Exit Strategies From The Academy I

Don’t Get

Too Passionate

On Friday I spent from 930 in the morning until 330 in the afternoon listening to my fellow seniors presenting their theses and professors engage in their patented brand of question-assertions. And for the record, yes I am corny enough to spend 6 hours listening to other students present their work. As two of my friends put it with surprised looks on their face, “you are genuinely interested.”  And it’s true, aside from the restlessness and minor impatience that comes with sitting through 6 hours of anything, I found hearing students present their scholarship and the ideas behind them exciting. What does it say about the nature of liberal arts education (or Pomona College) that my excitement at learning from over a year’s worth of undergraduate work marks me, in my own eyes as well as others, as a sort of anomaly and joke?

I came to Pomona with the belief that being a college student meant being surrounded by a community full of people who love ideas and who are invested in the discussion and exploration of ideas. In practice, I have found this to be rarely the case, particularly within the classroom space. Coming on the end of my fourth year as a Pomona student, I feel like I have spent the majority of my time struggling to find some form of this ideal I envisioned as a frustrated high school student clinging to the notion that things would be different in college, but have only found extremely fleeting instances of it. In some senses the only change is that instead of being told that college is where you finally have an opportunity to delve deeply into intellectual thought and share this with fellow students, I am now told that, of course, none of this happens until graduate school. A major assumption behind this framing of the possibilities of the academic sphere is that students are not yet ready to operate at this level, but must continue to specialize and pay their dues on the road to acquiring the appropriate level of expertise. Constantly we are told to wait and see, to bide our time, to understand that eventually we will be worth listening to and that until we reach this point we should keep our head down, work tirelessly, and refrain from engaging too heavily with those around us.

Even the thesis presentations don’t deviate too far from this formula, with the implication being that the seniors in the room earned the right to present their ideas to a room of their peers after four years and a lengthy evaluation process. While I in no way object to the respect this process confers upon the thesis writers—a class of person I do not belong to, stand in no small awe of, and whose scholarship consistently blew me away over the course of the day—I am still left wondering why it is that I didn’t find a comparable level of commitment from students and professors in more classrooms during my time at Pomona.

One major contributing factor to the atmosphere of the presentations undoubtedly arose from the fact that I was usually the only non-major in the room and so everyone else saw themselves to some degree as fellow travelers on a lonely road. A camaraderie among colleagues is probably one of the main benefits offered to people who specialize in a given field, particularly fields like Religious Studies which I spent most of the 6 hours listening in on. Still the question remains in my mind why a shared investment in the discussion and evolution of ideas that often stems from a sense of camaraderie does not arise among Pomona students by virtue of our all identifying as students within a scholarly community.

An immediate response to this question is to point to the range of types of scholarship engaged in by students and the fact that many hold different future goals which often do not include a desire to become a scholar or to continue the type of intellectual work pursued while in college. I  once again see this as a substantial part of understanding the limitations confronting the realization of my more idealized image of a liberal arts college from becoming a reality, but it doesn’t strike me as sufficient.

What I find myself returning to again and again is the political and economic reality: Pomona College is a corporation and its main responsibility to us as students is for us or (often more appropriately) our parents to feel like satisfied customers. Yes, the service that Pomona as business provides us is supposed to be continuing its history of “educat[ing] men and women of exceptional promise,” but this leaves plenty of room for interpretation as does the phrase below it in the mission statement:

Through close ties among a diverse group of faculty, staff and classmates, Pomona students are inspired to engage in the probing inquiry and creative learning that enable them to identify and address their intellectual passions. This experience will continue to guide their contributions as the next generation of leaders, scholars, artists and citizens.

One could devote a life to the question of what constitutes a good education or how best to “inspire” engagement in “probing inquiry and creative learning” or how to best enable the identification and addressing of “intellectual passion.” At Pomona we do have both a curriculum committee as well as an academic affairs committee, which do end up making a number of implicit judgments as to what constitutes the appropriate limits of a Pomona student’s education. The government also requires that all academic institutions undergo accreditation procedures, but beyond this external mechanism and the aforementioned internal mechanism, there seems no real standards Pomona or this country at large provides people inside and outside of the college to measure its success in implementing its mission statement.

I find myself wandering into dangerously broad and difficult to navigate territory here. This is not a space where I want to take up the larger philosophical challenge of determining the nature of education (at least not at this point). Avoiding that larger question, there is still much of interest in how the faculty chose to articulate the college mission statement in 2008 (after my having been here for around 3 years already). There is a definite consciousness of the idealized conception of college I brought with me to this place; note the use of terms with decidedly Christian connotations here-“inspire” and “passion.” Clearly I constitute a section of the target demographic that Pomona markets itself to and one that the college understands well. As a student at a selective college preparatory high school I internalized a myth well known enough that Pomona faculty could encapsulate it in a statement that even shares language I used to articulate my dreams of college.

For those of you reading at home (which at the time of my writing this is probably a captive audience of one) a fear is probably arising of where I am going with this and whether I have any sort of exit strategy from this post. While I could probably lock myself in a room and keep writing this until I die, I mostly want to draw out one more part of the mission statement quoted above. The faculty inscribe Pomona within the narrative of educating “men and women of exceptional promise” and our future selves are first and foremost classified as “the next generation of leaders.” I also see this as connecting with the inscription placed upon the gates which all Pomona students are forced to ritualistically run through at the beginning of their four years “They only are loyal to this college who departing, bear their added riches in trust for mankind.”

At this point I see an operating logic emerge. The point of a Pomona education is most importantly to anoint the future powerful and set us on our way to ascending to our rightful place as the next ruling class. I have always found the parting words we are given emblematic of this mentality–we are not told to share or give our riches to mankind, but to bear them in trust (might just be me, but this seems familiar as the justification colonists employed for controlling the resources of the colonized).  Of course we are the best equipped to decide how to utilize our riches on behalf of the rest of mankind.

Before I lose some of you with a seemingly gigantic leap in my logic, I encourage any and everyone to read Malcom Gladwell’s New Yorker piece on the Ivy League admission process. In it he argues that the college process as it now looks (personal essays, personal interview, and all the other ways which admissions make an applicant’s character the judging criteria) came about as a way to limit the number of Jews getting into their universities without implementing an actual quota. “Lowell [Harvard president]—and his counterparts at Yale and Princeton—realized that if a definition of merit based on academic prowess was leading to the wrong kind of student, the solution was to change the definition of merit.” Gladwell goes further to argue that the definition of merit they adopt, as opposed to “most of the world’s other élite schools [which] define their task as looking for the best students—that is, the applicants who will have the greatest academic success during their time in college… The Ivy League schools justified their emphasis on character and personality, however, by arguing that they were searching for the students who would have the greatest success after college.” [emphasis added] And let us not forget the founders of Pomona’s intent of creating “a college of the New England type.”

Absent from this, then, is any commitment to the idea that what students are getting is an education. There is no ethos of providing the intellectual tools to those who didn’t already have them, but rather fast-tracking those already on the road to success. My friends have often wondered at the degree to which we feel that Pomona encourages a playing to your strengths and an avoidance of your weaknesses, rather than challenging students to take on those qualities that most need improvement. We all found it to be true that in the vast majority of classes we took the kids who came in confident speaking left feeling exactly the same way and those students who tended towards quietness remained as quiet when they left as they were when they came in. Attempts to fundamentally change this situation were rare in our experience, though the occasional professor often did their best to balance this equation through intervention.

The article makes visible many of the other not-so-secret criteria for the kind of students desired by exclusive institutions (‘manliness’ an important characteristic to the degree that a high up official in Yale bragged that the average height among male students went up with every new class). A detail I missed when I originally read the article that resonated with me strongly this time around as a Pomona student was a quote from a former Dean of Admissions Fred Glimp:

“Any class, no matter how able, will always have a bottom quarter,” Glimp once wrote. “What are the effects of the psychology of feeling average, even in a very able group? Are there identifiable types with the psychological or what—not tolerance to be “happy’ or to make the most of education while in the bottom quarter?”

The prioritizing of the psychological state of “happiness” as essential to making for a stable and effective student body is extremely familiar to any Pomona kid. When I applied, Pomona held the distinction of having the happiest students in the country. A friend recently told me that the class of ’04 adopted the slogan “So Happy It’s Painful.”

This brings me back to a number of conversations I have had with a professor of mine Dr. Phyllis Jackson around my sophomore year crisis of faith in the possibility of Pomona providing me with “critical thinking skills”—a term which I had mistook for critical consciousness. She was the first person to disrupt any romantic image of a liberal arts college by classifying Pomona as foremost a corporation with the extra burden of crafting an identity that it could market as distinct from the Ivies. Professor Jackson explained Pomona as selling itself as different than the Ivy Leagues because it foregrounds the “happiness” of its students. Viewed in light of Gladwell’s piece I wonder if this positions Pomona as more Harvard than Harvard in realizing the goal of grabbing already successful students and making sure they associate their undergraduate years with a contented happiness.

Ultimately, then, the customer is always right and what the customer is positioned to want is to be happy during their time here. Now, as a Tibetan Buddhist I see happiness as something to strive for and work skillfully to cultivate, but I also am quite certain my understanding of happiness does not fit with the one that tends to play out here at Pomona. Instead, what I have found in practice is that happiness is defined as the absence of discomfort and the granting of as many short term desires as possible. I see this as contrasting with other possible definition of happiness that place it as something to work towards long term through deep reflection and independent of the granting of material success. I find this distinction to have very much been true in my time here because I have rarely found spaces that provide tools to work towards an understanding of what makes us happy (I say this as a former philosophy major) and instead we are often given opportunities to demand that whatever we currently consider the necessary prerequisites for making us happy be given us. And lets face it, learning requires the ability to work through discomfort on a profound level if our thinking is to change fundamentally.


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