Amherst College: America’s #2 liberal arts college, turnstile to the upper class, well-endowed, but above all, elite institution. The notion of “elite” seems to encompass Amherst’s reputation, from its low acceptance rate to its notorious academic rigor. Describing the college as elite isn’t exclusive to its academics—the same is often said of its social climate. The student body is often referred to as entitled, even snobby, flaunting their privilege and position in the face of other colleges and the community at large.
Amherst has historically produced countless accomplished alumni. As a result, the current student body is widely considered to be future executives, politicians, C.E.O.s, even tastemakers. But does their reputation precede them? Do the students truly embody such an elitist and egotistic depiction? Do they view themselves as such? Or is this representation merely an inaccurate caricature painted by the college’s historical affiliations? Perhaps the answer is more nuanced. Put simply, does the history and association of Amherst College paint an unrealistic picture of its student body?
To find out, I decided to hit the streets and interview the some of the campus community to find out how they view themselves, their role within the institution, and ask, “What makes the college elite, and would it be fair to call you an elitist?”
My plan was to set down my recorder, pose one question, and let each interviewee express their opinion with no interruption, without any interjection. I would transcribe their words just as they spoke them and draw my conclusions later.
I posed my question online, and after putting out a call on Amherst College’s Free and For Sale Facebook page, I got several responses. Of these, only a couple were willing to meet in person to talk.
The first student who agreed to meet with me was Jenna Talia‘20, a sophomore Art major with plans to declare Russian as a second major. Jenna was small, but had a big presence. She wore thick glasses and a tie-dyed crewneck sweater with large denim overalls, which were cuffed high enough to make the little cacti on her socks peek out over her boots in the middle of her shin. This was my prompt to Jenna: “Amherst is unquestionably regarded as elite. Do you think this definition extends to the social atmosphere? And if so, how do you view your role in the college’s social scene?” This was Jenna’s response:
“I think you could say a lot of things that aren’t pleasant about the social scene here. I’ve made some great friends but I also think some of the social dynamics at work breed some sort of toxicity. But is it elite? I’m not sure. I think saying that the social climate is ‘elite’ would imply that the students at Amherst aren’t just perceived as being better than others, but they actually are. So in that respect, I’d have to say no. There’s a lot of money here, but besides that, socially, it seems pretty normal to me. But I’m not sure about my role here. It was pretty easy to make friends, though. A couple of the girls I went to prep school with came here the year before me, so I already had a few friends when I got here. I don’t think I fit in so well in the larger ‘social scene.’ Any time I’ve gone to parties they feel like a stage for loud men to do and say whatever they want. I went to a party in Lipton a month or so ago and there was this guy in a Hawaiian shirt punching the wall. Like an hour later he and his friends were all shirtless in the hallway playing beer pong. If that’s the norm, I don’t think I fit in or even want to.”
While I appreciated Jenna’s willingness to share her opinions with me, parts of her response left a bad taste in my mouth. Jenna went to prep school and planned to complete two majors. She had even been invited to a party. I felt like her negative characterization of men referred to me, personally. What’s wrong with Hawaiian shirts? Was I asking the right person about this, or was she, herself, an elitist? I found her opinion of who should and shouldn’t be allowed at a social gathering to be exclusionary.
Next, I met with Wayne Kerr‘19, a junior English major. Wayne wore a blue cardigan with brown elbow patches and had on brown horn-rimmed glasses. He said he had a lot of reading to do and could only talk for a minute. I asked Wayne, “Is there an air of elitism in Amherst College’s social scene?” Wayne bit his lip, contemplating only for a few seconds, and responded:
“I feel like your question presupposes that this is the case. I think it’s important to note that you’re putting Amherst in a category of its own and framing it in such a way that places it above or at the very least outside the rest of the world. Are there social cliques here? Sure. Do a lot of the students come from a very privileged background? Absolutely. But does this make the college different than anywhere else? Not really. It’s just part of a larger whole. I think you’re kind of fishing for something here and you’re doing your best to make sure your article or whatever reads the way you want it to.”
It was a shame Wayne decided to end the interview on such a tasteless note. I’m not sure what Wayne meant by his answer, but I could read between the lines. He used a lot of big words and spoke calmly and confidently. His response was an example of something I’ve seen time and time again at Amherst—privileged students using their intellectual capital to systematically shut down the voices of those who challenge the college’s problematic social norms.
So if these two students accurately represent the opinions of the entire student body, what sorts of conclusions can I walk away from this with? It seems to me that elitism in the college’s social climate is alive and well. Is it possible that I misread the statements of these two students? I really don’t think so.