One of the great things about living in Claremont, with all of its colleges, is that I get to always be a student. And I don’t have to worry about papers, exams and grades! Every year, once school starts in late August or early September, there is a terrific line-up of free lectures, not to mention performances, often more than one on a single evening (they also occur during the day, but I’m less likely to attend these). Unlike with the students, I don’t graduate and leave, and I get to enjoy these lectures, which are often by noted, if not famous, scholars, officials, authors, dignitaries, etc.
If this makes me a slacker, then I’m proud to be one. And I’m a damn lucky one!
These lectures are usually pretty good - I have heard that they get crazy amounts of money, so I guess they should be pretty good - and some are downright moving and inspiring, making me really feel like a student. On a recent Thursday night, I hit the jackpot and got a double whammy, going to hear two people I had not heard of.
I started off by going to the Marian Miner Cook Atheneum at Claremont McKenna College, where there is dinner and a talk on most weeknights during the semester (I just go for the talks, although I understand the food, which isn’t free, is superb) and where Eric Liu kicked off the Fall semester speaking to the Freshman class. Liu, who was a consultant to the Clinton administration and writes and speaks on democracy and citizenship, spoke eloquently and fervently on being an active participant, whether in college or in society. (He noted that the C.M.C freshmen class is in an unique position, starting off with a new college president and able to “set a new tone” at the school.)
Liu pointed out that there are three components, all equally important, to being an active participant, not only in society but in personal relationships. One is power and understanding how it is used. One is character - being honest and consistent. And the other is practice. As with writing, it is important to practice, practice, practice interacting with people and society, open to learning more, including from mistakes.
I left a bit early, during the Q and A session, to head over to Pomona College where, in the first of a year-long series of lectures called “The Heart of Liberal Arts” on liberal arts colleges which I’m very excited about, Andrew Delbanco spoke on “What Is College For?” I was surprised to find the theater packed, but I guess I shouldn’t have been, for it turns out Delbanco, who first confessed to being like Woody Allen and disoriented anywhere west of the Brooklyn Bridge, is a well-known literary and cultural critic who teaches humanities and directs American Studies at Columbia University.
After pointing out that colleges and universities and especially the humanities are “in trouble,” with institutions of higher education being seen these days as for the elite and spoiled, what with luxurious amenities and high cost and debt, etc., and with emphasis now on science, technology, engineering and math, Delbanco asked why we should be concerned, why we should be alarmed, about this.
He acknowledged being biased and a romantic when it comes to college, noting that Fall is a poignant time of year for professors with the leaves falling and the weather getting cold (although maybe not here, he added half in jest) a reminder that they’re getting older as the students aren’t, but he went on to cite all kinds of references from Greek philosophy to Herman Melville’s Moby Dick supporting the case that higher learning makes one a better person, better able to relate to others. Delbanco posited that, more so than in medieval times when people went to college to learn about a specific thing, modern colleges and universities, particularly the liberal arts, are about opening the mind and dialoguing, with the ideal classroom being where one can learn about oneself and others.
I couldn’t help but hear echoes of what I had heard Eric Liu say earlier in the evening about practicing relating with others and with society. Indeed, Delbanco, who noted that he is an Italian Jew, stressed that this is why diversity and affirmative action is important at colleges and that he is pleased that his university and Pomona College have generous financial aid and grants.
I also couldn’t help going home that evening happy about what is happening in Claremont at the colleges and being able to see it happen.