The platitude “Pomona doesn’t just provide you with knowledge; it teaches you how to think” has become such a staple of discussion surrounding education at the college that calling it a cliché borders upon cliché. Given this fact, it is natural to assume that Pomona does indeed teach us how to think, and a superficial look at the college and our classes does little in the way of discrediting this hypothesis. The average class size is 15, the professors are leaders in their fields (or if they are not, they have a reputation for being especially proficient in the art of teaching), and the absence of an affiliated graduate school ensures that the school’s focus always remains firmly upon its 1,600 ingenious students. (An aside: I would never refer to a CMC student as ingenious.)
It is my contention that the above factors are insufficient to guarantee a good education; claiming they are is tantamount to saying that a country with a high GDP and low crime rate provides a lesson in good governance or that a man with a six-figure salary, a beautiful wife, and gifted kids is necessarily happy. Just as the country’s government is better evaluated on the actual quality of life of its citizens and the man’s happiness is more accurately judged by his sentiments toward his job, wife, and kids, discussions about our education should be centered upon how we are actually taught to think. With this criterion in place, what can be said about our Pomona education? To what extent does the “Pomona teaches you how to think” super-cliché apply? The only adequate way to find an answer is to look at Pomona students themselves.
My suspicion that Pomona does not teach us how to think (and note that when I say Pomona, I do not just mean our classes) stems from my feeling that Pomona students are not genuinely excited about what they are learning. I say this for one reason and one reason only: I rarely hear people talking about ideas or issues of intellectual substance around campus. I realize this fact can be accounted for without arriving at the conclusion that students aren’t occupied with what they learn; the content of a society’s conversations is as reflective of cultural values as it is of personal preferences. But wouldn’t a societal explanation be problematic, too? Can individuals who care about what they learn flourish in a culture that tells them not to?
I do not wish to offend or misrepresent Pomona students, but I believe the most acceptable attitude to convey toward thinking—the mainstream attitude—is as follows: “I am intelligent. If I weren’t, how could I have gotten into Pomona? I’m a good student too, and I do whatever I need to in order to succeed in the classroom. But my social life and academic life are two very different spheres. If I were to be thrust into an academic debate, of course I would make some convincing arguments and of course I would win, but I’m not one to spark up those kinds of debates. That would be pretentious.”
There is a lot wrong with this attitude, beginning with the assumption that a discussion of ideas must come in the form of a debate or a competition. More unfortunate is the relegation of intellectual matters to the status of undesirable conversation pieces, in line with topics like the weather and new options at Collins rather than your roommate’s infinitely-exciting hook-up at Pub last night.
The point I am driving at is that if I am correct that Pomona’s culture does not place value upon thinking critically, and if part of teaching us how to think is teaching us to think and to like thinking, Pomona can improve itself—and not through simply bringing the average class size down to 13. I want to emphasize that I do not think there’s anything uniquely wrong with Pomona’s culture. I’m willing to bet that other top colleges are not altogether different from ours. I do not think our students are uniquely shallow or that our professors are uniquely ineffective. Both groups are about as good as it gets. Herein lies the difficulty that will probably keep people from agreeing with me. I can’t say, “Look at Harvard or Yale or Stanford for proof that there is something wrong with Pomona.” What I am attempting might be a little bit like warning pre-conquistador Aztecs that their weaponry is behind the times. It would not be odd if people thought that I was wildly off the mark or if people saw no problem with, or even expressed pride in, the status quo. No one would be at fault for disregarding my message. Still, I think it would be best if people took note.