Events

Friday, October 19, 2012

History: It's What's For Lunch (new Amherst History Museum lunchtime lecture series)

As last spring: lame name, decent content. The Amherst Historical Society and Museum (full disclosure: I am a member of the Board) offers a lecture series on topics of local and other historical interest. All talks take place in the Museum (Strong House, 67Amity Street, Amherst).

From the official announcement:

The Amherst History Museum presents “History Bites”, a brown bag lecture series at the Simeon Strong House, 67 Amity Street.

Short, informative and entertaining–these lunchtime presentations will provide just the break you need. These lectures are scheduled every other Friday at 12:15 throughout the fall. Mark your calendars for these upcoming “History Bites” presentations:

  • Sept. 21, 2012 – James Freeman: “Clarence Hawkes (1869-1954), the Most Widely Read Author from the Pioneer Valley” 
  • Oct. 5, 2012 – Marla Miller: “My Part Alone: The World of Hatfield’s Rebecca Dickinson” 
  • Oct. 19, 2012 – Alice Nash: “Thinking About ‘Indian Deeds’ in Local History” 
  • Nov. 2, 2012 – Cliff McCarthy: “The Amherst Area and the California Gold Rush” 
  • Nov. 16, 2012 – Else Hambleton: “The Puritans and Sex” 
  • Nov. 30, 2012 – Arthur Kinney: “Taking Renaissance Plays on the Road” 
Join us with your lunch in hand. We will provide coffee, tea or cider for you as you listen to the presentations. The 30-minute program will begin promptly at 12:15 with seating and beverages ready just before noon. The lectures are free and everyone is welcome to attend. 

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Weird Laws? Compared With What?


Fall Town Meeting is just over a month away.

Although we here in Amherst love to complain about the complexities of our laws and political process (how often do we hear that this or that proposed measure is "too difficult to understand"?), well, things could always be worse.

Just consider these bizarre Scottish laws:
  • In Scotland, it is illegal for a boy under the age of 10 to see a naked mannequin
  • In Scotland the law obliges citizens to allow whoever knocks on their door to use their toilet
  • The head of any dead whale found on the Scottish coast automatically becomes the property of the king, and the tail of the queen
  • Any Scotsman found to be wearing underwear beneath his kilt can be fined two cans of beer
  • It is illegal in Scotland to be drunk and in charge of a cow
  • In York, it is legal to murder a Scotsman within the ancient city walls, but only if he is carrying a bow and arrow
  • In Carlisle, any Scot found wandering around may be whipped or jailed
Curious to know the backstory? Read the rest.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Small Beer? Student Culture of Yore

As a footnote to the recent posts on student culture and problem drinking culture, this account by Elijah Kellogg of commencement day in the early years of Bowdoin College, which opened its doors to students in 1802:
With dignified officials, sober matrons, gay belles and their beaux came also horse jockeys, wrestlers, snake charmers, gamblers, and vendors of every sort. The college yard was dotted with booths, where were sold ginger-bread, pies, eggnog, long cigars, beers small, and alas! too often for the good order,  beers large. While seniors were discussing Immortality, jockeys outside were driving sharp trades and over-convivial visitors were enjoying fist fights.
— cited in Herbert G. Jones, The Amazing Mr. Longfellow: Little Known Facts About a Well-Known Poet (Portland, ME: The Longfellow Press, 1957), 19
In other words, the proverbial good time was had by all, but not all were happy about it.

Monday, October 15, 2012

My Two Cents' Worth for Columbus Day. A Postage Stamp as Metaphor


12 October

This year, the United States celebrated the legal Columbus Day (Monday) holiday on October 8, but the historical date of the holiday—corresponding to the explorer's first sighting of land in the "New World"—occurred on October 12, an occasion first marked in 1792.



[enlarge image]

It's the familiar Romantic scene from old engravings and textbooks (perhaps no longer familiar to the current generation), based on the 1847 "Landing of Columbus" in the US Capitol by John Vanderlyn: European arrivistes (illegal immigrants?) variously grateful or militant, kneel or exult, as indigenous Caribbean Americans (left foreground; background) are torn between cowering and curiosity. And the small crosses on the banners in the center have vanished (though the coat of arms on Columbus's remains). Whether reflecting the pragmatic needs of the engraver's burin or some more deliberate decision, the resultant horizontal lines at least implicitly suggest the flag of the new American nation.

This postage stamp, retrieved from my childhood collection, has had a rough time of things since it was first issued. Thankfully, though, what is a bane to the collector can be grist for the mill of the cultural historian. As if an omen, a seemingly unnecessary and heavy, cloud-like blot of ink from the cancellation (could the letters at left represent Springfield, betokening my future New England life?) neatly and nearly obliterates the figure of the heroic explorer. At some point (presumably since then), the stamp acquired a crease and tear that cut him in half and seem, like a lightning bolt, to pierce his vitals. Today, that stamp looks fussy and outdated, in more ways than one.

It could all be a metaphor for the fate of poor Cristoforo Colombo himself since that apogee of his reputation.

Pity him—and the hapless Italian-Americans, too. Already back at the time of the great Columbian Exposition of 1893, the assault of the Scandinavian-Americans from my native Midwest had begun, for the latter provocatively sailed a replica Viking ship up to the fairgrounds in Chicago. (In our day, it poses a challenging problem of historic preservation. 1, 2.) 75 years later, as chance would have it, Leif Erikson had earned his own postage stamp, after it became clear that Columbus had not been the first European to reach the New World. (And he in any case of course never set foot on the North American continent, whose existence he was not even aware of.)


For a while, the theory that Columbus was a Jew was in vogue in some circles, but by the time the 500th anniversary of his first voyage rolled around, in 1992, when he was increasingly associated only with conquest, forced conversion, enslavement and genocide, rather than "discovery" and heroism, no one in America of any ethnicity seemed particularly eager to claim him. He had become, in the phrase just coming (back) into vogue in that decade, "politically incorrect." (1, 2, 3, 4)

from my office door: humorous take on Columbus as villain, 1992
Anyway, as Newsweek noted in its coverage of the non-celebration in that anniversary year, the fellow who popularized the original "Jewish" theory was a Spanish fascist of the Franco era, and among the "evidence" he cited was Columbus's love of gold. Nuff said. A far more sophisticated variant of that theory (which has its own more respectable antecedents) based on putative further evidence has resurfaced in the last few years, but emphasizing Columbus's alleged desire to find a refuge for "his" persecuted "people," and thus giving his ventures a political-moral motive in keeping with modern sensibilities rather than emphasizing the traditional "discovery" in the service of empire. (e.g. 1, 2, 3)..

It is always fascinating to sit on the elevated shores of historical scholarship and watch the shifting tides of opinion ebb and flow. As I teach my students, history, like literary criticism, is a science of evolving interpretation. And because so many individuals and communities have a stake in it, the historical discipline tells us as much about ourselves as about the past. History, as we nowadays understand it, is about scholarship (as objective as we can make it, though recognizing the unavoidable limits of our necessarily limited perspectives), but also about public consciousness and the inevitable appropriation of the past for present purposes. Thus the rise of fashionable "memory" studies alongside history as such. Not surprisingly, Columbus looked very different to the Americans of 1492, 1792, 1892, and 1992.

Regardless of political persuasion, most historians nowadays would agree: whereas previous generations tended to venerate Columbus by accentuating the "modern" as well as the positive (and we do not wish to take away from his navigational skill and courage), we nowadays tend to see him (like some other figures of that "Renaissance"—or as we more commonly say in the profession—"early modern era") as more complex: more medieval and more transitional, less "modern": less the bold rationalist admiral of the ocean sea, and more the mystic and crusader.

I'll list just one example from this year's more substantive political controversies:

Over at Good, in "Rethinking Columbus: Toward a True People's History, Bill Bigelow explains:
This past January, almost exactly 20 years after its publication, Tucson schools banned the book I co-edited with Bob Peterson, Rethinking Columbus. It was one of a number of books adopted by Tucson's celebrated Mexican American Studies program—a program long targeted by conservative Arizona politicians.

The school district sought to crush the Mexican American Studies program; our book itself was not the target, it just got caught in the crushing. Nonetheless, Tucson's—and Arizona's—attack on Mexican American Studies and Rethinking Columbus shares a common root: the attempt to silence stories that unsettle today’s unequal power arrangements.
For years, I opened my 11th grade U.S. history classes by asking students, "What's the name of that guy they say discovered America?" A few students might object to the word "discover," but they all knew the fellow I was talking about. "Christopher Columbus!" several called out in unison.

"Right. So who did he find when he came here?" I asked. Usually, a few students would say "Indians," but I asked them to be specific: "Which nationality? What are their names?"

Silence.

In more than 30 years of teaching U.S. history and guest teaching in others' classes, I've never had a single student say "Taínos." So I ask them to think about that fact. "How do we explain that? We all know the name of the man who came here from Europe, but none of us knows the name of the people who were here first—and there were hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of them. Why haven't you heard of them?"

This ignorance is an artifact of historical silencing—rendering invisible the lives and stories of entire peoples. It's what educators began addressing in earnest 20 years ago, during plans for the 500th anniversary of Columbus's arrival in the Americas, which at the time the Chicago Tribune boasted would be "the most stupendous international celebration in the history of notable celebrations." Native American and social justice activists, along with educators of conscience, pledged to interrupt the festivities.

In an interview with Barbara Miner, included in Rethinking Columbus, Suzan Shown Harjo of the Morning Star Institute, who is Creek and Cheyenne, said: "As Native American peoples in this red quarter of Mother Earth, we have no reason to celebrate an invasion that caused the demise of so many of our people, and is still causing destruction today." After all, Columbus did not merely "discover," he took over. He kidnapped Taínos, enslaved them—"Let us in the name of the Holy Trinity go on sending all the slaves that can be sold," Columbus wrote—and "punished" them by ordering that their hands be cut off or that they be chased down by vicious attack dogs, if they failed to deliver the quota of gold that Columbus demanded. One eyewitness accompanying Columbus wrote that it "did them great damage, for a dog is the equal of 10 men against the Indians."
(Arizona's policies in areas ranging from border enforcement to education have raised charges of bias against legal immigrants and other members of the Latino@ population. The Amherst Select Board in 2010 approved a boycott of Arizona based on its in our view discriminatory immigration law.)

As in past years, students at Hampshire College vented their rage against Columbus by reducing the above argument to provocative but ultimately simplistic (and of course harmless) denunciations:

Fuck Columbus, Celebrate Indigenous Resistance
Columbus Slavery
Columbus Genocide
(and once more, for good measure) Fuck Columbus, Celebrate Indigenous Resistance
Bill Bigelow's point is well taken, but the reductionist chalk slogans on sidewalks cannot capture the complexity of either his critique or Columbus's achievement and legacy, which were necessarily more mixed and nuanced. The so-called "discovery" was fraught with moral shortcomings and consequences, short-term and long-term, of which we are nowadays all too aware. At the same time, it was of epochal significance on a historical, cultural, and even biological level. It is not simple to separate the two categories.

Already back in the 1970s, for example, in the great novel, Terra Nostra, the celebrated Mexican author and diplomat Carlos Fuentes argued that Latin America could not be made whole until it fully acknowledged its Spanish as well as indigenous roots: or, as he put it, erected a monument to Cortes as well as Montezuma. He and Octavio Paz managed, controversially, to come together on that general point on the occasion of the 1992 anniversary.

History may indeed be in many ways (to cite Gibbon paraphrasing Voltaire) "the register of the crimes, follies, and misfortunes of mankind," but to reduce it to that would be to render it one-dimensional.

A three-dimensional rendering of Columbus from the heyday of his popularity was also in the news on the occasion of the holiday. Whereas the artist Christo calls new attention to familiar sights by "wrapping" them, Japanese artist Tatzu Nishi achieves a similar effect by "fabricating domestic environments around artworks and public monuments." His latest project, sponsored by the Public Art Fund: construction of a living room around the 1892 Gaetano Russo statue of the explorer that, atop a pillar, dominates New York's Columbus Circle.




Visitors who ascend the scaffolding enclosing the monument can thus behold it at eye-level rather than from 70 feet below. (The scaffolding also serves a practical purpose: when the exhibit closes, conservation of the monument, at a cost of one million dollars, will begin.) Nishi's purpose, he said, involved art, as such, rather than history and politics:
"It's not my intention to say something about Columbus; rather, I want to change the sculpture from public sculpture into a completely different thing," Nishi said.
Others saw it differently. I was surprised (though perhaps I should not have been) to see that an Italian-American organization, rather than applauding the attention (not to mention, the originality of the artistic conception), chose to criticize the installation:
Rosario Iaconis, chairman of the Italic Institute of America, commented on the project before it opened.

"Columbus was a man of the Renaissance, an exemplar of that civilization. This, is foolishness. This is not art. If it's his particular vision, it's a skewed vision, so I, again with due respect to Mr. Nishi, I think he stumbled on his project. 
He was not alone:
“Why did they have to choose such a beautiful and symbolic landmark for such a trivializing display and then obfuscate its absurdity by calling it 'art'?” asked Andre’ DiMino, president of the One Voice Coalition, an Italian-American non-profit dedicated to combating discrimination within the community.

“It just adds insult to injury to cover it up on Columbus Day – a day of national pride,” he said.

While the Consul General of Italy is personally interested in this exhibition, she understands that some people won’t embrace it.

“It's normal,” said Natalia Quintavalle. “It happens every time when you have a sort of expression of contemporary art like that which intervenes on something old which represents much for Italians and Italian Americans in New York."

Others argue that from a civic participation point of view the exhibit is out of character artistically with the area.
“Covering it up entirely obscures it from people walking by who wish to see it on the street,” said Frank Vernuccio, a board member of the Enrico Fermi Cultural Committee, a Bronx non-profit that promotes Italian culture. Vernuccio does not intend to visit the exhibit and he encourages the city to take it down as soon as possible.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg disagrees with the objections. “You can't see it from the street and here you can get your eyes 10 inches away,” he said at the opening preview in September. “We would have had to cover it to do the restoration anyways.”
It's somehow fitting: even on a purely aesthetic plane, a reminder of the earlier veneration of Columbus cannot escape controversy—even if it now comes from his admirers.


* * *

Resources

The result of the Spanish and Portuguese conquests of the Americas, as brutal and thorough as they were, was not a matter of the mere obliteration of one culture and "imposition" of another. One way to experience and understand the resultant fusion of indigenous and European cultures is through the music. Herewith a small selection:


Monday, October 8, 2012

Western Massachusetts Listmania




Western Massachusetts towns and organizations recently made several lists, not all of which you'd want to be on.

To begin with an older item in the good news/bad news mode: although three New England locales made the list of drunkest cities in America in 2011, we can take solace in the knowledge that, despite all the complaints about students' problem drinking here in Amherst, we don't even rate on the national scale: Boston was #1 in the nation, and the Springfield-Holyoke area was # 2. (Yikes.) By contrast, Las Vegas was only #14, easily eclipsed by the hardy Midwesterners of Chicago and Milwaukee (#6 and # 3, respectively). New York didn't even make the cut. Clearly, it's serious business.


What's in a name?

What's in a name? Plenty, apparently. Just ask our poor friends in neighboring Belchertown:
Genealogy web site FindMyPast.com recently polled thousands of users across seven countries, and Belchertown came in at No. 6 out of the Top 10 most oddly named places in the United States.

For some, the beauty (or ugliness) of the town's name is all in the eye of the beholder.

"A gentleman from France was here and he had a different attitude. He being French, looked upon it as possibly a French name: 'bel' meaning beautiful, and 'cher' meaning dear," says Belchertown town clerk William Barnett.
Sorry: it's a burp. Hard to think of a better example of wishful thinking and dubious logic (though there was that "Wacky Iraqi" Information Minister). Especially because that "oddly named" in the above story is a euphemism or at best a paraphrase (somebody call a media watchdog group).

The contest in fact sought America’s "most embarrassing or unfortunate” town-name—so it's in fact a lot worse than you think (or would have us believe). But soldier on, safe in the knowledge that it could always be worse: Toad Suck, AK was first. Other contenders were also pretty bad: Climax, GA (#2); Roachtown, IL (#7). Huffington Post, with its Beltway perspective, naturally highlighted Assawoman, VA, and Boring, MD. (And the UK may make us all feel better, with its Shitterton, Scratchy Bottom, Brokenwind, Golden Balls, and Piddle Valley.)

Belchertown has, however, made it onto more innocuous-sounding lists. "Unusual, bizarre or humorous names of towns in the U.S." includes Belcher, LA among "Imaginative or fun town names in Louisiana," whereas our own Belchertown shows up among "Delightful or unusual town and city names in Massachusetts."

I do recall that, when we first moved here, my reaction to the name tended toward "embarrassing or unfortunate" rather than "delightful." I was reluctant to live in Belchertown, in part because of the rather unappetizing name as well as the decaying infrastructure and substandard schools. In the meantime, I've gotten used to the name, and the town itself has become a fashionable location for new homes, in part because of larger lots and lower land prices. Things change.

Of course, plenty of people think Amherst an odd or inappropriate name, too. You know: that little plan to use germ warfare against Native Americans and all that. Some loon almost managed to prove the idiotic theory that the extremes of right and left meet when, in the course of the recent flag controversy, he linked our supposed lack of patriotism to the fact that our locale is named after a "genocidal maniac." In at least that one infamous regard, Jeffery Amherst was a morally problematic character, to be sure, though he never set foot in this town. It was named after him as a tribute to a military hero of the Seven Years War, akin to naming a town "Eisenhower" (also, by the way, a master of military logistics) after World War II. Amherst College historian of early America and Native America Kevin Sweeney took care of that issue when he wrote about Jeffery Amherst's career and gave the annual Mabel Loomis Todd lecture for the Amherst Historical Society on the occasion of the Town's 250th anniversary.

Nowadays, as a piece from Mass Moments on Jeffery Amherst points out, Amherst is known primarily as the site of three academic institutions within the Five College Consortium. Some of them, too recently made it onto a few lists.


Making the Rankings

None of our honored institutions made it onto "Mashable's List of "Most Social Colleges." Just as well, for it turns out that that the story's content is as inane as the title is misleading. The piece is not about the sociability of college communities, and rather, about social media, but it can't get even that right. The study does not ask how (or how intelligently) colleges and universities use social media, and rather, looks only at meaningless numerical rankings. Shocker: Harvard has the most likes on Facebook and highest Klout score (though it was somewhat surprising that it came in second in number of Twitter followers, behind: University of Phoenix.)

Amherst College remains parked at a frustrating # 2 behind parent/perennial rival Williams College on the overhyped US News and World Report ranking of liberal arts colleges for 2013. The University of Massachusetts ranked #97 among research universities, and Hampshire College came in at #112 among the colleges (financial and other resources as well as academics are a big factor in these rankings). Still, Hampshire made it onto other lists that our neighbors didn't.

Strategies for Sustainability highlighted Hampshire College's own list of "10 Green Things." Hampshire also made it onto the list of "10 Colleges for Free Spirits," defined as those displaying a "creative atmosphere, flexibility, unusual programs and outdoor living," often emphasizing "social service and environmental responsibility" and "in-depth, independent thinking":
Hampshire College: (Amherst, Mass.) Learning builds on civic involvement, multidisciplinary studies and original research driven by student curiosity. Create an individual program of study working with faculty mentors. Discussion topics could range from mind, brain and information to power, community and social justice. The school offers activities like outdoor leadership, martial arts and yoga, as well as green initiatives like a solar canopy and sustainable farming. You can also take classes at other nearby colleges. About 1,500 students are enrolled, and more than half of all graduating students have completed advanced degrees.
And last, as well as least, Hampshire came out about midway, at #6, on the list of the Top 10 Hipster Colleges (spoiler: Bard was #1). Take that, Amherst. Pretty respectable (or is that a contradiction in terms?) Sometimes, maybe it's square to be too hip.


Massholes

And finally, "Massshole" has become a term of derision for residents of our Commonwealth, based on our general rudeness and, in particular, our bad driving habits, which also bring out the other ones, such as arrogance and, well, rudeness and foul language. (Does that have anything to do with our colleges and heavy drinking?)

Still, in the information age, one is constantly seeking a more fine-grained analysis. One of my academic urban studies and preservation tweeps (by chance, also a transplanted Midwesterner, from my home town, no less) spotted a t-shirt that did just that. Couched in the language of the Department of Homeland Security alerts, it categorizes the danger level of "Masshole" tourists from highest to lowest:




The description of "Western Mass," which ranks right in the middle, reads:
Elevated risk of simple country folk with very limited access to culture as rich and historic as ours.
It's a lot kinder than anything said about the other regions.

Among Massholes and hipsters alike, sometimes right in the middle is the best place to be.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

As the Way of Youth Is? Boorish Student Behavior Through the Lens of History


Historical Student Life: The Devil and Drink
detail from "Faust and Mephistopheles in the Tavern" (London: Boosey and Sons, 1820)

Down the broad road do I run
  As the way of youth is;
Snare myself in sin, and ne'er
  Think where faith and truth is;
Eager far for pleasure more
 Than soul's health, the sooth is,
For this flesh of mine I care,
 Seek not ruth where ruth is.

from "The Confession of Golias," No. 5
(medieval student song)


Booze and Brazenness

As the previous post makes clear, boorish (generally: drunken) student behavior has become a real and even critical problem in our town. A while back, in "Stripping, vomiting, and drinking themselves unconscious," I pondered the fact that Amherst seems to face such challenges in this regard, whereas others, with far larger student gatherings and far more lenient liquor laws, are evidently better able to cope. Savannah, which allows open containers of alcohol in public, hosted a million visitors (including thousands of students on spring break) essentially without incident for Saint Patrick's Day.

I said: pondered. I came up with no answers. All I could do was to observe that the problem was to some extent cultural. I am all too aware that such arguments can be problematic in certain contexts, either putting the blame in the wrong place or refusing to place it at all. Still, I think it quite legitimate here, in the sense that it comes down to what the offenders think they are entitled to do and where the community establishes red lines.  This is also why I wanted, in the last post, to insist that the many conversations between Town and University were not just window-dressing or wasting time, and rather, part of a serious attempt to articulate enforceable community norms.

As the Bulletin put it last week:
Part of the problem is that UMass students are growing up in "a more aggressive drinking culture" in which alcohol is glorified, said Tony Maroulis, executive director of the Amherst Area Chamber of Commerce. . . . "Officers say they've never seen such brazenness, with young people making no attempt to hide beer while walking down the street, he [Police Captain Christopher] said.
Students will always drink, legally or illegally. Some will always drink too much. The Town has the right to enforce the law against both illegal underage drinking and illegal behavior by drinkers of legal age.

In the course of my "drinking and vomiting"  post, I also described the extremely heavy drinking that was typical of early American culture, from politicians to clergy to the ordinary folks.


Town, Gown, and Turmoil

Herewith, then, a few further examples drawn from history, just for the sake of a comparative perspective.

Students both long exercised a great deal more power and wrought a great deal more havoc than they do here and now. As I noted in a post last year, students in the Middle Ages in effect were "the university"—an organization or interest group comprising these fee-paying learners, mostly in minor clerical orders (the origins of town and "gown"), rather than faculty and facilities. Accordingly, the students defined the curriculum and monitored faculty behavior, and even set local prices and rents, and generally regulated town-gown relations.

Wouldn't our Town Meeting and landlords just love that?

In the Middle Ages, and beyond (especially in the period of decline of the decline of the universities in the 17th and 18th centuries), students were often decried as hell-raisers.

In 1784, the Prussian educator Friedrich Gedicke praised the University of Göttingen for "attracting students who are more civilized than those at other universities," though he admitted that, if "the crude and wild behavior so often present at other universities is much less evident here," it was because "Here, immorality is masked by a veil of fine manners": "The student here does not frequent beer halls but gets drunk on wine in his room all the more often."
By the way, even raw excesses are not altogether lacking. During the few days that I was there, several drunken students attacked a girl in the street and then pursued her to her home where they mistreated here to the point that her very life was in danger. [1]
Small wonder, then, that as James Sheehan writes:
After reading a few descriptions of student life in the eighteenth century, one has no difficulty understanding why many families were reluctant to send their sons to a university. Drinking, duelling, and rowdiness were the rule in many places; students were legendary for their eccentric dress, loose morals, and irresponsible behaviour. Any effort to impose discipline was hampered by the fact that universities were eager to defend their boundaries against intrusions from the outside, and were often willing to sacrifice new opportunities rather than endanger old privileges. The endemic conflicts between town and gown—as well as the pitched battles occasionally fought between students and apprentices—were the natural result of the tensions created by autonomous institutions coexisting within the same enclosed space. [2]
In nineteenth-century Amherst, students may have avoided the worst excesses of their forebears and European counterparts, but they were hardly tame. In 1886, the town exploded in joy when Amherst College beat rival Yale in a baseball game. The president of Massachusetts Agricultural College lent his fellow institution of higher learning a cannon, and when his own students stole some of the parts, he rushed to find new ones so that the noisome revelry could take place. In the words of former Jones Library head of Special Collections Daniel Lombardo: "Round after round of blanks were fired from the cannon, as a huge bonfire lit the center of town. . .  Fireworks added to the 'indescribably hideous racket.'"

He describes a complaining letter by a resident to the Amherst Record:
The bonfire and horns were acceptable but he drew the line at cannon firing. 'We were compelled to have our nerves torn to pieces by the senseless whim of a few boys' who sought to 'torture those hopeless citizens who happen to live near the village common.' He compared the boys to savages...
Another baseball victory in 1892 brought even greater mayhem, serving as a release for what Lombardo calls weeks of "tension . . . as the townspeople grew impatient with the general rowdiness of students."

There was the customary bonfire, assembled, in the Record's description, in a manner "characteristic of Sherman's foragers." Presumably drunken antics, it turned out, included vandalism of a local store. It got worse. Late that night students assembled at the hated sheriff's house and (again in the words of the newspaper) "indulged in a noisy serenade." As Lombardo relates:
This serenading mob began to throw stones at the house and to hurl insults at the sheriff's wife and daughters. The latter act pushed the sheriff's patience to the limit and he burst forth from the house armed with his revolver and fired a shot into the air.
Charged with disturbing the peace and assaulting the sheriff, students sent an anonymous letter to the paper, "couched, " the Record said, "in the most filthy and indecent language," threatening to burn down his house. Only after eight students pleaded guilty did the situation calm down. [3]

Sound familiar?

On the bright side, at least we have not yet reached the stage of murderous threats.

Butt-Chugging and Social Norming


Still, not all is progress. Inside Higher Ed reports on a possible new fad of “butt-chugging,” in which students take an "alcohol enema." (I know: yuck.) Evidently "Popularized by a scene in one of the 'Jackass' movies," it's potentially highly dangerous or even fatal, as well as highly unappetizing. According to the publication, however, "experts say it’s not too surprising, nor is it any more alarming than other binge-drinking behaviors," and they warn that over-reacting may inadvertently encourage the practice by publicizing it. As the Chair of the American College Health Association’s Alcohol, Tobacco, and Other Drug Coalition put it in unhelpfully obtuse jargon and just bad English (is it any wonder no one listens to these folks?):
Alcohol consumption among college students at a high level is not surprising. They’re always trying to dodge appropriate alcohol metabolism… College students that have the invincibility factor may be willing to try and experiment with different modes and amounts of administration. 
Admittedly, when a Dean of Students at Marlboro College asked his students about butt-chugging, "most of them 'scoffed and rolled their eyes.' They said, ‘You have to be an idiot to even contemplate that.’ ”

As we've seen here, though, there are plenty of ways to be an idiot when you consume too much alcohol the old-fashioned way.

According to the article, one approach that experts recommend as having shown some results is so-called "social norming" in which, in the words of the Director of Alcohol Abuse and Impaired Driving Prevention Initiatives for the BACCHUS Network, "students are given real statistics on drinking in their community to demonstrate that most of their peers don’t engage in risky drinking behavior."

That's part of what I meant about changing the culture. In the old days, excessive drinking was the norm; today it is not. Demonstrate that the really bad behavior is marginal—and marginalize those who engage in it.

Not surprisingly, then, things were a lot worse in the olden days, and there's a lot worse to be found in many places today. None of this is to downplay our problems—but as we contemplate how to address them, it's useful to know where we fit on the scale, past and present.


* * *

[1] Robert and Elborg Forster, eds., European Society in the Eighteenth Century (NY, 1969), 319-20.
[2] James Sheehan, German History 1770-1866 (Oxford, 1989), 137.
[3] Daniel Lombardo, A Hedge Away: The Other Side of Emily Dickinson's Amherst (Northampton, 1997), 79-82.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Increasing Outrage Over Student Disturbances



An increasing number of people in Amherst feel that the town is under assault: from bad student behavior, and from predatory landlords, who convert former single-family housing to student rentals, which in turn encourages bad student behavior, or at the least brings it into the heart of formerly stable residential neighborhoods.

It's no wonder. Every week, it seems, the newspapers and blogs bring reports of new outrages. The lead story in the print edition of the Bulletin this past week was "Rowdy partying unabated." Police Captain Christopher Pronovost's observation, "'It's not a good start' to the school year," was a masterful piece of understatement. "Young people" threw bottles at police attempting to break up out-of-control parties: in one case, overstretched public safety forces dispersed a crowd of over 1,000 frenzied fraternity folks and issued $ 9,600 in fines. In other incidents, "college-age" brawlers in a bar attacked police officers.  And, in the most alarming incident, because emergency vehicles were busy dealing with student disturbances, first responders had to scramble to find a means to assist an "unresponsive baby with difficulty breathing."

Clearly, things are getting out of control.

Responding to my previous piece on the unusually dirty and nonsensical Massachusetts senatorial campaign, one of my readers said that politicians should not expect a bed of roses. I of course agree. Still, some of the criticism being leveled at Town and University officials is ill-informed and off-target. It's wrong in principle and in point of fact, but more important: for that reason, it will not solve the problem.

The Amherst Bulletin cites contrarian former Planning Board member Denise Barberet as saying "This is getting the in-fill the master plan calls for, but not the type of in-fill and density people wanted." Um, no. None of this really has much anything to do with the Master Plan, which some of its supporters and critics alike still do not understand. (Full disclosure: I was the final chair of the committee that produced the Master Plan, so I think I have a pretty good idea of what it says.) Ironically, in fact, some of the people who are today complaining about the current housing and behavioral mess also two years ago opposed and defeated the crucial Development Modification Bylaw that would have been the first major application of the new Master Plan. It would have begun to put in place measures to deal with at least some of the problems that so exercise everyone today.

In a citizen editorial entitled, "Town officials need to get tough with landlords," resident Steve Bloom takes up an even broader brush, tarring in one stroke elected officials, Town staff, and the University. He likens Select Board Chair Stephanie O'Keeffe to a Polyanna and Planning Director Jonathan Tucker to a pedantic Emperor Nero (I've heard him called many things, but not this; it's silly, but at least printable), and asks (only rhetorically?) whether Ms. O'Keeffe would be willing to see "law-abiding, tax-paying, year-round residents with families [driven] out of Amherst until all that's left is a vast student slum of marginally maintained, unsupervised rentals." (Next time try decaf, perhaps?)

By contrast, another editorial, "Climate action stymied by neighborhood chaos," by the progressive trio of columnists Rob Crowner (current Planning Board member and a former member of the Master Plan committee), Steve Randall, and Larry Ely, stands out as by and large nuanced and constructive. As they correctly point out, residents' complaints are legitimate, but the complainers are in some cases firing on the wrong targets (in the olden days, we used to refer to this as false consciousness). As they put it, the generally progressive planning and zoning measures that we have in place are all the more needed in an age of "climate change." (Yes, that's their hobby-horse, but it is a valid point, and it's a convenient shorthand and means of focusing the mind on a variety of problems that can be subsumed under the heading of sustainability.) It is therefore wrong, they say, to attack the planning measures as such, rather than focusing both on enforcement and on—something that others, who unrealistically put all responsibility on the University leave out or refuse to contemplate—"where alternative housing serving the inevitable student population can be properly and safely integrated into the community."

I'll return to the planning and zoning questions in future posts, because they have come to be intertwined with questions of historic preservation. In the meantime, though, just a few more remarks about behavior and enforcement.

We in Town government certainly understand the frustration of many residents, which Mr. Bloom expressed:
We don't need anymore [sic] university-community breakfasts or student information sessions. What we need are simple, common-sense measures.
Expressed in those terms, that does sound silly. But it's a cheap shot. Studying moldy bread sounds silly; discovering penicillin does not.

Believe me: no one thinks those steps in themselves are the solutions to the problem. Rather, they are the prerequisite. The Town and the University have to work together to address the problems or they will fail together.

The strategy pursued by Town Manager John Musante, Select Board Chair Stephanie O'Keeffe, and our public safety officials was:
  1. to establish a better working relationship with the University,
  2. to convey to the University the seriousness with which we view the issue,
  3. to demonstrate that we are taking firm action against offenders, and 
  4. to give the University to understand that we expect it to do likewise. 
The purpose of all those "breakfasts" and "information sessions," then, was to send a message to administration, students, and residents about values and expectations. One way that the Town took matters seriously was by getting the University to apply its code of conduct to off-campus as well as residential students: something that is by no means a given in this country, though it is growing in appeal (1, 2). The University now better and regularly communicates its expectations to students. But obviously, expectations have to be enforced as well as expressed.

Following some vandalism in town last spring around graduation time, I happened to have a conversation with one of our police officers. He thought that things were improving precisely because the authorities had made clear they were treating antisocial and criminal behavior with great seriousness. The students were feeling the bite of the $ 300 fines (the state maximum) for nuisance and alcohol violations, but perhaps more important, they knew that the University would call them in and hold them accountable (the latter also seemed to make a stronger impression than a mere fine when it came to dealing with mom and dad).

At last week's Select Board meeting, we heard from Town Manager John Musante and Chair Stephanie O'Keeffe about ongoing town-gown cooperation and intensified efforts in enforcement, as reflected in a new report from the police. The document compared summons and arrest figures for the beginning of the academic years 2011 and 2012. This year's figures showed a marked uptick.



Amherst Police Department Selected Violations & Under 21 YOA 
Selected Violations Beginning of Semester to Present 2011 to 2012 Comparison 

Total Summons: 

2011: 36 
2012: 107 
% Change: +197% 

Total Arrests 

2011: 52 
2012: 67 
% Change: +29% 

Total Charged Under Both Summons and Arrest: 

2011: 88 
2012: 174 
% Change: +98% 

Summons in all categories at least doubled, while nuisance house citations increased by a whopping 900% (new regulations went into effect). There were fewer changes among arrests because they are, obviously, reserved for the more serious infractions, such as operating motor vehicles under the influence of alcohol.

As we noted on Monday night, statistics need to be interpreted. To some, the marked increase in summonses and arrests signals a much more serious situation. It well may. But it also reflects a much more serious approach to enforcement. Over the course of the next few years, when we can compare figures over a larger time span, we will have a clearer picture.

What's the takeaway?

Seen from one perspective, the town is becoming fatally polarized. Seen from another, there is actually a fairly broad range of agreement:
  1. There is a real problem of student behavior.
  2. It is related but not confined to housing issues; 
  3. Residents, government, public safety officers, and University administration agree on the need for action.
  4. We can start to address the problem by enforcing existing regulations on both behavior and housing.
The problems facing the town are real, and they are serious. If we expect to address them, we will need to do so together. I would therefore hope that residents will start from that common ground of agreement and credit town government with both good will and good sense. We're all in this together, and we need your support.