Claremont McKenna College is committed to freedom of expression, viewpoint diversity and effective dialogue. The value of an education, especially a liberal arts education, comes in large part from being intellectually pushed. In the pursuit of higher learning, this often means that one will have to be made to feel uncomfortable.
The Athenaeum talks and classes I’ve enjoyed most have forced me to grapple with ideas I hadn’t before and made me learn to think in new ways. I can’t speak for all the classes offered at CMC, but I’ve been to a lot of Athenaeum talks, and work as an Ath Fellow. I’ve been there every night this year, and before that, attended two a week (usually more) since my first year. I’ve definitely been pushed to consider new ideas. But sometimes it feels like attempts made by CMC and its students to ensure viewpoint diversity are focused on a subgroup within the majority population rather than acknowledging minority perspectives. Students of color at CMC are regularly challenged to think outside their comfort zone. By virtue of being at an institution where a majority of peers and professors are white, students of color are pushed to learn new ways of engaging and interacting.
Yet, can we also say we push our white students as much? Do we push them to consider the ways in which they’re complicit in systems of racism? Do we push our students to consider the racial makeup of their friend groups or their contributions to gentrification? I sometimes struggle with how shallow the free speech and viewpoint diversity conversation seems to become. This is not a condemnation of initiatives to support free speech and viewpoint diversity. Rather, I’m worried about the aspect of the conversation we forget to have.
Recently, Kiese Laymon spoke at the Athenaeum. He is the author of Heavy: An American Memoir and his talk was called What's Good: Reckoning with the Horror of One of Our Most Overused Words. Laymon did a brief reading from his book, and then opened up the room for discussion on how they feel about the word “good.” A few minutes in, he posed a question to the audience. He asked if white people ever talk to other white people about what it means to be a “good white person.” Kiese Laymon’s talk was about the word “good,” and we got lucky that he decided to pose that question. I’m at the Athenaeum a lot, and it’s pretty easy to sense the mood in the room when the speaker says something unexpected. The room was tense.
The white people in the room were tense because they felt targeted. The students of color in the room were tense because the white students were tense. I was tense because I was holding a mic. But it wasn’t a disaster. The discussion was interesting, with white students realizing that they don’t talk about that question, and more generally about race, at all, and they then theorized why that might be. The dominant theme was that there was no reason for them to discuss, because they felt that they were not actively part of the problem. All of the comments and responses to his question were thoughtful and valuable, and I want to point to one in particular. At one point, a woman of color (Trinity Gabato ’22) stood up and said that the reason white people don’t have to think about what it means to be a good white person is part of white privilege, and people of color have never had that luxury.
That’s true, and as an educational institution, aren’t we failing when white students feel like they’ve never had to personally consider race and their place in racial hierarchies? Can we even be an educational institution that critically examines society and the self without talking about one of the most important social categories that exist? I’ve been to a lot of Ath talks, and I’ve never experienced someone talk about race in such an honest way. Students after the talk all felt that they had a lot to process and struggled to work through the implications of the discussion that had just occurred. Isn’t that what we’re looking for when we talk about “freedom of expression, viewpoint diversity and effective dialogue”?
And that’s just Kiese Laymon. His views on race are understandable for a black man in America. If we consider Laymon’s views as radical, it’s clear that we’ve missed out on something. When we talk about viewpoint diversity, we consider conservatism as the viewpoint we’re missing out on. I’m not making an argument about the merits of conservatism, but I am saying that we do not have diversity. We don’t push all our students equally. The initial silence at Kiese Laymon’s talk evolved into a thoughtful discussion that the people in the room had never had. What does it say that white students at CMC, some of whom are seniors, have never been pushed to consider race in a personal way before?
We have the same issue academically. We have a shocking lack of classes at CMC that explicitly discuss race and gender. In my classes, I’m always thinking about what it means to be a “good” brown person, a “good” Pakistani, a “good” Muslim. That’s what you do when you’re the only voice in the room that represents your identity. You try to capture all the nuance that exists and make sure that you’re representing a fair image. It shouldn’t be radical to feel like there could be classes in which the Professor does that work for me. It shouldn’t be radical to have classes in which students are able to learn about experiences outside their own. If we do, students of color aren’t forced to teach their peers about their experiences. Just as we have OA funding to establish classes that grapple with political identity in a meaningful way, why don’t we funding going towards establishing classes that grapple with race and gender in a meaningful way?
We have speakers at the Athenaeum who often discuss race in an abstract and academic way, and we have people who discuss racial issues in the US. Speakers talk about policy, immigration, criminal justice, gender. Students have opportunities to understand what’s going on a national scale. They rarely have opportunities to grapple with how those dynamics are recreated at CMC and what role we as individuals play in them. There’s a lot of special programming (shout out to the CARE Center), but it’s all opt in. That education only reaches people who already care, rather than being integrated into our routine education.
When we do have classes and Athenaeum talks that grapple with these issues in a meaningful way, the people who attend are often not the people who would be the most challenged by the content. Part of the burden is on students to seek out discomfort. Men should go to talks about domestic abuse and rape culture. White students should go to talks about race. Humanities majors should go to STEM talks and vice versa. However, much of the burden falls on our educational institution to provide more opportunities for us to engage with a range of ideas.
We don’t talk about how capitalism might just be unethical. Or about how much of race theory posits that we are all complicit in white supremacy. What about how gender might just be a completely constructed category? What it would actually take for men to be feminists? We really don’t talk about how consulting and investment banking firms are destroying the planet. We talk about diversifying oppressive structures instead of dismantling them.
I want to acknowledge the limitations of my argument. I’m not delving into the intersection of classism and racism, how many of our white students grew up in affluent white neighborhoods, and many of our students of color did not. I’m not talking about gender, and how men aren’t pushed enough to consider what it takes to be a “good” man. I’m also only talking about viewpoint diversity in a political sense, not how we often focus heavily on social sciences at the expense of the hard sciences and the humanities.
CMC students are limited in the classes we can take, and we’re limited in the conversations that we can have. How many of the philosophers taught in the Philosophy GEs are white and male? How many of the authors we teach in Literature classes tick the same identity boxes? How much is western? I’m not arguing that we shouldn’t teach material if it is written by white men, I’m arguing that we need to diversify our material. I’m arguing that we should critically engage with the idea that Shakespeare is one of “the greats” because white men decided he was one of “the greats”. Do I love reading Macbeth? Yes. Do I want to consider the power dynamics at work in Shakespeare’s fame? Also, yes.
There’s demand from students. Classes that talk about race and gender are often the ones that fill up the fastest. To be clear, CMC is behind. CMC is behind in the range of ideas we are allowing our students to consider. We are behind in how much our students are pushed to consider experiences outside their own. We define an education as an experience that makes us open minded, makes us consider new ideas and experiences outside our own. And doesn’t that mean that CMC is behind educationally?
Editor’s Note: This is an opinion article and the views of the author do not necessarily reflect the views of The Forum or the Editorial Board.
Author’s Note: My views reflected in this article are mine alone and do not reflect those of the Marian Miner Cook Athenaeum, nor am I writing this within my capacity as an Athenaeum Fellow.