Deresiewicz and CMC's Problematic Priorities

I love going to hear guest speakers. They allow me to procrastinate on my schoolwork without being nagged by the feeling that I’m wasting my time on frivolous, non-educational activities. As a result, I’ve been to Claremont McKenna College’s Athenaeum at least a dozen times so far this semester and had the opportunity to meet many CMCers.

During my first few visits to the Ath, I noticed that post-graduation plans were an extremely frequent topic of conversation. When asked about my own plans, I defaulted to the stereotypical Pomona response: I’m here first and foremost to educate myself and to develop my mind, and I’ll worry about getting a job once I figure out which fields I’m most interested in.

However, most of the people around me had a different mindset. They viewed their education as a tool for building their résumés rather than as a tool for self-discovery. Though they expressed interest in a variety of different careers, those careers were often just a particular means to an end goal that almost all of them shared: becoming a leader.

I found this attitude disconcerting from the start, but I wasn’t sure exactly why until I attended William Deresiewicz’s talk at the Ath on Monday. In his talk, Deresiewicz, an eminent writer and critic of elite higher education in the United States, explained that what CMC calls leadership could more accurately be described as power, status and wealth. “'Leader' is a polite way to say member of the one percent,” he said.

Deresiewicz, who had a month-long fellowship at the college last year, also made the counterintuitive argument that the CMC brand of leadership, far from being groundbreaking, is actually profoundly conformist. It views leadership as a reward for success within established power systems rather than as the quality of leading those systems in new directions. “When people say ‘leader’ nowadays, what they really mean is gung-ho follower,” he said.

This attitude has stymied opportunities for change and stagnated progress in our society. Deresiewicz noted that the traditional style of leadership fostered in the 1960s invigorated our nation and resulted in achievements such as the Apollo moon landings, but he recognized that that type of leadership has been replaced by an ethos that encourages people to work within the system. “Now, what do we dream of?” he asked.

It seemed to take some audience members a while to realize that Deresiewicz’s criticisms were being leveled directly at them. The first questioner during the Q&A session latched onto Deresiewicz's endorsement of liberal arts colleges in a futile attempt to legitimize the notion that CMC is somehow immune from his remarks: “You discussed how liberal arts students are actually gaining an edge in the job world … How does the CMC model of being cognizant of that advantage and catering to it … What do we gain and what are we losing?” she asked.

Deresiewicz wasted no time in shutting down that train of thought. He explained that he had praised liberal arts colleges mainly because of their focus on the humanities, which he views as central to education’s role in fostering one’s sense of self, and that CMC didn’t exactly have that focus, calling the college "a liberal arts college in name only."

“CMC does not seem like a very typical liberal arts college to me," Deresiewicz said. "It’s largely a liberal arts version of the more unfortunate tendencies of the kinds of universities that I criticize … And I speak as someone who spent a month here a year ago.”

There is privilege throughout the 5Cs. The difference, however, is that it is often checked at the other 4Cs, whereas at CMC it is often pursued for its own sake. Outside of CMC, privilege is typically viewed as a gift that entails a social obligation to, as Pomona's fourth president James Blaisdell put it, "bear [one's] added riches in trust for mankind." At CMC, privilege is often seen as a reward for an amorphous concept of “merit” (read: entitlement) to be used for one’s own personal enjoyment.

This perspective aligns with CMC’s economic conservatism when compared to the other 5Cs. CMCers tend to embrace a social philosophy responsible for economic inequality, so it makes sense that they also tend to embrace economic policies that exacerbate this inequality. It also reconciles with CMC’s narrow academic focuses; the most popular majors are the ones that lead to high-status jobs. Majors within the humanities, which pursue lines of thought that question the true value of those jobs, are noticeably less prevalent. 

I am by no means saying that CMC is the only one of the 5Cs which suffers from this problem; Deresiewicz’s criticisms most definitely apply to the other four schools, too. But I do believe that the problem is especially acute at CMC because of its emphasis on leadership and career preparation.

I’m also not saying that every CMC’er epitomizes the culture I am criticizing, but rather that, overall, it tends to predominate. My intention is not to reinforce stereotypes about CMC, but rather to analyze the kernels of truth within those stereotypes that presumably led to their creation in the first place.

I believe that there can be multiple, equally legitimate attitudes toward life. I’m not criticizing CMC because the predominant attitude there differs from my own, but rather because that attitude has exacerbated inequality and otherwise wrought tremendous harm on our society.

This may be the third time that Deresiewicz has visited the Athenaeum, but CMC has yet to internalize his message. Doing so will be painful, but we can hope that Deresiewicz’s call to action will ultimately ring too loudly to ignore: “It is time to imagine what a different society would look like,” he said, “and to gather the courage to get there.”

Samuel Breslow PO '18 is from Londonderry, N.H., and plans to major in the social sciences.