The purpose of the humanities at a liberal arts college is to give students a more complete education by presenting varied ways of seeing the world. It not only provides different lenses through which to solve problems, but also leads to the realization that we are all connected through a common human experience.
While the humanities are an essential part of any complete education, they are especially important at Claremont McKenna College, which espouses “Leadership in the Liberal Arts.” Studying the humanities is a critical aspect of learning leadership. How are we, as leaders, to commit ourselves to the service of others if we are not exposed to the anguish of Othello or the compassion conveyed in religious texts? How can we effectively solve problems without understanding Socrates’ question or the attention to detail of a Michelangelo figure? But at CMC, there is a pervasive practice of the humanities taking a backseat to pragmatism and the pursuit of wealth.
CMC’s reputation as a school to study government and economics attracts many students here. There is nothing wrong with the study of these subjects, but there is something wrong with many CMC students’ single-minded pursuit of them.
Much, but certainly not all, of the school’s culture is centered around pragmatism over everything else. This is seen in the school’s motto Crescito Cum Commercio Civitas—“Civilization Prospers with Commerce”—but is also seen in the attitudes of many of the staff and students. For example, in my first-year humanities seminar last year, the professor told the class that it was important that we learned about great art and culture because it was what people like Robert Day and Henry Kravis talked about at dinner parties.
John Feranda, CMC’s Vice President of Alumni and Parent Relations, said in an interview with the Forum last year that when he was a student at CMC, “A guy that I knew was an art major … but his first job after CMC was not going up to Mount Baldy and throwing pots for a year. Instead, he went to IBM and worked in the Corporate Art Collection.”
Why must there be this casual dismissal of the pursuit of the humanities for its own sake? Why can we not see art as a thing that enriches our lives, rather than as a window to a lucrative corporate job? Many professors are worried that recent changes such as the addition of the Robert Day School will lead to an increased dismissal of the humanities and shift the college’s focus too far in the direction of a school that teaches only economics and finance. This worry prompted professor Robert Faggen of the literature department to send a letter with the signatures of many CMC professors to President Pamela Gann which voiced their concern that the gift would “distort the college into a single focus trade school.”
It would be incorrect to say that there are not students at CMC who have a passion for the humanities. There are a number of us. But too many at CMC see the humanities, at best, as a supplement to more pragmatic and lucrative endeavors, and at worst, as irrelevant to their education. Professor Christine Crockett, the Associate Director of CMC’s Center for Writing and Public Discourse, discussed her interactions with one student, an economics and finance major, who said that he had never visited the center because he did not have to do any writing in his field.
“I told him that the faculty members in his field, like so many of us, respect writing and consider it to be one of the most important ways we can communicate ideas,” Crockett said. “What concerned me most was that the student’s comment implied that he perceived writing and exercising one’s mind in that way to be non-essential to success in his field.”
The fear of the study of subjects without empirical value is not an issue unique to CMC. It is, however, especially important that as a leadership-focused school we address this issue at our college. It is not a lack of qualified faculty or facilities that is causing the dismissal of the humanities; it is us, the students. We do not need to give up our strong ties with economics and finance, but we must not become the “single focus trade school” that Faggen warned about. It is up to us, the students, to foster a heightened humanities culture here at CMC. Without one, our degrees and our college experiences will amount to very little. If we cannot break from pragmatism, and if the study of Virgil and Auden for their beauty and complexity alone are not enough, then let us study them for their ability to help us think critically and be successful. But please, let us study them.