The December 2 termination of 17 dining hall workers at Pomona College prompted a heated discussion about the college’s ethical responsibilities to its community. Many students took action, from boycotting Pomona dining halls to organizing a vigil outside Alexander. But other students chose not to participate in the debate, privileging their academic work over getting involved.
Throughout my 3.5 years at this school, I had developed the assumption that as eager recipients of a liberal arts education, we were to be inculcated with a civic responsibility to be informed about issues that impact this community. From PSU events on current global issues to the rhetoric of the Daring Minds campaign, I expected thoughtful analysis and a willingness to engage as necessary requirements to apply my education to the real world. This preconception fueled my ire, as I observed students going against what I perceived as a valuable tenet of a liberal arts education, using these busy schedules as a justifiable reason to remain unaware.
Bolstered by righteous indignation, I turned to the Pomona College Mission Statement to back me up. There it was in the first sentence: “Through close ties among a diverse group of faculty, staff and classmates, Pomona students are inspired to engage in the probing inquiry…” A little awkward, but just what I needed! But a friend pointed out my mistake: what I was used to doing for papers—reducing a quotation into saying exactly what I want—was getting in the way of the Mission Statement’s intention.
The full sentence: “Through close ties among a diverse group of faculty, staff and classmates, Pomona students are inspired to engage in the probing inquiry and creative learning that enable them to identify and address their intellectual passions.”
The term “probing inquiry” is clearly contingent on each student’s individual intellectual passion. Thus, if that fateful first week of December, your “intellectual passions” involved physics homework or a media studies project, then this Mission Statement absolves you of any obligation to be informed. The rhetoric of this mission statement isn’t surprising, for the personal accumulation of knowledge is a selfish pursuit. This single-minded focus allows students to delve into the complex specificities of whatever subject matter they so choose, with the intention that they will then make important contributions and “bear their added riches in trust for all.” With parents paying for such a privilege, students have a responsibility to them to make their pursuit of knowledge the highest priority.
But if you happen to be interested in these issues—immigration reform, unionization efforts, institutional change—then aren’t you fulfilling the Mission Statement as well, by pursuing your intellectual passion? There’s an argument that civic engagement is a political issue and doesn’t qualify as an academic subject. But such a stance reduces the complexities of political involvement. The process of absorbing all the information available (talking to workers, President Oxtoby’s e-mails, TSL articles, etc.), making an informed opinion, and then acting on that belief is intrinsically an intellectual and time-consuming exercise.
And yet this form of pursuing knowledge is not recognized by the college. Or rather it’s not legitimized. Schoolwork served as an obstacle to those who felt passionate that this issue was important and dedicated a significant amount of time to helping the cause. How does the school recognize the commitment that students made? I don’t ask it merely for the benefit of the student, but, most importantly, for the school to fulfill its mission to foster students’ intellectual experiences.
We need to recognize the tension that what might be best for the college as an institution may directly conflict with the pursuit of individuated intellectual passions. And with this knowledge, I challenge the school to prioritize its students’ personal education quest over its own institutional interests. What does this entail? One practical example—greater flexibility in creating independent studies. In this way, students can appropriately engage and receive recognition for their commitment, even if they get involved halfway through the semester. This would provide an institutional means to acknowledge and give students due credit for their personal intellectual passion.
And for those of you who never engaged with the issue of the workers’ firings, I want to communicate that indifference and inaction is just as much of a choice as being involved. Abstaining from judgment or action may appear to remove you from the debate, but this position communicates its own message, with its own consequences and implications. Thus, I would argue that even disinterest or apathy to an issue must involve thoughtful analysis.
One could argue that as privileged recipients of a liberal arts college education and as compassionate human beings, we have a responsibility to engage in this type of probing inquiry. Instead of perceiving this as a threat to the pursuit of self-interest, let’s redefine self-interest as being engaged and aware about issues affecting members of our community. Not as selfless beings, but as self-interested ones, seeking our own joy from helping others, for, as David Foster Wallace wrote, “we should share what we have in order to become less narrow and frightened and lonely and self-centered people.”
I believe that as an educational institution, Pomona College has a priority in fostering an environment that celebrates civic engagement to effectively prepare us for a future of thinking critically. Otherwise, we as students have a right to live up to Mark Twain’s words: to “never let school get in the way of my education.”