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Dispatches from the present


On Memorial Hill


The campus was quiet when I arrived. I graduated in December, but I was back, to visit, to meet professors again, to see. I knew there hadn’t been any protests, but I was still surprised at how quiet it was. Only the low rumble of occasional traffic accompanied me as I wandered through the campus. There was no one.

The next day, I met a professor for coffee. He alluded to “the situation.” I remarked on the lack of protests. Quiet, he said. We paused. He told me that the faculty had passed a resolution to divest.

I expected some signs, somewhere, on campus. A friend of mine told me that there had been a small rally at Amherst the first week of May, before the faculty vote. Last semester, I remembered, there was a protest in the middle of the day. I couldn’t go, I had class. By the time I got out, all that was left was a plastic table, some water bottles, a sign propped against a tree. Now, there was nothing.

I am not sure what accounts for the quiet. Perhaps it’s that the college is so rural. But last Wednesday, at UMass Amherst, 130 people were arrested after setting up an encampment. (The arrests drew national attention when the novelist Colson Whitehead canceled his commencement speech in response.) Maybe it’s the size of our college. But other small campuses are protesting.

After the faculty vote, Amherst president Michael Elliott sent out a polite, tersely worded email acknowledging the differing opinions on campus. At the end, he wrote that we must remain dedicated to fostering a place “where we ground our conversations in evidence and our shared commitment to pursue the truth”; “where we learn.” But how do you learn while people die? The same professor, over coffee, asked how one is supposed teach about colonialism and capitalism critically while the college goes on participating in those structures. How do you teach at all while people die? Is it only the apathetic student who can learn in such a world?

The students here who I know best (philosophy students) don’t strike me as apathetic. Perhaps they’re a little insulated. But they also have a sense of their purpose on campus. Here, they are students. They have a duty, not to any particular people or to themselves, but to this particular community. They have a duty to foster an ideal here where quiet, slow learning and discussion are valued above all else. It is an ideal where the moral urgency of an issue has little impact. It’s an ideal that can seem silly and callous. It’s an ideal that is, perhaps, impossible to completely live within. But as tired as the ideal sounds, as trite as the president’s invocation of community is, the students I know believe in it. I did too, when I was here.

Toward the end of my visit, my friend and I took a walk, as we used to. We stopped for a moment on Memorial Hill to look at the Holyoke Range. The memorial is a stone circle, with a great dais in the middle, inscribed with the names of the Amherst students who died during the two World Wars. Generally, the impact of the memorial on student consciousness is limited to a superstition that people who walk across the dais won’t graduate.

Now, though, the memorial seems like a reminder of how difficult it is to keep to the duty of being a student—to both learn and live in the world. Each campus, in the shouts of an encampment or the murmur of a seminar room, is trying to find its own way to maintain the ideal—to keep learning and to keep living. Here is one attempt to do so, one of complicated quiet, of half-measures, of started and failed debates. One of the philosophy students I know went to the rally at Amherst. Others didn’t. Some had class. That night, I gathered with a group of them to discuss a paper by Derek Parfit, just as they’ve gathered every week this semester. It seems silly to keep on learning while people die; it seems absolutely necessary.

Later this month, the board of trustees will consider the faculty resolution to divest. For now though, classes were over. The seniors were celebrating the end of something. The next day, I left and left them to it.

Photo credit: John Phelan (CC / BY 3.0)