Steering past the apathy undertow
Amherst College students find ways to make politics a priority
By Rebecca Allen
Editor's Note: As part of our coverage of the 2004 election season, CNN.com is sending correspondents to the colleges where they studied to report on issues affecting today's young voters. In this edition, Rebecca Allen returns to her alma mater, Amherst College.
AMHERST, Massachusetts (CNN) -- Imagine you're attending a school in Massachusetts that U.S. News and World Report has ranked top liberal arts college nine times. This college is habitually called a 'bastion of liberalism.' So do you jump into the steady, leftward current of politics, or do the liberal status quo and academic pressure keep you moored to your books?
In fact, Amherst College claims quite a number of students, mostly on the left but a few on the right, who work hard to keep themselves -- and others -- politically afloat.
The student body can be quick to voice strong opinion. For instance, the visit of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia on February 10 to speak at Amherst set off a spate of controversy. The opinion pages of the student newspaper, The Amherst Student, bristled for weeks afterward with heated debate on topics such as Scalia's views on gay rights and the appropriately "liberal" way to handle discourse about unpopular topics. Likewise, the recent press on gay marriage generated a passionate debate within the letters to the Student.
Moreover, many student groups sponsor speakers, discussion series and weekend activism trips. Upcoming trips include two busloads of students slated to attend the March for Women's Lives in Washington, D.C., on April 25. The Amherst College Democrats are playing host to a continuing discussion series called "What's at Stake" to present why liberals take the positions they take on the relevant issues.
"In addition to being very liberal, our school does a really great job of fostering community service work and political activism," said junior Leora Maccabee, who is involved in several campus groups, including the Amherst College Democrats, the Feminist Alliance and MASSPIRG's Youth Vote program.
"In the career center, if you want to do an internship that actually works to help the world, they're really helpful about giving you money and funding to do nonprofit internships. So there is a real network of support on campus."
Popping the 'Amherst bubble'
However, it's not easy for every member of the student body to rise to the occasion.
"I think there's always a pressure to be paying attention, but there's not necessarily as much of a pressure to actually do things because you also want to do well in your classes more so than necessarily be involved in every organization on campus," said sophomore Scott Niichel, echoing a common sentiment. "And so I think it's kind of a Catch-22; kids here know more than your average student, maybe, at other colleges, but -- I don't think people are apathetic, but they're just not active."
Maccabee acknowledged that sentiment but elaborated on it.
"I think that the Amherst student mentality, just in terms of politics, is one of wanting to learn more about the issues, not necessarily to move with their feet, but rather with their minds." Maccabee said. "So you'll have students who'll love the read The New York Times and CNN, and will do that every single morning at breakfast, and then will go to speakers because they're interested in learning more.
Students study in the Robert Frost Library.
"They'll sign a petition -- they won't necessarily hit the streets.
"I think that there are some students on campus who live within an 'Amherst bubble' where they have their school, they have their sports and their academics, maybe even community service or religious obligations, but that all stays inside the Amherst community and they don't really leave," she said.
"But I think that a good proportion of the school does care about what's going on in the rest of the world, and many students are active in their little clusters and their issues. I don't think the majority of students live in the bubble."
"It's a difficulty that I embrace"
However, for the College Republicans, the imperative is to provide a conservative viewpoint to act as a counterweight to Amherst's leftward list. College Republicans Chairman Theodore Hertzberg stressed that the goals of his group are, "really to stimulate debate on campus. The goals are very campus-centered, has nothing really to do with campaigning in the area; we've come to realize that Amherst is a lost cause. But insofar as this is a place where minds are shaped and belief systems are generated, we want people to think hard, and that's really not going to happen in the absence of discussion.
"We want to try to make things relevant, which again is why we bring these speakers," Hertzberg said, "to get people's attention and grab them and say, 'look, other people think this is important. It goes beyond Amherst, so let's pay some attention.' And it really did get people talking, it got people thinking, in a way that they really wouldn't have without us."
When asked what it's like to swim against the political tide, Hertzberg said being conservative in a liberal environment can be tough, but rewarding.
"It's difficult, but it's a difficulty that I embrace. It's challenging that the professors are open about disagreeing with you, when your peers will be happy to join them in jumping on you during the class discussion.
"But I embrace it, I said, because I think that being a conservative at Amherst has made me a stronger thinker, it's made me a better writer, and I hope it's made me a better person."