Transcript of 2016 Senior Assembly Speech
Good afternoon, welcome class of 2016 to Senior Assembly. You should all sit down. We're here to mark the official start of a season of celebration. We're celebrating you, class of 2016, and rightly so. Are you going to say anything about class of 2016?
[applause and cheers]
All right. I'm Catherine Epstein. I'm Dean of the Faculty and a professor of history. Do you happen to remember four years ago when you were first-year students, you came to Johnson Chapel on labor day for convocation? As you filed into the Chapel, the faculty sat in the middle section where many of you are seated now. You sat all around the faculty and on the edges of the faculty. But this afternoon, the seating is reversed. You are in the middle and the faculty surrounds you, or at least on the upper, the front rows here, we surround you. After four years of lecture and discussion, questioning and doubting, we envelop you and you are now at the core, at the heart of the College. I asked you to think about what made this transition possible. What all have you learned? What all have you experienced? As a residential college, much of what you learned and experienced happened outside the classroom.
But today I want to reflect just a bit on Amherst's formal curriculum. How many of you majored in STEM fields? Please raise your hands. All right. You did the right thing. How many of you majored in the social sciences majors such as economics, psychology, political science? Raise your hands. Okay. You did the right thing. How many of you majored in the humanities? All right. You did the right thing. How many of you majored in the arts? Good. Okay. I think how many of you can raise your hands twice for those? All right. You too did the right thing. So why am I saying this? Why did you all do the right thing? You all, I hope, pursued interests that were truly meaningful to you in a liberal arts education. At some level, it doesn't matter which courses you took or which major you chose.
The premise of liberal arts education is that it provides you with fundamental capacities to approach all of life's challenges. In every course and every major, you learn to think. In every course and every major you acquired habits of mind that will allow you to be a lifelong learner, to solve problems effectively. In every course and every major, you learn to use evidence and to formulate persuasive arguments. In many courses, you learn to write, in others, you learn quantitative reasoning. Along the way, you received an Amherst education. It should have been challenging, even sometimes frustrating. Indeed, it is academic excellence and rigor that distinguishes an Amherst education. By now, Amherst has a long history of famous curricular experiments designed to maintain academic excellence. All depend on three vital components: an intense demanding curriculum that makes demands on terrific students and that relies on a very dedicated faculty.
Bear with me as the historian that I am comes to the fore. Around 1900, Amherst was perceived to be in decline. In the words of a Boston journalist, Amherst College was quote an agreeable, leisurely, semi-educational country club, whereby doing a modicum of work, you could spend four pleasant years and come away with a college degree. But in 1912, Amherst appointed a well known educational reformer, Alexander Meiklejohn, as president. Meiklejohn lost little time in revitalizing the intellectual climate of Amherst College. In his view, making minds was the purpose of the liberal arts college. He thought that students should have a general education focused on big ideas and making connections as Meiklejohn declared quote, "the college is called liberal because the instruction is dominated by no special interest, is limited to no single human task, but it's intended to take human activity as a whole to understand human endeavors, not in their isolation, but in their relations to one another."
And to the total experience which we call the life of the people." To him, the elective system of the time was a quote kind of intellectual bankruptcy. Meiklejohn imposed curricular revisions that included required courses in philosophy, the study of social institutions, natural sciences, history, and artistic expression, especially literature. He established a famous year-long course for freshmen, social and economic institutions in which students were exposed to deep analysis of contemporary affairs. At the same time, Meiklejohn insisted on hiring faculty members who were extraordinary teachers. And he took the unusual step of firing some who were not good teachers. He had a strong commitment to exposing students to divergent views, all this and more raised hackles raised the hackles of alumni and trustees and Meiklejohn, as a result, was ousted in 1923. But as the new Republic noted that year, for several years, it has been generally assumed that a recent Amherst graduate might be expected to display an unusual measure of intellectual vigor of personal and moral distinction.
Meiklejohn's curriculum continued for some decades, but during World War II, a faculty committee decided that change was needed. In the committee's view, the real danger is that it, the College, will survive merely as another good college. The faculty wanted something more for Amherst and in the process, it placed more responsibility on both faculty and students. This was the new curriculum introduced in 1947. During the freshman and sophomore years, all students were required to take a particular set of courses. The focus was on interdisciplinary courses, taught by teams of faculty. These students were not about the passive acquisition of knowledge. Instead, students learned how to learn often using the case method. The new curriculum was in place until 1966 and many older alumni today still swear by it. But times changed and virtually all requirements were dropped in 1971, although it was not called such then, this was the open curriculum.
It too was designed with academic excellence and rigor in mind. The premise of the open curriculum is that if students have the freedom to choose their course of study, they will have unusual motivation and engagement with their academic programs. With that students take control of their studies and in the process develop independence self-confidence and decision-making skills. The open curriculum presupposes high levels of responsibility for both students and faculty. Students must choose their courses with intellectual honesty. Faculty must take the time and effort to advise students responsibly. I've just outlined three different Amherst curricula. Each of which in their own ways had academic excellence and rigor at their heart. An Amherst education is not a fixed product, but a process, an activity in the words of a 1978 curriculum report, it is, quote, a critical engagement with life. A willingness to examine the given and to question dogma and ability to entertain novel ways of thinking. Today, we face new challenges with our curriculum, with our changing student body.
We must ensure that our curriculum, every part of it is accessible to all students. We must ensure that all students derive maximum benefit from it, that all students are able to experience personal transformation through it. The current curriculum committee is concerned with how we teach, with pedagogical practices that will allow all students to learn at the same time. The committee hopes that the faculty will reaffirm its dedication to broad liberal arts education. It hopes that our curriculum will serve to build community through shared intellectual experiences. Just how we will do this remains under discussion. So please stay tuned. So now you're wondering what is all of this mean for you? Graduating students you're about to leave. Why would you care what Amherst does next? Because you are a part of a terrific tradition that has evolved with the times. Amherst's desire to maintain academics, excellence and rigor. You will shortly be branded an Amherst alum and you will always be distinguished by your Amherst education. As I end now, I wish you all the best as you draw on your terrific Amherst education. So let's get on with the celebration. And first and foremost, we're going to award many, many prizes.