Being David W. Oxtoby has got to be exhausting. On your left you’re deflecting charges that you are a stooge for 1 percent power broker types, and on your right you’re entertaining those power brokers to convince them to donate money for the people on the left. Even when you’re not courting donors, you’re still entertaining. But instead of hoping that the college will see a check when the meal’s over, you are hoping that somehow, someday, these soon-to-be liberal arts grads will have enough money to keep the ship afloat.
The senior dinners, in which a dozen or two seniors are invited to wine and dine with President Oxtoby and other Alexander types, are one of the few single experiences common to virtually every Pomona graduate. And they’re really quite pleasant. You get a free meal, plus a solid rehearsal for stilted bourgeois adult life. (And quite a solid pregame, if you’re into that kind of thing.) Mine was largely unremarkable. I met a few people who take classes in Seaver, which apparently has a north and south component. I ate Persian food, which they do not serve at Collins. And I drank a Pinot Noir that cost more than two dollars.
What can you expect to discuss at a meeting among such daring minds? The same thing you are expected to discuss in every other passing conversation you have as a senior: THESIS, JOB. Once one subject has been broached, your interlocutor will inevitably venture an inquiry about the other. As I witnessed and engaged these conversations, I noticed how oddly comfortable most of my peers are with these questions that, far too often, we have wrapped up with our sense of self-worth and our hopes for the future. The responses are reflexive at this point, but that doesn’t mean we think about them any less. My oft-neglected thesis threatens implosion with every small move I make, and the one job offer I’ve received scares the living daylights out of me. I gather that these feelings are not uncommon.
But when I engage with Responsible Adults on these topics—people who expect poise and confidence from me—these emotionally crippling anxieties and fears suddenly turn into challenges and opportunities, because I have no choice but to portray them as such unless I’m going to breach the lines of social acceptability. I hear what I’m saying, and all of a sudden I’ve convinced myself that this is all very exciting. Is it ideal that a large part of my self-esteem is tied to dubious scholarship and economic participation? No, but things could be a lot worse. And if I talk about my thesis and my job long enough, I feel something funny. Is this what they call pride?
I was told that my liberal arts education would have the twofold benefit of preparing me for responsible intellectual pursuits and the dynamic twenty-first century workforce—that I would be more marketable than other people, not to mention smarter. At graduation, I’m sure everyone will tell me that this is exactly what happened. The funny thing is that my Pomona experience taught me that being better than anyone else just doesn’t matter. The essence of Pomona is being in a place where you’re constantly humbled by things you don’t know and skills you don’t have. It’s a great place to get better, in the Frank Langan sense of that phrase. That’s not a great pitch for a job in this economy, but it does make for a very pleasant dinner.