Friends

In writing to you, whoever you are, I find myself faced with a double responsibility, doubly impossible, to which I feel I am unable not to respond. On the one hand, I write to welcome the incoming class of Amherst College students, to address myself to people whom I do not know, who do not know me, and whom, sadly, I will likely never meet. (In greeting you, I wonder, should I also start saying my goodbyes? . . . And yet I doubt if I will ever really be gone).

On the other hand, I write in response to those who are no longer here—those whom I have known and loved dearly, those who are now absent from my life, but who, in a different time, held me in their arms. I write, that is to say, to my friends, my best of friends, my friends who have gone away and whose absences are painfully present every day, still, of my life. I will not here speak for my friends, even though they perhaps cannot (or will not) speak to you themselves.

I will not offer a recital, through citing and re-citing, of the types of awful things that have happened to others. A sad truth of college life is that some students will be abused by their institution, sometimes at the precise moment when they most need help. In the words of President Carolyn “Biddy” Martin, some students may find themselves “less well served by the College than [they] had a right to expect.” These stories are not mine to tell, and, frankly, they are far too numerous to even attempt.

Instead, I want to speak about the experiences (always in the plural) of those whom I call and have called friends, and thereby to speak to them about them—to tell them, perhaps indirectly, something of my love for them.

Amherst College has a problem with friendship. This problem has been the subject (under various titles) of countless discussions, committee meetings, articles, student protests, arguments, community dialogues, and phone calls to my mom over (at least) the past three years on campus. Recently, it’s been called by the name “loneliness.”

Amherst College is a profoundly lonely place. As a faculty member of the English department bluntly observed last spring: “We are ranked number one in overwhelmed, lonely, and sad.”[1] In 2014, three out of four students at Amherst reported feeling “very lonely” within the last year; one out of three reported feeling “very lonely” within the last two weeks—statistics that are remarkably higher than their corresponding national averages.[2] Campus life is dominated by what many have called the “culture of busyness”: a culture where packed schedules, constant work, over-commitment, manic pace, “unmanageable workloads,” and an obsessive focus on productivity are normalized, even rewarded, along with the negative effects of living under such conditions (anxiety, physical exhaustion, cognitive fatigue, apathy, guilt, isolation, etc.) This culture is compounded by a toxic work ethic that privileges academic obligations over self-care and intimacy, and which understands success and achievement as prizes won through competition. The combination of the two, as I’ll try to explore, contribute to an environment where learning and friendship are difficult to cultivate and sustain.

My aim here is to underscore the fundamental interrelation between friendship and the kind of education to which Amherst aspires, forming two sides of the dialectical claim made by the essay: No education without friendship; no friendship that is not also an education. I write as a friend, in the name of friendship, to incite a disruption of the forces within the academy that tell us we need to make a choice between our friends and our education (which is to say our academic merit)—or, more perversely, between our own well-being and the promise of successful futures. These are, already and forever, false dilemmas. One cannot make meaningful choices under coercion. My hope is to encourage resistance and active dissent from this sort of generalized academic competition, to refuse to play a game called education on any terms other than our own.

The education offered at colleges like Amherst is nothing if not demanding, but as students, we shouldn’t be afraid to be demanding of it in return. A demanding education ought to be one that listens to the demands of those it teaches.

“…Bound by friendship’s charter…”

There’s a song we like to sing at special occasions (convocations, commencements, inaugurations, etc.), called “A Hymn to Amherst.” Despite the stale address of the original lyrics’ to “Amherst men,” much of the song seems quite relevant to the campus today—especially the second and third verses:

In the minds of Amherst men true learning shall not wither,
Bright and vigorous as when their seeking brought them hither.
Those who teach and those who learn build a living city,
Where the minds of men return to Amherst, ever free.

In the hearts of Amherst men abides her greatest glory,
As the future lives again the old unchanging story.
Youth, and beauty, learning, faith, bound by friendship’s charter,
To the College we have made with eye and mind and heart.

Beautifully distilled in these words is a summary of the project of Amherst College—an articulation of its historical mission that bodies forth into the present, just as the “old unchanging story” of the College “lives again,” in the “future” of its future scholars. Amherst seeks to be a place where “those who teach and those who learn”—the two roles contained within the single word scholar—can collaborate in the work of building “a living city” of “true learning,” which will be forever a home to free minds.[3] The College is made by its students and teachers together through the practice of learning; its scholars, in turn, are bound to the College “by friendship’s charter.”

Two points I would like to pause over:

1. The notion of Amherst College as a “living city” suggests that the space of learning, the place where scholarship takes place, exists as and within the interactions between its resident scholars. We are home to, and at home in, each other’s thought.

2. If we are bound to the College “by friendship’s charter,” it is because the College itself is chartered by friendship. In this sense, Amherst can be thought of as a particular kind of charter school, one which is organized under the conditions of friendship, and which thus derives from friendship its rights and privileges.

I want to propose that learning, in the rigorous and thoughtful sense the word acquires in Amherst’s description of itself, is properly what takes place among friends, and in which friendship takes its place.

We find ourselves suddenly at the open door of an impasse, a site of internal conflict wherein we can glimpse what might be called the non-identity with itself of Amherst College. In imagining itself as a “living city,” Amherst describes a community united in and by a shared love of learning. Yet this vision does not correspond to the lived experience of Amherst’s campus. Students here widely report feeling as though “there isn’t an overarching sense of community at Amherst, but that community exists [only] within smaller groups;” they express a sense of isolation that is reinforced by the “stratification, cliquishness, and rigidity” of campus social life, and intensified by the academic workload, which “precludes time for self-care, developing friendships and maintaining good mental health.” It seems that the “living city” of free minds which Amherst so hopes to be, has not been built yet. Amherst College, like you, has not yet arrived; it remains still to come, just beyond the horizon—the College on the far side of the Hill.

How, then, should we proceed?

Befriending Thought

I’ve just said: “No education without friendship; no friendship that is not also an education.” This claim is neither new, nor particularly original. To the contrary: it’s the foundational assertion of Western philosophy, already avowed in the name the tradition gave itself. The word “philosophy,” which comes from the Ancient Greek word philosophía, describes the very sort of relationship to learning that Amherst College strives for—what we might call “the art of caring for the capacity for thought.”[4]

Philosophía(φιλοσοφία) is a combination of the adjective philos (φίλος), from philía (φιλία, commonly translated as “love, affection”) + sophía (σοφία, commonly translated as “knowledge,” “wisdom,” “learning”—but which, for our present purpopses, I believe could also be understood to mean “thinking”). Thus, philosophy, if we’re loyal to its large etymological inheritance, can be described, in its most basic terms, as the love of knowledge with learning. This preposition “with” lends some movement to our definition: by spreading it out across spatial and temporal dimensions, it implies that philosophy refers not to a fixed state or subject, but to an activity, or praxis. In other words, philosophy is something we do, namely, the act of loving learning. Philosophy is then not (just) the proper name of one particular academic discipline among others; nor (only) one curriculum or course of study offered by Amherst: it’s a general description of the project of liberal arts education.

(At risk of growing abusively pedantic on this point, I hope you’ll forgive me one further digression. In the interest of remaining loyal to this etymology, we should note that philosophy—which is to say,philía-sophía—is necessarily something we do together, as friends. The Greek word philía doesn’t mean “love” in the broad sense; rather, it refers to the specific kind of love found in friendship. English translations of classical philosophical texts, especially the works of Aristotle, have typically renderedphilía as “friendship” or “friendliness.”[5]Aristotle describes philía as “wishing for [others] what you believe to be good things, not for your own sake but for [theirs], and being inclined, so far as you can, to bring these things about.”[6] The love of philía is disinterested, even selfless; it loves the whole of the other as other, without claiming ownership or domination of it; it seeks to care for and cherish the other, to promote its well-being, in order to sustain the conditions of its possibility).[7]

Therefore, what we find suggested in the notion of philía-sophía could be loosely (but perhaps more loyally) translated as being a friend to thought.

The Amherst Work Ethic: I. Against Homework

Thoreau writes: “The really efficient laborer will be found not to crowd his day with work, but will saunter to his task surrounded by a wide halo of ease and leisure. There will be a wide margin for relaxation to his day. He is only earnest to secure the kernels of time, and does not exaggerate the value of the husk.… Those who work much do not work hard.”[8] This claim may seem completely ridiculous to many of you, especially those of you who are incoming students—after all, no one gets admitted to a college as exclusive as Amherst, and certainly nobody remains enrolled at one, without some degree of hard work. But I think there exists a tendency on this campus, one I’ve both observed and participated in, to conflate the amount of time spent “doing work” (a nebulous phrase which, in my opinion, should be primarily the concern of physics) with the rigor and quality of work. In other words, we tend to confuse “working much” with “working hard,” to the extent that these two notions become largely synonymous, and as a result, we mistake (over) investments of time and energy as the proper criteria by which to evaluate not only our academic work, but ourselves as students. This lends a distinctly self-destructive character to what has been called the “culture of busyness” at Amherst, the harmful effects of which bolster the profound loneliness of our campus.

The Strategic Plan for Amherst College, published in June 2015, observes that one the dangers of this culture of busyness is that it “can exhaust students, faculty, and staff alike, while leaving too little time for the reflection and unhurried conversation that cement learning and friendship.” Such a culture contributes to the problem of loneliness in its “combination of academic demands and students’ high levels of motivation for excellence in all they do,” which “lead[s] too often to isolation rather than social interaction and community.” Or, as Brian Zayatz ’18 writes in his response to the Plan, “many students (myself included) feel like zombies going through the motions of an education, synthesizing little.” I would add that this culture of busyness is also a culture ofcompetitivity—that is, a culture that organizes virtually all interactions between its members on the principle of competition.

Perhaps this is what the authors of the Plan mean to suggest by the tedious and equivocal phrase “high levels of motivation for excellence in all they do.” I’ll come back to the sinister function of competitivity in a moment, but first I want to pause over and consider this phrase. I read it as deeply symptomatic of the Plan’s tendency to mislocate the cause of problems which it otherwise accurately describes. Brian’s criticism on this point is apt; he notes that the strategy proposal for addressing the culture of busyness “misses the mark” by “focus[ing] on improving existing resources rather than locating the source of the problem.” (His argument in favor of “a lighter workload” also has a common spirit with this present essay.) The Plan, in other words, properly identifies “busyness” as a prevalent and harmful issue on campus, but misrecognizes what produces it: according to its gloss on the issue, students suffer in isolation from a mixture of “academic demands” (the scope and intensity of which go unexamined) and our “high levels of motivation” for “excellence” in “all [we] do.”

In this sentence responsibility is subtly displaced, through the proliferation of all the predicatives and modifiers that accumulate around the grammatical subject “students,” onto us: our “high levels of motivation for excellence” appear as essential traits, not behavioral responses to expectations attached to convention or context. Further, our exorbitant motivation is “for excellence” as auniversal; it’s posited as a disposition that manifests “in all [we] do,” and thus seems to be epiphenomenal to (though perhaps exacerbated by) the unspecified “academic demands” imposed on us by faculty, courses, and departments. However, by describing students in these terms—in speaking of our “high levels of motivation for excellence in all [we] do”—does this not carry a command, an injunction, a tacit expectation? Is this perhaps one of the ways that we, as Amherst students, are told what it means to be an “Amherst student”? Because, as Brian urges us to remember: “It is not our motivation that is the problem; it is the unrealistic expectations that we feel bound to meet.” And make no mistake—these expectations are, at best, unrealistic. At worst, and more often, they are impossible, especially for incoming students.

Early last October, members of the class of 2018—one month into their first semester at Amherst—received an email from Dean of New Students Rick López ‘93, asking: “Are you putting in enough time?” According to Dean López, “enough time” would be 40 hours of study each week, spending an average of 10 hours working for each course. (In terms of labor, this is the same number of hours that constitute full-time employment). A follow-up email clarified that students should complete between 4 and 8 hours of homework each day, while also emphasizing the importance of daily exercise and getting enough sleep (“at least 8 hours”). Madeline Ruoff ’18 helps to put these demands into perspective: she estimates that first-year students typically spend 5 hours a day in class or at a job; in addition, they’re expected to do 6 hours of homework, 1 hour of physical exercise, and get 8 hours of sleep. If we set aside 1 hour in the morning to shower and prepare for the day, a half-hour each to eat breakfast and lunch, 1 hour for dinner, and an hour break from studying, we’ve filled the schedule for our entire day, with “no time left for anything non-academic”—no room for lengthy showers or phone calls home; no room for exploring ideas; no room for conversation; no room, in other words, for play. No time for unstructured time.

I agree with Madeline’s conclusion that “the implication of these emails is that a social life is unnecessary.” This runs contrary to the messaging put forth by “the administration…in its brochures, its tours, its welcome speeches”; indeed, it seems to contradict the very purpose of a residential liberal arts college: to engage students in a holistic learning, to trouble the assumption that “learning” refers predominately to what one does inside of the classroom. Or, as President Martin said in her Convocation Address to my class, “to let your leisure time be inflected by your intellectual development.” She goes on to assert, against the tendency on campus (as elsewhere) to “oppose play to work,” that “satisfying play is not the absence of work… [and] work is neither successful nor satisfying if it lacks experimentation, whimsy and fun.” And yet, this sort of “satisfying play” appears to be as impossible to fulfill as the expectations of the “academic demands” the College places on us—and mutually opposed.

The Amherst Work Ethic: II. Against Competition

I’m drawn to another site of opposition, one that obtains in the way our work as students is ultimately assessed and rewarded by the College. Amherst College awards Latin honors to graduating seniors (who completed a thesis or comparable project) primarily on the basis of class rank, rather than on a range of GPAs or on the quality of our scholarship. For example, students are eligible for the degreessumma cum laude and magna cum laude (the highest and second-highest of three levels of distinction, respectively) if they have “a minimum overall grade point average in the top 25% of their class.” Insofar as Amherst students are characterized by “high levels of motivation for excellence in all [we] do”—which I think is just a circuitous way of saying “a desire to be the best”—we are placed in direct competition with every other person in our graduating year. (This analysis, of course, only applies to students who decide to write senior theses—a choice that, on average, less than half of all seniors make.[9] More remains to be said about the normalization of thesis-writing and the harmful effects of that narrative on the community, but I do not have enough space here to do it justice). Since individual class rank is determined in reference to the GPAs of all members of a class, students are disincentivized from anything that might give an advantage to their peers: under these conditions, friendship becomes a potential risk to one’s own achievement, and a conflict of interest for one’s investment of time and energy.

There is a mechanism of control at work here, in what has been called the “Amherst work ethic,” that bears likeness to something the French philosopher Michel Foucault calls “governmentality“—namely, the practice of controlling by seeming not to control; that is, governing through discrete and indirect exertions of force. Governmentality purports a belief in the subject’s right to self-governance, choice, and self-determination in her authority over herself, though the field has been delimited in advance. The available options from which she can choose, in other words, are predetermined by an external authority, which subtly incentivizes certain options while cautioning against others by attaching them to values (like “success” and “personal responsibility”), virtues (like “hard work”), rewards (whether imagined, like prestige, or material, like a 4.0 or the words “summa cum laude”), and dangers (like failure, embarrassment, ostracism, disappointing others, the loss of a promising future, etc.). The end result is that the subject, in asserting her authority over herself, winds up governing herself according to the wishes of this external power, while genuinely believing in her own freedom, that her decisions belong to her and her alone.[10]

This is why, perhaps, students are willing to consent to work in an environment that perpetually makes unreasonable and impossible demands of them and of their time, one that tacitly asks them to forego the most basic practices of self-care (sleep, nourishment, contact with others, play, rest, etc.) in favor of higher performance and greater success.

“The Liberal Arts Must Be Defended”

What are the connections between the toxic work ethic under which we labor by and against ourselves and our common loneliness? Is it the case that we actually are too busy for friendship? Or perhaps we at least believe we’re too busy. Friendship is something that requires effort and energy and, given the threshold of total exhaustion typical on this campus, it’s possible that friendship appears as simply more work to be done. Friendship, in other words, might become another unreasonable expectation among many. So we remain alone, longing for some sense of belonging to and with others that goes deeper than “connection,” but resigning ourselves to the melancholy truth that—at this time, under these circumstances—friendship is perhaps an unachievable wish. There are always other, more pressing assignments, which, unlike friendship, have imminent deadlines.

This has destructive consequences—not only for student life at Amherst, but for the “lives of consequence” the College claims are embodied in its graduates. A community of scholars organized by a principle of competition, regardless of its avowed love of learning, impoverishes friendship (philía) and knowledge (sophía) alike. When the love of knowledge is decoupled from and made to run against the love of friends, learning and friendship become opposites, and a pure culture of misology ensues. The end result for Amherst will be, and perhaps is already now becoming, a form of scholarship that is industrial and compulsively unthinking in character: a rehearsed and mechanical pursuit of academic recognition, one that disincentivizes creativity and critical self-reflection while celebrating the ritualistic repetition of its own traditions.

In writing to you, my intent has not been to elevate friendship to the level of categorical imperative. Rather I’ve attempted to amplify a silence—perhaps a collection of “moments of silence”—in order to call attention to why friendship matters for learning, and to identify the necessary conditions for the possibility of friendship such that we may become friends, and how they’re currently being blocked. I conclude, therefore, not by proposing answers or solutions, but instead offering an invitation to startasking bigger (and better) questions—to think otherwise about thinking otherwise.

If there is one single piece of information I hope can be retrieved from this essay, it’s this: it is okay to prioritize yourself and those whom you love over your schoolwork. Not only okay, but essential for survival and, as I’ve tried to show, for the project of learning. No education without friendship; “no friendship without some philosophía, no philosophía without philía.[11]

We would be required, then, to learn to be friends as much as to be friends to learning: this is the dialectic that holds the blueprints for Amherst’s “living city.” No way to know when it will arrive, or if it’s even certain to happen. All we can know is that Amherst will only be built in the future by steps taken in the present: it can only arrive as a consequence of the choices we make, we are making, right at the moment where we are. Our actions, our philosophy alone can create the conditions in which Amherst College might be possible. Infinite responsibility, therefore, for any of us who love thought and light as much as Amherst does; but also, infinite cause for hope.

Postscript: FriendshipTo Follow

One afternoon, a week or so ago, I was writing (or trying to write) this essay, when I received an email. It was sent by a former classmate of mine, another recent graduate, someone I’d never spoken to in person, but who had seemed to be consistently on the periphery of my social circles. (According to Facebook, we have 117 mutual friends!) The email began with a link to a recent n+1 article titled “Gay as in Happy,” asking if I had read it yet (I hadn’t); suggesting enthusiastically “maybe [I’ll] like it!” (I did, quite a bit); and mentioning that, for some reason, the student had “thought specifically of [me] in reading [it],” and would love to discuss it. This was already enough to catch me off-guard—the email, both its gesture and tone, was remarkable for its sincerity and its earnest expression of interest. But what really awed me was the paragraph that followed:

Also, I don’t really know you at all, but I feel like perhaps we could be friends! I recognize this is an awkward way of doing it.

I was astonished, delighted, and, in an entirely different register, quite perplexed. How could I continue to decry the universal paucity of friendship at Amherst, when this former classmate had demonstrated something so entirely otherwise to be the case? How could I speak so determinatively about the conditions necessary for friendship to become possible, when the possibility of a new friend had just arrived so candidly, so unexpectedly, wholly without condition, in the form of this tender request? The email had interrupted my writing for the afternoon, but managed to disrupt my thinking in the best possible way.

Two final points, then, by way of a conclusion:

1. This essay goes to great length to support the first half of its dialectical argument (“No education without friendship”), but I feel that it risks neglecting the second half. The arrival of this email emphasizes, in an extraordinary performance, the continuing truth of the latter part of the formulation: there is, indeed, “no friendship that is not also an education.” The knowledge I stand to learn from it is perhaps that sometimes, the condition necessary for friendship’s possibility is to simply ask for it. Not by passive expressions of the wish for there to be friends; not by 5300-word critical reflections on collective experiences of loneliness; not by having purchase or gaining membership in any particular constructed student group (sports teams, illegitimate fraternities, “social clubs,” a cappella troupe, whatever)—but by addressing oneself directly to another actual person, saying: “I feel like perhaps we could be friends!” See how it goes.

2. Friendship, particularly the opening of friendship in the form of a literal “friend request” such as I’ve described, always entails some responsibility. Namely, in this case, it’s the responsibility of a response. Two weeks now have passed since I received that email, and I have not yet replied to it. This is rather shameful on my part, and I hope the author of the message will accept my apologies. If you happen to read this: consider it my initial, preliminary response, the one preceding my reply. There will, of course, be more to follow, and I ought not to defer any longer.


Notes:

This essay was originally written for the 2015 Amherst College Disorientation Guide. An earlier version of it was published in the online edition of the Guide.

[1] The quote comes from Professor Judith Frank, while speaking at an open meeting with the Board of Trustees held on 12 May 2014. Quoted in ACVInvestigates, “Liveblogging Trustees’ Meeting,” ACVoice, 5/12/14.

[2] According to the 2014 National College Health Assessment (NCHA), conducted at Amherst in the spring of 2014, 76% of students indicated they had felt “very lonely” within the last year, compared to the NCHA’s reported national average of 56%. Additionally, 33% of students responded that they had felt “very lonely” within the last two weeks. See Mental Health and Wellness Committee, “Summary of Results from Focus Groups On Loneliness, Belonging and Social Connection,” March 2015.

[3] “Scholar” actually signifies (at least) three senses, the third of which is particularly salient to scholars at Amherst: 1. “a learned or erudite person, especially one who has profound knowledge of a particular subject”; 2. “a student; pupil”; 3. “a student who has been awarded a scholarship.”

[4] This phrase is on loan from Kristeva’s description of psychoanalysis, as theorized in the work of British psychoanalyst Melanie Klein. See Julia Kristeva, Melanie Klein, 14.

[5] I should note that the term philía is, to a large extent, untranslatable into English: while the term “love” is too general to capture the specific quality of philia, “friendship” risks being too narrow and reductive. Against this reduction, Martha Nussbaum chooses to leave philía untranslated in her explication of Aristotle; she explains:

[Philia] is extensionally wider than friendship – it takes in family relations, the relation between husband and wife, and erotic relationships, as well as what we would call ‘friendship.’ It is also, frequently, affectively stronger: it is a requirement of philia that the partners should be linked by affectionate feeling; and, as we see, philia includes the very strongest and most intimate of our affective ties. We can say [in English] that two people are ‘just friends’; no such thing could be said with philia. (328n.)

My decision to use the language of “friend” and “friendship” was made with Nussbaum’s critique in mind, but in order to speak in the same terms as Hannah Arendt’s reading of philía in Socrates and Aristotle, which greatly influenced my own argument. For further discussion, see Martha C. Nussbaum, The Fragility of Goodness, 354–365.

[6] Aristotle, Rhetoric, 1380b36–1381a3.

See also Book 9, Chapter 4 of Nichomachean Ethics, in which is offered the following definition of what constitutes a friend:

For people set down as a friend someone who wishes for and
does things that are (or appear to be) good, for the other person’s sake, or as someone who wishes for his friend, for the friend’s own sake, to exist and to live…. Some also set down as 
a friend someone who goes through life together with another and who chooses the same things as he does, or who shares in sufferings and joys with his friend. (1166a1–10).

[7] Cf. Nussbaum, The Fragility of Goodness, 356.

[8] Henry David Thoreau, The Journal, 26.

[9] Number of senior theses in comparison to number of students: 2012 – 217/441 (49%); 2013 – 186/464 (40%); 2014 – 195/474 (41%); 2015 – 185/470 (39%). The number of theses in a given year do not necessarily correspond to the number of thesis-writers; some students who are double-majors choose to write two theses (e.g. in 2015, three students wrote two theses each).

[10] Foucault takes up the concept of governmentality at a number of different points throughout his lectures at the Collège de France, from 1970 until his death. Here I’ve drawn largely from the elaboration of governmentality put forth in his 1978–1979 course on biopolitics.  See Michel Foucault, The Birth of Biopolitics, 7, 10–12. One possible definition of governmentality is, in Foucault’s usefully concise formulation, “the way in which one conducts the conduct of men” (186).

[11] Jacques Derrida, Politics of Friendship (trans. George Collins), 146.


Works Cited & Consulted

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Aristotle. Rhetoric. Translated by W. Rhys Roberts. New York: Modern Library, 1954. Reprint.

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