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Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Lives of Consequence: Fame? Fortune? Professional achievement? Morality?

My alma mater Amherst College is in the midst of a major fund-raising drive. Let me begin by stating that I support the cause. If you wish to contribute to Amherst, thank you. But, I shall not be contributing to Amherst this year, but rather to Plymouth State University, whose endowment is on the order of $4 million vs. Amherst College's $1.66 billion.

I am also most interested in the implications of Amherst's fund-raising slogan, "Lives of Consequence." Here is an excerpt from an open letter to the president of Amherst College written by two members of the Class of 1970, Bill Eisen and Rob Duboff:

"Dear President Marx;

We thank you, the faculty, the trustees and staff for having come to Boston recently to meet with us. All of you were extremely generous with your time, and the courses we attended as part of the program were stimulating and worthwhile.

While we remain grateful for this marvelous reconnection with our Amherst education, we wish to offer a different point of view from what we heard in Boston, and from what we have been reading (and hearing) from the College through the mail and on our web site. We have chosen the format of this “open letter” for our reply, because we hope that our interest might start an open dialogue within our College community.

Most specifically, we are concerned that Amherst now is urging its students to pursue “Lives of Consequence,” to the exclusion of other possibilities and goals for their lives. Perhaps “exclusion” is not what the College has intended; but the plain inference is that if one does not achieve a Life of Consequence, one has failed. This failure is profound, for a student has failed not only himself or herself, but Amherst and society, as well.

... We are concerned that Amherst may be defining what constitutes a “Life of Consequence” too narrowly, and that this may have a deleterious effect on the present students.

Let us be concrete. When you and the other Board members addressed us in Boston, you made brief reference to the stay-at-home mom, and the person who was a good neighbor----but their pictures certainly were not on the screen in the marketing video that was shown. Instead, we saw only movers-and-shakers among the vast alumni population; people who had achieved wealth and/or fame.

The message on the screen was that Lives of Consequence equals Lives of Public Accomplishment. With this as our goal, students are likely to fail; and alas, Amherst will fail in its still more important goal: to prepare its students for life.

On the College’s web site, you open your speech as follows: “The power of Amherst, the power of a great liberal arts education has…that each individual who goes on to become a leader in society can have a great impact on the lives of others; to have lives of consequence that change the possibilities for the future…that’s why Amherst has been so essential over its history and why it’s even more essential at this point going forward.”

Granted, Amherst has a responsibility, because of its privilege, to encourage its students to contribute to society, to give more than they receive----but what about the goal always to make enough time for the people who depend upon us most, whether they be partners, children, parents or friends? Shouldn’t these goals be essential to a Life of Consequence? You never even mention these aspects of a moral life.

Even at a place as grand as Amherst, only a few of us ever will have the opportunity to be leaders; to accomplish our goals, to have the public impact that we may desire. Why make it seem a failure for the many who will not quite make it? Why key the Amherst experience to this?

We believe that our College should wish something better for its students than Lives of Consequence, as presently defined. This goal may be harder to achieve, yet is clearly within the grasp of every student: A moral life. A life of always “trying to do the right thing.” A life of having the courage and wisdom
to reject our narcissistic instincts and deliberately choose not to try to have an impact on society if we realize it is more important to come home for dinner every night, for the benefit of our loved ones who have particular needs. Have we failed if we compromise our dreams, to earn a buck to secure our children’s future?"

The letter goes on to suggest not a change of the slogan, "Lives of Consequence," but a public redefinition by Amherst College of such a life.

Bravo, gentlemen! And, thank you for your courage and eloquence.

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