OPINION: Breaking free of the Athenaeum mold

Graphic by Meghan Joyce

Sociology tells us everything we do is dictated by the invisible social norms that permeate our world. When I go backpacking, this is brought into relief. I cannot worry, for instance, about being judged for violating the norm that compels us to shower daily when no shower exists for dozens of miles in any given direction.

The constraints of backpacking are simply incompatible with many of the norms in “civilized” society, which causes them to melt away, revealing just how artificial, arbitrary, and often unnecessary they truly are.

It is for this same reason that I have strong reservations about the culture at Claremont McKenna College’s Marian Miner Cook Athenaeum (often shortened to “the Ath,” since 10 syllables is too many and no one really knows who Marian Miner Cook is, anyway).

Whereas backpacking implicitly attacks norms, the Ath implicitly celebrates them. On its face, the Ath is a building where fancy meals are served and speakers give lectures. However, it’s also a powerful social institution that shapes attendees’ behavior into an artificial CMC mold of formality and sophistication.

The Ath’s assault on freedom of expression begins before one even enters the dining room chamber. A strict dress code advises: “Guests are expected to dress appropriately in all dining rooms. Shorts, jeans, and t-shirts are not acceptable at dinner … No bare feet at any time.” Bare feet? The horror!

Take a moment to consider what the problem would be with allowing jeans at the Ath. Sure, it might look a little out of place, but where is the actual problem?

No one questions exactly why rules enforcing formality are necessary, since everyone knows at some level that they are the farthest thing from necessary. I can speak to the fact that they are enforced, though. The first time I signed up for a meal there, I neglected to note the dress code, and when I entered the building dressed appropriately for the 90-degree weather, I was summarily spit back out with instructions to go change.

I have eaten dozens of meals at the Ath since that first visit and gradually familiarized myself with its many norms. Unlike the dress code, most of these are unstated.

The internet, with its billions of pages, contains not a single one that explains that one orders tea at the Ath by placing one’s cup sideways. Instead, this knowledge, like most norms at the Ath, is passed down between generations of Ath-goers.

The charitable explanation is that this dynamic is intended to foster a sort of mystique of tradition, which itself is stifling to progressive change (I don’t anticipate that people will introduce themselves with their pronouns at the Ath anytime soon). The less charitable explanation is that it is intended to create a sense of exclusivity that allows those who are privy to the secret tea-ordering mechanism to bask in the assurance that they are part of the sophisticated in-group.

Of course, it also functions to make the Ath unwelcoming to newcomers, but this is a necessary cost: An in-group requires an out-group, and there is no way to brand them as such unless they are confused about how to order tea.

It’s hard to think seriously about poverty in Africa while eating a cannoli.”

The micro-hazing of newcomers at the Ath wouldn’t be so problematic if it applied equitably. It doesn’t.

The norms of the Ath are an intensified version of those of high-class American society, and they are not kind to people who don’t fit that mold. There are no exceptions to the dress code for those who cannot afford to buy formal attire. (Athenaeum Manger David Edwards told me that the Dean of Students office could provide a grant to such a student, but that he didn’t know if that offer is “ever articulated anywhere.”)

There is no way for someone with tattoos or pink hair to fit in with the aesthetic fostered by the bland corporate artwork on the Ath’s walls that communicates nothing of substance except “we had the money to purchase this.”

Unsurprisingly, the dress code has conservative roots: Edwards said Donald McKenna, when he envisioned the Ath in the late 1960s, asked for all meals to require coats and ties, presumably as a contrast to hippie attire like bell bottoms.

The formal environment works to acculturate Ath-goers into elite circles, ensuring they will end up on the privileged end of systems of oppression; it does nothing to challenge those systems.

“We’re big into business here at CMC,” Edwards said. “A lot of business is conducted over meals, so you have to learn which fork to use.”

What’s kept me coming back to the Ath despite all this is the fascinating talks, which explore a diverse array of issues. But even here, the Ath’s formality encourages a sense of detachment from some of the very same topics its talks seek to examine.

For instance, it’s hard to think seriously about poverty in Africa while eating a cannoli. (Abstract graphs about “economic development” are much more palatable, and often suffice.)

Likewise, a gorgeous sliced fruit platter embodies its ideal form so closely that it fails to prompt any sort of consideration about the natural origins of its contents and the labor that went into its preparation.

It’s also easy not to notice that over half the speakers this semester presented as white men in the sort of setting where such demographics are typical.

“We’re cognizant of the fact that people are always looking — and we’re looking, too — to get more diversity in the speakers,” Edwards said.

Conversation at the Ath is often engaging, but being surrounded by people in business attire can intensify CMC’s already-intense pre-professional mindset. I have had dinner with some people there who seem incapable of viewing social interaction as anything other than a networking opportunity.

Once, upon meeting a professor there and introducing myself, I was immediately told that I had erred in not giving him my last name because he would need it were he ever to name-drop me to a potential employer.

Challenging norms is hard work; socialization makes it difficult for us to even recognize where they operate, let alone to decide to stop abiding by them.

This allows norm-heavy environments like the Ath to offer a welcome relief from the burden of choice: Why grapple with complex decisions about how to behave when you can conform to a ready-made option guaranteed to play well during an interview with Goldman Sachs?

Because it is necessary. The choices we make about how to live our lives are ultimately a reflection of our values. Formality is not a value; it’s a costume.

Samuel Breslow PO Fall ’18 is a sociology major and TSL’s Senior News Adviser. He grew up in New Hampshire and is pursuing a career in Oxford comma defense.

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