Answering Mister Rogers

“It’s a beautiful day in this neighborhood, a beautiful day for a neighbor. Would you be mine? Could you be mine? I’ve always wanted to have a neighbor just like you.”
Mister Rogers, from the theme song of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.

(Sam Rosenblum)–With the Office of Student Affairs’ coming proposal to divide campus into neighborhoods, the lyrics of the beloved Mister Rogers haunt us more than ever before. Now we must ask ourselves: Who do we want our neighbors to be? Do we want to imagine Amherst as a group of neighborhoods?

The word “neighbor” signifies a separation. We are on our side of the (white-picket) fence. You are on your side. The neighbor, named as such, is someone whose existence is inherently divided from ours. We may love or despise our neighbor; she can be a friend who acts graciously or an enemy who acts abhorrently. She merely exists near us due to our mutual property and law. At Amherst, we come here as neighbors to each other, living on this 1,000-acre “beautiful” campus after having signed the Amherst College Honor Code. In this sense, the neighbor is neutral. As neighbors, we can come together to discuss activism. We can have speakers from Rachel Maddow to Mosab Hassan Yousef to Joseph Massad speak to us. We can give an honorary degree to David Brooks while taking classes on income inequality and social justice. We can form social clubs and (gasp!) neighborhoods.

But, being in neighborhoods doesn’t tell us anything about the people who live near us. We can’t tell who we like and dislike. If we blur the line between neighbor and enemy, we begin to think that everyone outside of who we are is strange and suspicious. We “feel trapped,” in our friend groups, to use the language of the Summary of Results from Focus Groups on Loneliness, Belonging and Social Connection. We don’t judge each other’s choice of lifestyle and merely let anyone and everyone come join our neighborhood, even if they plunder and pillage what we love. (Further, we assume that everyone wants to join our neighborhood, even if perhaps they don’t want to.) The neighborhood becomes a hollow shell which is filled by any (ruling) morality, any (dominant) politics or any (hegemonic) lifestyle. And so we become lonely self-regulatory beings, unhealthily adapting to the sleep schedules, class loads and standards for success which are valued through the (upper-class, white, ableist, heteronormative, liberal, American) lifestyles of this campus and are supported by the bureaucratic forces of the (neighborly) administration.

To return to the proposal: The Strategic Planning Report divides campus into five neighborhoods, ones in which we will, for the most part, remain during our upperclass years. Three ideas have been proposed, all of which are centered on the assumption that each neighborhood should be a microcosmic representation of the campus at large. In one plan, we would be assigned to first-year dorms as we are now and then would be randomly placed in neighborhoods, with an accompanying room-draw for each. Another would involve each first-year dorm being associated with one neighborhood. In the last idea, we would disband the first-year quad and assign everyone randomly to neighborhoods when they matriculate.

All three force us to accept the (lack of) diversity which dominates campus life. As the aforementioned report on loneliness noted, “students felt the social options were limited and there weren’t many opportunities to meet people and socialize outside of parties.” The clash of different lifestyles on campus, somewhat diffused because we already self-segregate into neighborhoods with their own personalities (the Hill, the Triangle, the Thesis Dorms), may well intensify. Rather than see our part of campus a respite from the parts of campus which have a social life we don’t want, those parts of campus will become part of our neighborhood – the common geographical and legal area – in which we live.

Of course, another option, currently not under serious consideration, is to give students choice as to in which neighborhood they want to live. Each neighborhood could develop identities and values, which would motivate the choice of students wishing to join that neighborhood. (I jokingly suggested to a friend that we could base neighborhoods on substance of choice: beer, wine, hard alcohol, marijuana, nothing. Naturally that might pose a problem for those who engage in the use of multiple substances.) But, that would seem to divide us by our own preferences and negate the possibility of meeting new people, a value we claim is fundamental to the liberal arts.

And yes, we should be open to embracing new people, to becoming friends with our neighbors. Yet, to be able to make friends (and, consequently, enemies), we must know what values we embrace. If we do not know that, we embrace nothing at all – and let everyone be our neighbor, perpetuating the dominant lifestyle and politics of campus.

Only the unstable process of struggle will create what we should strive for: community. That notion of struggle is not mine originally. Our President wrote about it in 1986. In an article she coauthored with Chandra Mohanty, entitled “Feminist Politics: What’s Home Got to Do With It?,” she wrote:

Community, then, is the product of work, of struggle; it is inherently unstable, contextual; it has to be constantly reevaluated in relation to critical political priorities; and it is the product of interpretation, interpretation based on an attention to history.

Neighborhoods are coincidences of law and property, a defined accomplishment which we can say we’ve achieved (or, in our case, will achieve). Biddy suggests that community cannot be thought of as some moment we can reach. Community cannot be some future moment when we pat ourselves on the back. Community is rather a process which must continuously rupture itself, which must continuously be reconsidered in light of politics and history.

Perhaps, the reason we feel that Amherst’s community is still so white, heteropatriarchical, capitalist, liberal and athletics-dominated, is because its community never was ruptured; as a College, we never interpreted Amherst with “an attention to history.” The neighborhood called Amherst was undeniably redefined (for much-needed reasons) during Tony Marx’s tenure. But, I’m not convinced if the community of Amherst was changed as well.

What has happened over the past few years should tell us that students, faculty, and staff on this campus want to rupture the old Amherst. From damning criticisms of the ableist policies of the Administration to calls for the investigation of the role of athletics to biting sarcasm of campus, there have been many voices inviting us to rethink what we value. Perhaps the most significant break came about when activists mobilized to protest the rape culture on campus after Angie Epifano’s condemnation of the Administration. Biddy publicly acknowledged the institutional failures and since then has done a lot. Although I commend the work of earlier activists to struggle against sexual assault, today I believe that the language of crisis is used to dominate, employed by DKE to protest the Board’s decision last May (“the crisis of student rights”) and Biddy to justify Suzanne Coffey’s most recent appointment (“an urgent need for change”).

Developing communities with political priorities and social values within Amherst will require political work and struggle. We must look at the already-present communities on campus: athletic teams, the choruses, the affinity groups, the “shadow” Amherst, the thesis writers, the leftists – and figure out, with a critical attention to their histories and the history in which we find ourselves now – how to create a community at Amherst. That might require us to turn to history to reconsider admissions priorities, the open curriculum, the very architecture of the College, and the liberal arts itself. What should our athletic recruitment policies be? Should we be able to graduate immunized against certain themes? What types of buildings are for what purposes? What do the (neo)liberal arts mean today?

The answers to these questions can be given to us from the Administration as book-length essays in our inboxes. However, we can write those essays and send them to Converse. We, as students, should act in solidarity with each other against the bureaucracy which desires to manage us in apolitical neighborhoods and teach us the neoliberal arts, which invests in the demise of the Earth and our own homes and neighborhoods. If the inevitable is upon us – neighborhoods – perhaps our most useful politics is one which hijacks the proposal, reimagining what they could be like on our terms. We can answer Mister Rogers’s questions: “Could you be mine? Would you be mine?” We don’t need others to answer them for us.