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Activism and the Claremont Colleges

In a recent article for The Forum, Henry Long argues that student activism is incompatible with the liberal arts. Specifically, he suggests that protests such as those sweeping the Claremont Colleges this Spring “distract from the university’s role as a truth-seeking institution and undermine liberal education.” I hold Long in the highest regard and sympathize with his characterization of “the liberal arts” as a mode of education that once existed at elite institutions of higher education, but his comments are ill-suited to the context of the Claremont Colleges. 


Despite their classification as liberal arts colleges in the U.S. News and World Report rankings, the Claremont Colleges do not conform to the standards Long sets for institutions of liberal education. Therefore, while his discussion of the incompatibility of student activism and the liberal arts is fascinating, it has no bearing on how the Claremont Colleges or its students should conduct themselves, lest we wholly restructure the colleges to turn them into true embodiments of liberal education. 


Claremont McKenna College’s mission is to “prepare its students for thoughtful and productive lives and responsible leadership in business, government, and the professions.” Though it purports to be a liberal arts college, its stated mission explicitly considers – and urges – the practical application of what students learn during their undergraduate education. By specifically referencing leadership in government, the college endorses the political application of the CMC education. In no way, shape, or form does the college’s mission align with Long’s description of “disinterested study” or the pursuit of education as an end in itself rather than a means to achieve some other, possibly political, end.


CMC’s history aligns with its practical mission. CMC was founded in the wake of World War II to train veterans for leadership in business and government. CMC taught history, philosophy, literature, arts, and sciences, aiming to “produce graduates able to apply lessons from not only business and government courses” but a wide range of sources. Even at the college’s inception, its curriculum was designed to be applied in graduates’ future endeavors. Education was never CMC’s ultimate end. 


Furthermore, Long should accept this characterization of CMC. In an October article for The Forum, he noted himself that CMC’s pre-professional emphasis and motto challenge its status as a practitioner of “the special project of the liberal arts.”


Like CMC, the Claremont Colleges at large fail to live up to Long’s standards for liberal education. Even Pomona College, probably the most widely regarded as a liberal arts college out of the five undergraduate schools, emphasizes the importance of its graduates contributing as “the next generation of leaders, scholars, artists and engaged members of society” in its mission. A true embodiment of liberal arts education, as Long defines it, does not demand engagement with society – it demands a retreat from it.


Scripps College’s mission specifically aims to give graduates the tools to “contribute to society through public and private lives of leadership, service, integrity, and creativity.” Furthermore, as a women’s college, Scripps values and pursues gender equality in broader society through its role as an institution of higher education. A practitioner of liberal education per Long’s definition would shy away from such a learning for the sake of doing approach. 


Harvey Mudd College’s mission is to produce “engineers, scientists and mathematicians who… have a clear understanding of the impact their work has on society,” not only indicating a clear pre-professional goal but also urging HMC graduates to apply what they learn as undergraduates to their later careers.


Finally, Pitzer College has five core values, one of which is social responsibility, which the college describes as recognizing “individual responsibility in making the world better.” Pitzer also promulgates official community values, including putting their commitments into action. 


Clearly, none of the five colleges embody liberal education as Long describes it. They all concern themselves with how students will act upon what they learn in practical ways. And they are not alone. Scholars and journalists have long reported on the decline of the liberal arts in the United States, positing a wide range of explanations. Higher education is expensive. Possibly, the prospect of learning for the sake of learning with no consideration of future practical, professional, or political outcomes is a luxury a critical mass of American college students can no longer afford. Possibly, the political quandaries of our time are pressing and existential, making students feel obligated to apply their learned talents to ameliorating what they see as grave problems. No matter the explanation, liberal arts is declining, in Claremont and across the country. 


Where does this leave us? Long argues that student activism is “antithetical to liberal education,” but liberal education is honestly not what we do here. We would be fooling ourselves to think otherwise. Long’s analysis of the relationship between political agitation and the liberal education project may be sound. Nonetheless, arguing against student protest without also arguing against every other way in which we depart from the Platonic ideal of the liberal arts college would be inconsistent and futile. The Claremont Colleges are not going to roll back their pre-professional emphasis or their initiatives to train leaders. Why, then, should they single out student activism as the particular departure from liberal education they need to eliminate?

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