AAS sabotages ideals of liberal arts education
By by Tal Liron
We never had any "student governments" in my Israeli schools. Democratic play was not pounded into us with the same desperation I see in U.S. schools, which is not to say that we weren't interested in politics. I remember heated disputes from as early as fourth grade. We knew which issues mattered, because we lived them. Israeli children are trained in observing suspicious people (Arab terrorists) and suspicious objects (bombs). For many American kids, especially if they are safe and white, the issues seem distant, and so there is something to be said for playing pretend democracy in the classroom. How else are children to experience the pain of controversy and the alienation of opposition, so crucial to the multiparty system? I'm not being sarcastic-games can be powerful teaching devices, but something vital is lost when pretense takes center stage. As it was for the stranded children in "Lord of the Flies," life imitates theater. AAS members claim not to be playing games anymore, but to be standing for "real" issues. However, taking oneself seriously does not guarantee authenticity. If the exercise were to teach that, then I would consider it successful, but students are perfecting their gaming skills instead of learning how to break away from the game. And so my main complaint against the AAS is that it sabotages the ideals of a liberal arts education. Yes, we should be trained in playing the political game, but a liberal arts education should aspire to see through it.

Society does not always play games, and even when it does, there may be real stakes involved. Not so much in this case. Our students are not "self-governing" in any sense of the term. The administration sets the rules. Although these are often described as "lenient," they profoundly define our stay here. The simple requirement that we work to get adequate grades in order to graduate puts a major strain on our time and severely restricts our physical behavior. There is even a police station on campus, which, again, as "lenient" as it is, is also here to keep a close eye on potentially rowdy students. But then, rules can and do change. Nevertheless, some students assume that the "student government" wields some power. The assumption is that because it is "elected" and "representative," the administration would more likely listen to this "voice of the students." In fact, a moderate-majority "student government" is a happy occasion for an administration that has much to lose from controversy. It has far more to fear from minority solidarity, with its radical edges and militant attitudes. A fuming Black Men's Group has more power to change this campus than 100 mild-mannered "senators," if it plays the real game cunningly enough. One "wild-eyed" black male face, the manifest image of America's eternal bogeymen, can get not only Fox, but all major TV networks on campus. If the BMG speaks, the administration will understand loud and clear, because power speaks in the voice of profit and loss, and, according to U.S. News, our administration is the most proficient conversant in the nation.

The AAS manages to appear authentic by putting on a show with the bells and whistles of state democracy. The central ritual is the election, where the community comes together to vote for the platforms and people they support and trust. Without elections, the AAS could not claim to "represent," which is its prime source of legitimacy. Never mind that most students do not vote (745 people voted in the last general election), or that even if they did, they could not be electing "representatives," because they do not yet know what "issues" will rise during the year. As showy as elections are, The Amherst Student may be even more crucial to maintaining the AAS aura of authenticity. In the guise of journalism, its editors have made it seem as if nothing is more important on campus than the AAS "senators" and their "constitutions." The Amherst Student has turned reality upside down. Is there really nothing better to report on the front page or to write about in the blandly moderate editorial? Perhaps there isn't, as the AAS is good at supplying flashy news items. For example, the diversity seat fiasco of last semester, glowing with the aura of principle. It did raise important, newsworthy sociopolitical issues, even on a national level, but was meaningless in that the AAS could do nothing towards resolving them. Whether representatives of "historically-silenced" people should be given positions of power or not is important, but the "diversity" seats are not where this is going to happen.

The solution seems obvious to me. Ask why people join the AAS, and use that authentic motivation towards authentic ends. Some members really want to contribute something to the campus, even to the five-college community. They should form a "Community Task Force" right now, and do what they can do to make things better. They will get much support, some indifference, and hardly any opposition, and in any case do not need the campus to vote them in. All warm bodies are welcome. Other members want training in politics, and so should form a mock government club, where they run on pretend platforms and ask the entire campus to vote for them. The issues could even be more serious than paper towels in dorm bathrooms. Fans of diplomacy should join the Debate Team. Those interested in policy have the splendid Foreign Policy Forum, and I see no reason why there can't be a domestic policy branch. No doubt, some AAS members are in for their résumés, a reason I find very respectable, but not one I am willing to sacrifice for to accommodate.

I also have a secondary complaint, which is not so important, but is nevertheless a source of frustration for other clubs on campus. The problem is that the AAS controls funding for most of them. That is where the game does harm. Of course, it is not a matter of life and death whether Prism is printed in color or not, but the difference is meaningful. Could you imagine your favorite club sport not being funded? Those who argue that the AAS should stay because it is harmless have not yet had their favorite activity's budget cut. Obviously, there's not enough to go around for everybody's agenda, but the way things work now, club allowance depends on whatever drama is currently being enacted at the AAS theater. The solution, again, is not radical. Who then will distribute the student activities budget? The administration, of course, with the help of input from students. Do you fear the loss of student "power?" Consider the Housing Office, that has been doing its work quietly and efficiently without students protesting that they feel the need to take matters into their own hands. See also our effective, fair and objective Campus Center dean, who also distributes considerable funds, and as far as I can see, gets far fewer complaints than the AAS. The administration was wise here not to leave everything up to student intrigue. Without the AAS, there would be even more accommodation to student opinion. Students can be part of a committee that makes decisions on how to allocate funds, in the same way they participate in much more important committees on campus, such as those on admission and selection of trustees.

I admit to having a personal, tertiary complaint, related to the above. I find it undignified to participate in an irrational social system. Even if the AAS did not corrupt our education or did not have power over money, I would still try to take it down, because it kindles my wrath against the disingenuous. I'm not opposed to rituals as such, but such pomp reminds me too much of the darkest moments of our history. I will not know peace until the last emblem parade marches by

I will work with others who are interested in this to get the AAS abolished as soon as possible. I have one more semester at Amherst, so let's get moving. Contact me if you want to join me in ASS-Amherst's Subversive Students. "I toppled student government at Amherst College"-now that's something nice to put on your résumé.

Issue 14, Submitted 2003-01-29 14:27:58