The Perilous Pursuit of Pre-Professional Perfectionism

We see it in our administrative staff and in our tuition. We see it in our green and watered fields, in our tour groups and brochures. Our students almost seem to radiate it with their generally happy persona and warm smiles, even days before midterms. The Claremont Colleges, as well as colleges and universities across the country, have an air of perfect coordination that permeates almost every aspect of campus life. These institutions of higher education are slowly making the shift towards a radical form of perfection to entice potential students, bolster their applicant pool and ultimately become more prestigious institutions.

As students, we might appreciate the manicured lawns or clean classrooms, but as Fredrik deBoer, a writer with a PhD from Purdue University, writes, we have reason to fear this “corporate taming of the American college.” Colleges are slowly shifting to being run like corporations that spend more time vying for better rankings rather than allowing space for students and faculty to cultivate original ideas and question established ideologies. The perfectionism that arises from regulating every aspect of campus life undermines the wildness that is derived from an institution of higher education. Colleges and universities benefit from a lustrous image, but not necessarily from organic learning and gritty change.

Claremont McKenna College is no exception. Now on Claremont McKenna’s campus, even the woodchips that recently replaced grass as a drought measure seem to be set in perfect order. We have “the country’s happiest students” and lavish parties with poker tables and live bands. This has had a beneficial impact for our college, as our acceptance rate dips into the single digits and our ranking climbs into the top 10 liberal arts colleges in the country. This shift towards the taming of our college and perfection in our image is all well and good—until it seeps into our ideology.

The harmful part of the taming of our college, and colleges across the country, is the regulation of our students' life: our classes, our administration, and particularly our extracurriculars. The idea that our school must be perfect guides us away from pursuing ideas that might fail.

Claremont McKenna has nine research institutions and a host of highly selective student-run clubs. For many of these extracurriculars, upwards of one hundred students apply each year and only a couple are accepted. The problem does not lie in the natural selectivity of these clubs or in the talent and drive of CMC students, but instead in the bureaucratic way that these clubs attract potential members and change their goals in attempts to project a lustrous image.

Just as institutions of higher education across the country project an image of perfection to potential applicants to appease their alumni and boards, and to advance their rankings, certain extracurriculars at CMC seem to focus on rewarding only perfection to strive for this same image and therefore do not spend as much time trying to create a community of learning with room for change.

Many CMC extracurriculars seem to be as focused on their image as they are on their impact. SOURCE, a Claremont McKenna nonprofit consulting group founded in 2005, rewards the member who recruits the most interviewees with a gift certificate. Clubs spend weeks preparing informational PowerPoints, interview tips and tricks to benefit the applicant. Many of them require business-formal attire for interview rounds.

Pre-professionalism is not bad in and of itself. It is a service to students to prepare them for the real world. However, college is our last time to have the opportunity to try a host of different activities to truly find what is interesting to us. When clubs are exclusive merely for the sake of exclusivity, students miss this opportunity, and when clubs spend time recruiting instead of acting on the club’s mission, members as well as the greater community miss out.

We are now seeing a shift toward a focus on image in college life. It is up to us as students to take measures to ensure that we keep the spotlight on the true reason why we are here: to explore, to make mistakes, and to change the world around us.

Emma Houston CM '19 is from Boston, Massachusetts and is interested in majoring in philosophy and physics.

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