart of the campus, which is pervaded by a peaceful college atmosphere. Stearns Church, built in 1873, once served as the campus chapel, but it was torn down in 1948 to make room (ahem) for a modern arts building and was replaced with the college's present chapel. Today only the steeple of Stearns Church survives, and it dominates the school's skyline.
Off-campus living is the exception, not the rule; 98 percent of Amherst students live at the college, whose policy permits only fifty students to live off campus per semester. Priority is given to upperclassmen and students with significant personal or financial reasons for wanting the exception. All freshmen must live on campus, housing is decided by a lottery system, using class-based rankings, and is guaranteed for each student's four years.
Amherst offers students a choice of thirty-three residential housing options. While all buildings are coed, some dorms do offer single-sex floors. On coed floors with only one bathroom, students vote on whether the bathroom will also be coed or whether one sex will have to use bathrooms on another floor. As can be expected, most become coed. Ostensibly because some gay and lesbian students find it awkward to live in rooms with members of the same sex (or perhaps, dare we suggest, the truth is the converse), members of opposite sexes are allowed to share rooms at Amherst. Some space is also allocated for "theme housing" in which like-minded students live together to explore a foreign language and culture, black culture, or health and wellness.
Students do not have the option of living in a fraternity or sorority house because the college prohibits the Greek system on campus. This policy, however, has not discouraged students from exploring their inner Bacchus. Amherst's students are hardly shy when it comes to partying. "Dorm life can be summarized as follows: drinking, drinking, and more drinking. Residential counselors are pretty inactive. The only real function they serve in nonfreshman dorms is to bill students for dorm damage," says one student. Theme parties like "Pimps and Hos" are well known for the sexual abandon that characterizes them. These parties, which one student describes as "meat markets," are organized by the student-run Social Committee. Amherst College also sponsors a weekly alcohol-free shindig called The Amherst Party (TAP for short), which is usually well attended.
Amherst has a thriving and highly visible Democratic club but the Republican population is miniscule. At one point there was an alternative, conservative newspaper, the Spectator, but it has since become defunct. The school sponsors the annual production of The Vagina Monologues and has eleven "activism" clubs such as the Feminist Alliance and the Pride Alliance. If there are any conservative groups or publications on campus, they must be operating in secret, since none of our sources were aware of them.
The largest student organizations on campus are the Amherst Student (the weekly student newspaper), Amherst Student Government, Amherst College Outing Club, Amherst College Diversity Coalition, and numerous musical groups. "I lived in a musical wasteland for eighteen years. The popularity of a cappella singing, guitar, and music in general at Amherst had a direct influence on me. I picked up the guitar my first year of college and began to take music theory classes," says one enthusiastic student. The school also has a radio station, WAMH.
Amherst offers twenty-seven Division III sports programs. The college is a member of the New England Small College Athletic Conference with ten other schools, including Bowdoin College and Tufts University. Around 30 percent of Amherst students participate in varsity sports and more than 80 percent participate in club and intramural sports. Named after Lord Jeffrey Amherst, the teams' mascot is "Lord Jeff," and hence Amherst teams are called the Jells. The archaic nickname seems appropriate for the school, which boasts the oldest collegiate athletic program in the nation. In the first intercollegiate basketball game in history (1859), Amherst defeated Williams. Since the Sears Cup, a measure of overall athletic success, has been keeping track of Division III programs, Amherst has never finished lower than twelfth in the nation. The Amherst-Williams football game is one of the college's most valued and long-standing traditions. On a less serious note, the ski teams run the last race of each season dressed in costume; recent garb has included bikinis and duct tape.
About a third of the students in the Amherst class of 2006 identify themselves as "students of color." Women make up a little more than half of the student body. Students hail from forty-eight states, but New York, Massachusetts, and California are the most common points of origin for the class of 2006. Additionally, more than forty countries are represented among the student population. Most students enter with the hope of studying the humanities or the social sciences, with a third planning to pursue the hard sciences or mathematics.
A large part of the student body is Jewish and the campus has an active (and activist) Hillel group, "Each Friday, we hold our weekly Shabbat evening, which features a prayer service and home-cooked Kosher dinner," says a student. A Newman Club and Christian Fellowship exist on campus; the latter is a chapter of InterVarsity Fellowship and holds weekly meetings. Down the street at UMASS-Amherst is a large Newman Center which now hosts a FOCUS group that provides Catholic Bible studies.
The crime figures for Amherst are unremarkable. The most common form of crime on campus is larceny, specifically the theft of college property, a typical problem for college dorms. There were three forcible sex offenses, one stolen car, and thirty burglaries on campus in 2005. All Amherst residential halls are secured with digital combination locks. The small Massachusetts town in which the school is located is largely responsible for the college's relatively low crime rates. One student says that although overall the campus is safe, certain areas of Amherst are "not completely desirable." For instance, the University of Massachusetts' Frat Row, right down the street from the college, is not a safe place for walking alone at night.
Excerpted from CHOOSING THE RIGHT COLLEGE 2008-9 Copyright © 2007 by Intercollegiate Studies Institute. Excerpted by permission.
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