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Is CMC’s Mission at Odds with the Liberal Arts?

Claremont McKenna College, by virtue of its esteemed Robert Day School of Economics, renowned Soll Center for Student Opportunity, and prestigious Robert Day Scholars program, has garnered a reputation as perhaps the pre-professional liberal arts college. Is this a fundamental contradiction of terms? Could a CMC education be at odds with the liberal arts?

First and foremost, what exactly are the liberal arts? The term “liberal” in “liberal arts” is derived from the Latin word libertas, which translates to “freedom.” But what kind of freedom? Historically, the “liberal arts” stood in contrast to the “servile arts,” which encompassed education in trades like masonry. Institutions focusing on vocational, trade, and technical education fall under the servile arts, as would pre-medicine and pre-law undergraduate programs. While the servile arts are important and often overlooked, their objectives and methodologies differ markedly from those of the liberal arts.

In my Classical Philosophy course this semester, we read Plato’s Republic, a staple of most liberal arts curricula. In the book, Socrates describes three types of goods: those valuable for their own sake, those valuable for their consequences, and those valuable both for their own sake and for their consequences. Socrates places knowledge in the category of goods valuable for their own sake and for their consequences. While the servile arts are concerned with the aspects of knowledge that are useful for other purposes, the liberal arts are concerned with knowledge insofar as it is intrinsically valuable.

This summer, I took a course about the liberal arts under (married) Baylor Professors David and Elizabeth Corey. In a 2013 article, David Corey explains that “only at a great liberal arts college do we find people engaged in history, science, physics, music, and art as ends in themselves, not as a prelude to a job or a stepping stone to ‘success.’” Elizabeth Corey likewise laments how modern colleges too often sideline liberal education to promote predetermined practical or political purposes.

Under these premises, the CMC ethos seems somewhat anathema to the liberal arts. According to its mission, CMC seeks to “prepare its students for thoughtful and productive lives and responsible leadership,” suggesting that a CMC education is but a prelude for a future career rather than an end in itself. CMC’s unofficial motto is “learning for the sake of doing,” implying that the ultimate purpose of a CMC education is the future doing rather than the present learning. The unofficial motto also raises an important question: Learning for the sake of doing… what?

A liberal arts education is meant to answer these questions—not assume them from the outset. Another professorial couple under whom I studied, Ben and Jenna Storey, argue that “many institutions today have forgotten that liberal education itself was meant to teach the art of choosing, to train the young to use reason to decide which endeavors merit the investment of their lives.” In other words, liberal arts education is not simply deliberation about means. If a student has a particular goal, call it X, a liberal arts education is not about showing the student the most effective way to accomplish X. Rather, a liberal arts education involves a deliberation about ends that will challenge the student to defend and possibly reevaluate her original goal X. This is why the growing lack of viewpoint diversity at CMC is so alarming. If most of a student’s peers have similar beliefs about value, purpose, and meaning, the student loses out on opportunities to learn about competing conceptions of the good life and might leave CMC with some of her most fundamental beliefs unchallenged.

CMC’s official motto, “crescit cum commercio civitas,” translated as “civilization prospers with commerce,” runs counter to the liberal arts project in a more subtle way. Claremont Independent columnist Charlie Hatcher writes, “as a student seeking a liberal education, I oppose any effort for my college to take an institutional stance on political issues. To do so would be an offense to the university’s truth-seeking mission.” But that is exactly what CMC’s motto does: take an institutional stance on a political issue. The motto makes debatable claims about the nature of civilizational flourishing and the value of commerce. Regardless of whether you find this particular position objectionable, it seems an affront to the liberal arts for a college to assert it dogmatically.

As someone who loves both the unique character of CMC and the special project of the liberal arts, the tension between the two is difficult for me to reconcile. And certainly, there are professors, students, and administrators at CMC who are genuinely interested in the liberal arts project. But I think that CMC education might be improved by an increased emphasis on the intrinsic rather than extrinsic value of knowledge and a greater willingness to ask and answer questions about fundamental values.


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