I’ve learned a lot at Pomona, but it hasn’t been the “Tell me what you learned at school today” kind of learning. It hasn’t been the kind of learning that would impress someone like my dad, a man who’s interested in How Stuff Works. And although after four years of osmosis I can confidently say that I know many concrete things that I did not know before—I’ve got cultural capital up the wazoo and I can name-drop like nobody’s business—I can’t tell you much more about how stuff works than I could before I came here.
I’m sure that some people learn how stuff works at Pomona, but I’m a humanities student. I’ve spent the better part of my time here studying literature and philosophy. And I’ve learned that the funny thing about both of those disciplines is that it’s okay to speculate about how they work because nobody can know for sure. More importantly, I’ve learned that this speculation can be responsible, rigorous, and justified. We don’t have to know something is true in order for our views about it to have integrity. And just because there is no right answer does not mean there aren’t plenty of wrong ones.
To argue for something that you believe but don’t or can’t know is true requires you to take one of two stances: either the courageous willingness to risk the shame of being proven wrong, or the reckless, unconcerned ignorance that will prevent you from caring if you are. This is to say that you either consent to a risk and take responsibility for its fallout, or you barrel blindly into that risk and force others to deal with its consequences.
So it seems like the task of a liberal arts education is not just to get students to take these risks, but also to own them. Pomona College, however, seems focused only on the former. Our Daring Minds campaign, which promotes “intellectual risks,” is largely designed to provide money for student research and experiences. This is an admirable effort, to be sure, but it is aimed only at encouraging risk-taking without any serious discussion of owning the consequences of those risks.
Pomona is an incredibly supportive environment, and this might be its greatest strength and its greatest weakness. Our professors are exceedingly willing and eager to help students, and this encourages students to pursue big goals and take big risks. But our professors are also by and large exceedingly unwilling to dress down students who overreach, and this reluctance does nothing to demonstrate the need for us to own the losses in which our intellectual risks sometimes result. Our courses are more challenging than those at many other colleges, but our grades are also higher. We know we can take risks, but can we deal with the aftermath?
We live in a world where the best and the brightest take risks but are not required to experience the consequences; they might send troops to war, or they might manipulate complicated and volatile financial instruments. So in this sense Pomona is preparing its students—certainly the best and the brightest—for the world as it is. But why not treat this school like the utopia that it’s known as in college guides, a place where we can learn to live in the world as it might be? This utopia, ironically, involves coddling us less, holding us to a higher standard, and ensuring that our “daring minds” understand that risks have consequences.