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Choosing the Right College 2012–13The Whole Truth About America's Top Schools
By John Zmirak
ISI BOOKSCopyright © 2011 Intercollegiate Studies Institute
All right reserved.
Chapter OneAmherst College
Amherst, Massachusetts www.amherst.edu
Founded in 1821 as a school for New England's elite, Amherst College is still one of the most prestigious liberal arts colleges in America. It is also one of the most univocally liberal. A traditional method 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 are not convinced. As another 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."
Academic Life: Could I but ride indefinite
Amherst's good name was largely built on the school's onetime "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."
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, however, does increase the risk that a student will be "made in his liberal advisor's image," one undergrad warns. Recently, the college has made an effort to revamp pre-major advising because of many complaints. The institution has also turned toward an emphasis on writing and quantitative reasoning; absent core requirements, students had been passing through the college without sharpening such skills.
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 acutely different requirements.
Economics majors must complete nine courses; in addition, students must pass a comprehensive examination before they can receive their degrees. Students must take three core theory classes, with a "suggested" order. At least one of the nine required courses must be an upper-level course.
English majors complete ten courses for the major, but students are completely free to choose which. Level I and II courses are primarily focused on writing. Level III and IV courses expand into film, cultural studies, literature, theoretical issues, and extensive writing. Students may also apply for a senior tutorial, an independent study program spanning one or two semesters within the major. 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, creative writing, cultural studies, or gender studies. There are no senior honors courses, as there are in some other majors.
The history department requires nine courses and a concentration of four classes in either a particular geographical area, in a particular historic topic—such as colonialism or nationalism—or a comparative study of two areas. All majors are required to take a seminar involving a major research paper. Students must take a course in three of the six listed geographical regions: the U.S., Europe, Asia, Africa and Diaspora, Latin America and the Caribbean, and the Middle East. Further, students must take two courses in either pre-1800 history or pre-1800 history and comparative history. This means a history major could emerge without having studied the American founding or the Civil War.
The department of political science requires two introductory courses, distribution requirements, and a core concentration with four classes centered around a certain theme. Requirements include one course in three of the following areas: American government and politics; comparative politics; gender and politics; politics, law, and public policy; and political theory. 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: "Although the workload is demanding, it is not usually burdensome. Most of the work is engaging and interesting."
Faculty are thick on the ground; the school enjoys an outstanding student-teacher ratio of 8 to 1, and the average Amherst class has only sixteen 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."
One outstanding professor at Amherst is 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; David Hansen in chemistry; 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."
"About 40 percent of the school studies abroad ... there are plenty of opportunities," a student reports. The school hosts an annual event that brings many of the overseas programs to campus so students can easily compare them. The website lists approved programs in China, Turkey, Egypt, France, Russia, Greece, India, Germany, Japan, Mall, Brazil, Spain, Italy, Tanzania, and Costa Rica, among others.
Amherst offers a limited range of language majors: Chinese and Japanese, Ancient Greek and Latin, French, German, Russian and Spanish. It does offer classes in Arabic, and many more foreign languages may be studied at Holyoke, Smith, and UMass or through the combined Five College Center for the study of World Languages. While Amherst has an undergraduate Italian club, Amherst College itself offers no courses in the language. Nor (despite the school's high Jewish population) does it offer classes in Hebrew.
Student Life: Industrious angels
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, which combines the resources of Amherst, Hampshire College, Holyoke, Smith, and UMass. The renovated Mead Art Museum houses more than 15,000 works.
Amherst, Massachusetts, a town of 35,000 people, lies ill 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 provides regular free transportation among 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" [or 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.
Some 98 percent of Amherst students live in the thirty-seven dorms on campus; the administration strongly discourages off-campus living, which requires special permission. All freshmen must live on campus, and are housed together. Housing is decided by a lottery system, using class-based rankings, and is guaranteed for four years. Three dorms have been dubbed "quiet, studying" dorms, and one dorm has been dubbed the "thesis-writing" dorm. Dorms are all coed and bathrooms are usually shared by floor, unless one has a suite.
Amherst offers students a choice of thirty-seven 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 (most vote in favor). Out of deference to radical mores, 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, black culture, or health and wellness.
Students do not have the option of living in a fraternity or sorority house, since 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 non-freshman dorms is to bill students for dorm damage," says one student. Theme parties—such as one called "Pimps and Hos"—are well known for sexual abandon. 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.
There are some 140 student organizations on campus, the largest are the Amherst Student (the weekly student newspaper), Amherst Student Government, Amherst College Outing Club, Amherst College Diversity Coalition, and numerous musical groups. "I'd 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. The college hosts the Breakdance Club, Asian Students Association, Much Ado About Knitting, Ping Pong Club, Political Union, Relay for Life, Cricket Club, Dance Club, English Traditions Club, and Students for a Free Tibet, to name a few. Not surprisingly, the ACLU, Feminist Alliance, Pride and Color for GLBTQREM (Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgendered, Queer, Racial and Ethnic Minorities), and the Amherst College Democrats are thriving, but there is not a single Republican group or politically conservative organization on campus.
As a whole, the students at Amherst are not very politically active. While there are speakers, lectures, and debates, students at Amherst have a reputation for placing their interests elsewhere. Still, the culture on campus is very liberal, and, as with everywhere else, the LBGTQ group is trying very hard to make the college a welcoming place for peoples with varying "sexual orientations."
The school boasts the oldest collegiate athletic program in the nation. In the first intercollegiate baseball game in history (1859), Amherst defeated Williams. Amherst offers twenty-seven Division III sports programs. Amherst came first in the 2010 National Collegiate Scouting Association Power Rankings for academic and athletic performance. The college is a member of the New England Small College Athletic Conference with ten other schools, including Bowdoin College and Tufts University. Some 32 percent of Amherst students participate in varsity sports and more than 80 percent take part in club and intramural sports. Named after Lord Jeffrey Amherst, the teams' mascot is "Lord Jeff," and Amherst teams are called the Jeffs. 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.
About 40 percent of the students in the Amherst class of 2013 identify themselves as "students of color." Currently, Amherst is evenly divided between male and female students—no mean feat these days, when men are becoming ever scarcer on college campuses. Students in the class of 2013 hail from thirty-nine states, plus D.C., Puerto Rico, Guam, and twenty-three foreign countries.
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 a 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 and lively Newman Center for Catholic students.
The crime figures for Amherst are unremarkable. The most common form of crime on campus is burglary—specifically the theft of college property, a typical problem for college dorms. There were seven forcible sex offenses, four aggravated assaults, one count of arson and twenty-one burglaries on campus in 2009. All Amherst residential halls are secured with digital combination locks. 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.
Amherst is pricey; during the 2010–11 school year, it estimated a comprehensive fee (including room and board) of $50,820. However, the school practices need-blind admissions, and provides aid to 53 percent of students, meeting the need of most admitted students. Recently, because of the financial aid, the school says that students are graduating with less debt than in the past—although it does not provide the numbers to prove this.
Excerpted from Choosing the Right College 2012–13 by John Zmirak Copyright © 2011 by Intercollegiate Studies Institute. Excerpted by permission of ISI BOOKS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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