Our Place in the Liberal Arts
“The Analyst Papers,” named in honor of CMC’s first student newspaper, the Analyst, is a five-part series published by the Forum, the official student publication of Claremont McKenna College.
For the first time, the history of Claremont McKenna has been brought online. The Analyst Papers has been published in the form of five accessible articles, with the aim of navigating through years of characters, monuments, and obstacles. CMC's history is a short one, but a good one, and few know much of it. To learn it is to better understand what CMC stands for, its challenges and its future.
In 1996, the Trustees of CMC commissioned California historian Kevin Starr to write a book commemorating the College’s first fifty years. His remarkable work, “Commerce and Civilization: Claremont McKenna College, 1946-1996”, has been a key source for this series.
Additionally, CMC’s Development Office has opened the College’s archives to Forum staff for this project. We thank them, as well as the CMC Alumni Association, for access to primary sources and first-hand interviews.
Part II: CMC's Conservative Heart
Part III: The Challenge of the Campus
Part IV: Claremont Men's College, with Women
Highlights in Part V:
· As the demand for higher education has increased, publishers such as U.S. News have brought unprecedented attention to liberal arts colleges.
· CMC finds itself challenged to remain liberal arts in character while proving itself an outstanding alternative.
· The College's fourth president, Pamela Gann, discusses CMC's founding mission going forward.
Our Place in the Liberal Arts
Politics may have motivated the College’s founding, and economics may have fueled its rise. But from the very start, Claremont McKenna was devoted to the liberal arts. And in America, over the past thirty years, liberal arts colleges have changed.
As a collective group, institutions of this model have risen to a new level of national exposure. Concurrently, the demand for quality education around the world has increased. The result has been unprecedented success. These small, expensive American colleges have become more selective than ever.
But for some, the effects of this exposure go way beyond admissions statistics. As Claremont McKenna continues to gain recognition, the College has been challenged to assert itself as an institution wholly separate from its equals, while still equal nonetheless.
And so, possibly more than any other point in its history, these national trends have tested Claremont McKenna’s mission and identity—one that was already unique among its peers from the start.
· The Liberal Arts Reaffirmed ·
“When we were founded, we were very focused on free enterprise in the private sector, and democracy in the public sector,” Claremont McKenna President Pamela Gann said in a Forum panel discussion with the presidents of the five Claremont Colleges in February 2011.
“How you implement that mission is not static,” she said.
In CMC’s early years, students worked in trailers and lived in basements. Political economy was the dominant theme of the curriculum. The College was devoted to a handful of men.
Since then, CMC has grown to over a thousand students, and has recognized the complexities of breeding leadership in the public and private sectors by growing other departments such as literature, history, and psychology.
The mission of the school has been implemented differently, but with the same vigor, since women were first accepted to the school, in a move that respected the adaptability of the College’s founding vision.
“All the colleges subsequently founded, all of the undergraduate colleges, would be broadly liberal arts in character,” Robert Bernard said in an interview, stored in CMC’s archives. “But we didn’t feel that this would prevent them from emphasizing some special field of learning.”
Bernard agreed with his colleagues that an essential liberal arts “character” was not exclusive with an adjoining institutional focus. And in a Memorandum on Proposed College for Men at Claremont, edited by Russell Story and published in May 1941, that institutional focus was made clear.
“These men need common perspectives, historical and philosophical,” the document reads. “If it would be unique in its program and its achievements, it must have a breadth of view adequate to encompass the complex economic, social, and political relationships that exist in the functioning of modern government, and in both domestic and world economies.”
The document even calls for students to take up “apprenticeships” during their studies.
Today, it may seem like Claremont’s unique approach contradicts fundamental values of the liberal arts: that no field is taken with more weight than another, that learning should be done for the sake of learning. But Claremont McKenna insists that learning should be done for the sake of doing. It has been the College’s operating principle since it’s founding.
That modus operandi is why the College has succeeded with such haste. CMC started providing a service that simply wasn't offered before.
· CMC and the Rankings Game ·
But like it or not, Claremont McKenna’s success is not evaluated in light of its history.
High school students in Iowa, curious parents in Thailand, and employers in New York haven’t a clue of the College’s age, much less the age of its elusive name, which is only half that of the school’s existence.
Instead of knowing CMC through its history or its alumni—most of whom are alive today, and who couldn’t collectively fill a football stadium—they likely know about Claremont McKenna because college evaluation today has been standardized through college rankings.
Luckily for CMC, where there are college rankings, CMC is often present. That national exposure has been as beneficial as it has been challenging.
U.S. News & World Report, the nation’s premiere college ranking source, has generally benefited the College, as well as its peers. Simply put: by placing Pomona, Claremont McKenna and Harvey Mudd on a ranking given equivalence to a university list featuring Harvard, Stanford, and Columbia, the smaller, lesser-known liberal arts colleges gain a prominence they could not gain alone with comparatively smaller alumni pools, endowments, and sports teams.
“As a young College, U.S. News has probably helped CMC become better known, as have other, more recent rankings, including Forbes.com last year, the annual Princeton Review, PayScale, and others,” President Gann told the Forum.
One of the biggest problems with U.S. News was well summarized by “Tipping Point” author Malcolm Gladwell, who wrote an article in the New Yorker in February 2011 on the topic. In its attempt to be both comprehensive and heterogeneous, he wrote, U.S. News achieves neither.
Among the top twenty liberal arts colleges in America today, according to U.S. News, are Swarthmore College, a broadly liberal arts institution on the East Coast; Claremont McKenna College, an institution without an arts department or its own science department, but with an economics department with an endowment the size of most other colleges in full; Harvey Mudd College, an engineering school; and West Point Academy, which awards a single degree to its graduates.
So it would appear that Claremont McKenna is not alone in its fight to the top of a ranking unsympathetic to its focus. But whether CMC should shift that focus, that founding mission, is a question that has crept onto campus.
Additionally, with the advent of national college marketing efforts, college rankings with less comprehensive goals have gained in popularity. The Princeton Review, The Daily Beast and College Prowler rank colleges in different categories. Among them, CMC has been featured as the happiest college in America, the best fed, the best housed (a far cry from Coconut Grove), and the largest consumer of beer.
Whether the College lets these outside influences change life on campus is up to the College. But for the first time in its history, that has become a real possibility. Being CMC has gained the school a national reputation; whether a national reputation can change CMC remains to be seen.
· Going Forward, Respecting the Past ·
Claremont McKenna’s fourth president, Pamela Brooks Gann, believes the unique purpose of the curriculum has been the most important factor in its success.
“Our focus on leadership has not changed,” Gann told the Forum, “and we are putting more resources into this aspect of our mission.”
Gann’s statements would imply that, despite the murmurs on campus, Claremont’s focus on business, the professions, and public affairs—“leadership in the liberal arts,” in a catchphrase—will remain at the heart of the College.
Second and third to our mission, Gann attributes our success to our place in California, and to being a member of the Claremont Colleges.
This series has discovered that, without CMC’s founding, the Group Plan would likely have died—and Pomona College would have been the lone liberal arts alternative on the West Coast.
Instead, bright students west of the Mississippi River now have a clear choice.
“It's a place not of armchair exercises,” Gann said at the Claremont Presidents panel, “but a place of high impact, and of people who really want to go out and have a very direct effect on the world.”
In this regard, the College's leadership understands that Claremont McKenna won't become better known by changing its values. On the contrary: the only reason we are known at all is because we've been faithful to our mission from the start.
Sixty years before Gann, CMC’s first president submitted a note to the Analyst, thanking some of the College’s inaugural students for giving Claremont a chance.
“There are many disadvantages in attending a new college,” Benson wrote. “Procedural points are not clear; temporary class rooms are too hot or too cold; dust is everywhere.”
“But in the long run,” he continued, “the advantages of going to a new college perhaps outweigh the disadvantages. You can watch a beautiful campus develop, watch the administrative difficulties disappear, and take your part in shaping the traditions which will make Claremont Men’s College the outstanding college of the West.”
In many ways, CMCers today still carry that burden. A young college punching above its weight, Claremont McKenna has no more valuable capital than the people who believe in its mission, invest in it, and carry it through. And when faithful, students at this school stand as living proof that its founding mission has succeeded. High impact, indeed.