In the last weeks of each year’s summer, a new class of students arrives on America’s college campuses to take up their place in the great endeavor of higher education.
Some of these students will arrive equipped with very clear ideas—or with their parents’ very clear ideas—of what subjects they wish to pursue, and what objectives are meant to be served by their educational investment. They arrive announcing to their advisors, their faculty, and their new friends an intention to focus on one specific path of preparation—for engineering, perhaps, or economics, or medicine, or some other field regarded as most likely to assure an optimal match between their identified talents, their emerging passions, and the overarching objective of a reasonable assurance of employment.
Many in the academy bewail this early narrowing of focus as forfeiting the very chance for intellectual exploration that the fleeting few undergraduate years are meant to offer. Yet of course it is the academy itself—and especially the significant increases in tuition costs when compared to other essentials—that has compelled a focus on economic returns over personal growth. Exploration feels like a luxury—or, worse, a signifier of a lack of seriousness.
The way in which both groups of students once encountered possible paths of inquiry upon entering the campus can perhaps best be imagined as the first hesitant walk they took around the college quad. As they made their way along the path linking building to building new students encountered faculty members coming out to meet them, making the case for the importance of the ideas they would have to offer them. These ideas were offered as apologia, as ways of beckoning the students in for a longer conversation.
It was never the objective of these first appeals that each student become a physicist, or an economist, or a literary critic, or a philosopher. Rather, it was the case that each next encounter with a new path of inquiry was meant to suggest that a place in the conversation of citizens—and that a preparation for roles of leadership among them—is earned by some basic grasp of a variety of modes of thought, and not merely an understanding of one.
The Amherst College Press is creating a series of short works to reconstitute this journey of exploration. Why Does It Matter? will present a series of essays written by prominent scholars and teachers in a variety of fields, offering—both to students and to a broader readership in the public square—the best case they can offer for why an introduction to their field is important, and what tools of that inquiry, what analytical pathways characteristic of the field, are most necessary as intellectual equipment.
These works will be available in both downloadable and print editions, and will be maintained as stable-URL websites as part of the Amherst College Press. They will typically be concise, readable essays—somewhere around 25,000 words in length—and will, when appropriate, make creative use of the possibilities offered by digital platforms. While similar in concept to the Oxford University Press “Very Short Introduction” series, they differ from these works in a critical respect: Our authors have answered the challenge of making the case for a deeper engagement with the ideas of their field, and write with the specific purpose of making an appeal to interested readers for the importance of their topics to the broader interest of a society prepared for the future.
Why Does It Matter? will give senior scholars a unique opportunity to offer to a rising generation of citizens and scholars both a compelling set of arguments for engaging with the ideas of their fields, and a guide for the first steps in doing so. It will set these offerings within the larger context of the intellectual exploration that is both sheltered and encouraged by the academy. And because it is supported by an open-access press, it will respond to readers’ curiosity with a high-quality, no-cost (and thus no-risk) means of beginning their own explorations.