Rebuttal: CMC’s Mission Complements the Liberal Arts
In a recent article for The Forum, Henry Long argues that CMC’s pre-professional focus stands at odds with its liberal arts mission. While articulated forcefully, a close analysis reveals his argument’s surprising lack of merit. CMC’s pre-professional focus not only does not detract from its liberal arts orientation—it serves to enhance it.
In his article, Henry begins by distinguishing liberal arts from the servile arts, positing that liberal arts ought to be concerned with intrinsically valuable knowledge. He cites an observation made by Professor David Corey: “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.’” Yet, I would argue, that is exactly what is found at CMC. By virtue of the GE system, Literature majors learn to take derivatives and Math majors learn to read poetry. Both may drag their feet when confronted with such realities, but it is a reality at CMC nonetheless. All in the same day, you can find Data Science majors debating politics, IR majors enjoying literary theory courses, Physics majors playing music in Marks Hall’s basement, and future investment bankers listening to an Athenaeum talk. There is no evidence that CMC’s offerings geared toward professional success detract from the vibrant culture of learning on campus.
Henry’s next claim is that a liberal arts education ought to transcend a deliberation of means to achieve a goal and include a deliberation of ends and values. While I do not disagree with his premise, Henry’s further analysis suffers from the notable disadvantage of being an inaccurate representation of student life at CMC. For example, in the College’s PPE (Philosophy, Politics, and Economics) program, students engage in interdisciplinary studies to not only evaluate what policies best achieve a goal but also whether or not that goal is politically feasible or even valuable. Rather than an outlier, this method of inquiry is found in every corner of campus, from the classroom to career coaching. The principal dividing line between those who pursue intrinsically valuable knowledge and those who do not is not the level of engagement in pre-professional activities, but rather the level of value one places on intrinsically valuable knowledge. The addition of a pre-professional focus, then, serves not as a detriment to the liberal arts, but as one more facet of excellence that the Renaissance student can pursue.
Lastly, let us turn to Henry’s claim that CMC’s motto — crescit cum commercio civitas — runs contrary to its liberal arts mission because it constitutes an institutional stance on a political issue. Specifically, Henry writes: “The motto makes debatable claims about the nature of civilizational flourishing and the value of commerce” and that it is “an affront to the liberal arts for a college to assert it dogmatically.” What his statement achieves in hyperbole, however, it lacks in ratiocination. To begin with, I hardly think a claim as apodictic and empirically verifiable as CMC’s motto constitutes a political expression of a debatable viewpoint. But even if it does, a liberal arts college can simultaneously teach students how to think while also expressing what it thinks, just as a liberal government can simultaneously promise freedom of expression while also espousing its own view. Henry not only concedes this point— he wrote a whole essay articulating it.
At the core of Henry’s argument is a profound skepticism of the compatibility of a liberal arts label with learning that is useful for external purposes. Yet “learning for the sake of doing” need not preclude “learning for the sake of learning.” In fact, it is often a prerequisite for it. College students will always be concerned about the professional world they will soon enter, regardless of their studies. Unfortunately, as documented by the Economist, liberal arts students are consistently outcompeted in the professional world by those who study economics or math at top universities. That trend forces students, especially those from underprivileged backgrounds, to abandon liberal arts altogether. CMC’s unique value proposition lies in offering pathways to lucrative professionals while maintaining a liberal arts posture. The College focuses on professional success precisely so that its students do not have to choose between financial success, making an impact, and pursuing purely intellectual ends.
Henry and I often spend our free time sparring over issues ranging from free speech absolutism to the utility of Rawls’s Theory of Justice. In a completely different sphere, we also both took advantage of CMC’s pre-professional resources to secure internships in the management consulting field. The two spheres have not conflicted with each other, and any suggestion that our professional pursuits detracted from our liberal arts endeavors or discussions of fundamental values is patently false. If anything, the security that stems from building a strong professional future frees up time and energy for more intellectual pursuits. This healthy duality need not be viewed as a jarring juxtaposition of two irreconcilable missions—rather, it should be celebrated as one of the features that make our college so special.