All posts by Brad Richardson

Brad Richardson is Editor-in-Chief Emeritus of the Claremont Independent and a senior at Claremont McKenna College studying Philosophy, Politics, and Economics (PPE). Although he has lived in Colorado nearly all of his life, Brad defies stereotype in that he does not ski or snowboard. When he's not at the Athenaeum, Brad can usually be found reading Jane Austen novels and complaining about their film adaptations.

On the Athenaeum and its Director

I was intellectually awakened at the Athenaeum.

It all started when one of my professors spontaneously assigned an essay entitled “The Disadvantages of an Elite Education.” The author of the piece was speaking at the Athenaeum later that week, and my professor wanted each of us to read the essay to encourage us to attend the lecture. When one of my classmates asked who the author was, my professor could not pronounce his name. “William Der-SHOE-witsDerez-EWE-wicksDeer-SEW-wiz,” he stammered. After a few more attempts, he gave up, and we agreed simply to call him “Bill D.”

As I read Bill D.’s essay, I could feel myself changing. My heart beat rapidly, my eyes watered – it felt as if a fire had been lit in my chest. Each sentence seemed to pry my soul further and further out of the confines of my body. His words were tearing down the artificial armor that I had encased myself in over the years. I could feel the pressures of society and the market and the world begin to alleviate, as I began to see myself more clearly for who I was.

Later that week, I attended Bill D.’s lecture. That night, I bought his book. And over the next several weeks, I read everything that he had ever written. I have attended five of his lectures, sat-in on several writing workshops that he has hosted, and had lunch with him once. I still read one of his essays, “Solitude and Leadership,” which I consider his best work to date, at least once a month.

Of course, I now know Bill D. as William Deresiewicz (De-REZ-awits). Deresiewicz was the first non-fiction writer whose work made me feel as if I had just been benevolently pummeled. It’s an odd feeling, an almost indescribable amalgamation of joy and shame. Deresiewicz’s writing often made me embarrassed about the way that I had formerly seen myself and the world. But, at the same time, I was happy to see my failures for what they were before I had made any irreversible mistakes, and I was excited about the new opportunities that lay before me to live a life that truly gave me meaning. The feeling is almost spiritual – like the out-of-body sensation of realizing that there is something out there greater than oneself; like standing on the highest mountain top and staring out at the vastness of the world; like looking up at the stars, or at a piece of art that captures something profoundly unsayable about human nature.

Prior to Deresiewicz, I had only felt this sort of sensation reading the works of Jane Austen, whose characters made me ashamed of the lesser aspects of my own character, but who also served as guides to help me realize what my best possible self could look like. Although Austen was a major influence – and I have been similarly affected by the novels of Leo Tolstoy, Feodor Dostoevsky, and Henry James, in particular – something about the clarity with which Deresiewicz diagnosed my illness, undisguised by character and plot, struck me to the bone in a way that was different. Deresiewicz challenged, in plain diction, the unfounded assumptions I had made about who I was and who I wanted to be. He put in rational words the emotions that erupted within me when I read Austen, and he has helped me to recognize these feelings again and again in the works of Tolstoy and others.

I am grateful that I happened to stumble upon Deresiewicz and his wonderful essays. He has irrevocably changed my life. But I also realize that it was a complete accident. Had my professor never mentioned Deresiewicz’s essay, had I not attended his talk at the Athenaeum – had he never been invited to the Athenaeum in the first place – I am not sure who I would be today. That is why the Athenaeum is such an important – perhaps the most important – institution in forwarding (and reviving) the liberal arts tradition at CMC. The Athenaeum opens students up to a wide variety of ideas and perspectives that their often narrowly focused classes and specialized faculty do not. Several of my friends were not inspired by Deresiewicz like I was, and I have attended lectures that did not move me the way they moved others. You never know which speaker, which idea, is going to change your life forever. But the Athenaeum exponentially increases the chances that you will find that idea.

For this reason, the way that CMC has conducted the search for the next Athenaeum Director is troubling.

Former Athenaeum Director Bonnie Snortum stepped down from her post in 2014 after 25 years of dedicated service to the college. This past school year, the wife of CMC President Hiram Chodosh, Priya Junnar, has served as interim-director. Mrs. Junnar is now one of four finalists pursuing the full-time director position. This is not a problem in and of itself, but it requires the college to be painfully aware of the potential conflict of interest in the hiring process. The next Atheaeum Director should be chosen for her ability to perform the important duties of the position, not because of her connection to the school and its president. It is the college’s duty not only to ensure that a conflict of interest is not present when choosing the next director, but that even the appearance of a conflict of interest does not discredit the ultimate decision of the hiring committee.

CMC has clearly not done this. The six-person panel selected to choose the next director consists of two tenured faculty (Professors Esther Chung-Kim and Sven Arndt), two students (former ASCMC President Ben Tillotson ’15 and Athenaeum Student Manager Hester Lam ‘15), and two administrators who report directly to President Chodosh (Director of Academic Planning Diana Graves and Vice-President for Student Affairs Jefferson Huang). If Mrs. Junnar is a finalist for the position, then administrative personnel who work directly under her husband should not be on the committee tasked with selecting the eventual director.

Furthermore, at the candidate interviews (I attended three of four, including Mrs. Junnar’s), I was shocked by the apparent favoritism that several students showed Mrs. Junnar over the other candidates. Several students clarified Mrs. Junnar’s answers to difficult questions during her interview, and even answered the questions outright before Mrs. Junnar had the chance to answer them herself. Yet, in the other candidate interviews, these same students came across as uninterested, as if they had already made up their minds – if they even showed up at all. Even worse, during a lunch interview, one group of students spoke with the prospective candidate for about an hour, while another group of students sitting at a different table talked loudly and joked obnoxiously with each other to the point where it became difficult to hear the candidate’s answers to the first group’s questions. These students only came to the candidate’s table in the final minutes of the interview, yet each student’s evaluation of the candidate carried the same weight in the decision-making process.

The Athenaeum is too important to get this wrong. Even if Mrs. Junnar is the right candidate for the job, she has not been given the chance to demonstrate it in an impartial setting. Under these circumstances, if Mrs. Junnar is selected as the next director, then it is nothing short of a scandal – at a school that knows the word all too well.

Relatives of Conservatives Speaker Series Started at Scripps

Barbara Pierce Bush, a global health activist, social justice champion, and daughter of President George W. Bush, headlined the 2015 Elizabeth Hubert Malott Public Affairs Program March 24 at Scripps College’s Garrison Theater.

The Malott program has sought to bring speakers to campus who hold “a range of opinions about the world – especially opinions with which we may not agree, or think we do not agree.” The last three guest lectureships were given by syndicated conservative columnists Charles Krauthammer, Peggy Noonan, and George Will.

According to an unnamed source within the Scripps administration, the Bush talk this year was such a success, that the college is planning to alter the mission statement of the Malott Program for future lectures. The new goal of the speaker series will reportedly be to bring speakers to campus who are “the close relatives of those with a range of opinions about the world – especially opinions with which we may not agree, or think we do not agree.”

“Rather than expanding the intellectual horizons of Scripps students by inviting speakers to challenge their widely held, preconceived political notions, as the program has done in previous years, the new Malott Public Affairs Program will try to teach Scripps students how to cope with their conservative family members by inviting the close relations of prominent conservatives to speak on campus,” Scripps President Lori Bettison-Varga said in an internal memo obtained by the Independent. “I cannot think of a more exemplary inaugural speaker for the new direction of the Malott speaker series than Barbara Pierce Bush, daughter of that racist George W. Bush.”

Several members of the Scripps administration told the Independent that they support the decision to take the Malott speaker series in a new direction.

“I think the change to the Malott program is a step in the right direction,” Women’s Studies Chair Rosie Theriveter-Steinem said in an interview with the Independent. “Rather than introducing Scripps students to conservative principles and ideology – in order to force them to think about their own beliefs in a more critical light – I think it’s more important that Scripps students understand how to grapple mentally and emotionally with the fact that they have conservative family members.”

“After all, what’s the point of bringing conservatives to campus when students already won’t take them seriously?” Scripps Vice President for Social Deconstruction Betty Wolf-Woolf-Wollstonecraft-Dunham said in an interview with the Independent. “I mean, I really don’t think it would create an effective dialogue, anyway, because most students would be too upset even to listen, so why bother?”

“Even thinking that there’s a conservative in close proximity – or that people with such beliefs actually exist – is pretty triggering to most students at Scripps,” one cousellor at Monsour Counselling and Psychological Services told the Independent in an email. “But we can learn a lot about how to cope with that trauma from those who actually had to live under the same roof as one.”

The Independent also obtained a list of potential candidates that the Scripps administration plans to invite for the Malott speaker series in upcoming years. The list is included in its entirety below:

  1. Ron Reagan, National Dog Show host on Animal Planet
  2. Christopher Buckley, writer
  3. Bob Krauthammer, accountant
  4. Doesn’t George Will have a cousin? Like, John Will, or something? I think he’s in real estate.
  5. Liz and Mary Cheney (already invited them)
  6. Kate Upton, model, niece of Sen. Fred Upton (R – Mich.)
  7. Tom Branson (from Downton Abbey)

At press time, Scripps students were still demanding the administration apologize for inviting a white speaker to campus to talk about global health issues.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Why We Still Need Harry Jaffa

Earlier this year, Claremont McKenna College lost perhaps the most famous professor ever to teach under the Bauer Center rotunda. Harry Jaffa was 96, but still just as cantankerous as when he first came to Claremont in 1965.

Before arriving at what was then Claremont Men’s College, Jaffa beat long odds to secure positions at the University of Chicago and Ohio State University when universities weren’t hiring Jews. Jaffa’s mentor at Yale, Harvey Mansfield Sr., even tried to dissuade him from going into academia, despite his brilliance, because of the slim job prospects that awaited him there – but that only made Jaffa more resolved than ever on becoming a professor.

And it was his professors whom Jaffa looked up to more than anyone. After fleeing Yale to continue his graduate studies at the New School, Jaffa took a class with Leo Strauss, a Jewish émigré from Germany and one of Hitler’s gifts to America. Over seven years and a mutual relocation to the University of Chicago, Jaffa took 19 courses with Strauss. Guiding him on journeys through the greatest books ever written and the most profound thoughts ever speculated upon, Strauss freed Jaffa’s mind and showed him that there was more to life than the shadows on the cave wall.

“One of Strauss’s secrets was that he made you feel not a passive receptacle of his insights, but as his partner in the voyage of discovery. He was the captain of the ship. But you were part of the crew. And you sailed together,” Jaffa writes.

At Ohio State University, Jaffa wrote his magnum opus, Crisis of the House Divided, an interpretation of the Lincoln-Douglas Debates. At the time of its publication in 1959, America’s perception of its greatest president had changed drastically. At best, as a new brand of scientific historicism proclaimed, Lincoln was an incompetent leader who fought an unnecessary war that more tactful diplomacy could have prevented. At worst, as many even on the Right thought, he was a power-hungry tyrant.

Jaffa’s book changed the way we think about Lincoln. He showed that Lincoln and Douglas were not simply talking about slavery or popular sovereignty, but they were having the same debate that Socrates and Thrasymachus had over 2,000 years prior in Plato’s Republic. Thrasymachus’ position is that justice is simply the will of the stronger (Douglas’ popular sovereignty), whereas Socrates argues that right and wrong are truths discernible by reason, independent of what the stronger says they are (Lincoln’s view that slavery is always immoral, even if the people want it). This is why Lincoln held the Declaration of Independence – a document that proclaims it a self-evident truth that man is endowed by his Creator with unalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness – in such high esteem, even above the Constitution.

Part of Douglas’ principle of popular sovereignty is that, as an Illinoisan, he has no right to say whether slavery is good or evil to someone living in another state, where the economy, customs, and even morals are supposedly different. The Founders, he argues, understood this and, therefore, implemented a federalist system of self-government and state’s rights in order to ensure that no one state’s view of morality overthrows the rest.

Douglas essentially tells Lincoln that he has no right to judge the institution of slavery in the states of which he is not a citizen. Who is Lincoln to say whether slavery is right or wrong to someone living in a culture of which he is not a part and that he fundamentally does not understand? To do so is the pinnacle of both arrogance and ignorance.

A similar sort of argument is in vogue on college campuses today. When a white student tries to speak on issues pertaining to race, or a cisgender student tries to comment on political questions relating to transgenderism, they are told that they cannot possibly understand the issues because of their identities and privileged statuses. These students are told that their opinions are not warranted and would be better kept to themselves (i.e., shut up). Substitute “white” or “cisgendered” for “Illinoisan,” and this is the same argument that Douglas makes against Lincoln.

Would those who champion identity politics really extend such a morally pusillanimous and intellectually feeble principle to the institution of slavery or to other human atrocities? Should one not denounce slavery in Georgia because he is not from Georgia, or the Holocaust as evil because he is not German? It seems that such a view is only invoked when it is politically advantageous to do so.

One of the enduring lessons of Jaffa is that moral truth is not simply a zeitgeist of the peculiar times in which we live, the background we come from, or the identities we hold. Moral truth is accessible to everyone, everywhere, because it is connected to a permanent view of human nature discernible through reason. Therefore, as Jaffa might have posited, it is irrational to claim that someone cannot understand political questions regarding race, gender, or sexuality just because he does not hold a certain identity. It is not one’s identity as black or white or straight or gay that gives one authority to comment on these questions, but one’s capacity to reason as a human being that does.

This is not to say that one’s judgment cannot become clouded by bias. Everyone holds certain prejudices that are a product of the environment in which they grow up and live. Further, just because moral truth is accessible through reason does not mean that reason is infallible. But without proper evidence to show that one has succumbed to bigoted proclivities or made an erroneous judgment, it is unreasonable to assume that a white person cannot make a contribution to dialogues centered on race, or straight people to discussions of homosexuality, because these questions are essentially different versions of the same debates – those over justice, good, evil, and human nature – that have been raging throughout history.

So, just remember, if anyone tells you that you cannot talk about certain subjects because you do not hold an identity authorized to do so, tell them to read the great Harry Jaffa, because they are beginning to sound an awful lot like Stephen Douglas.

The End of the Women’s College

Back in 2010, 76 percent of the Scripps College student body voted in favor of a measure to make the language of its student constitution more inclusive of those who did not identify as female at the college. Instances of “she,” “her,” and “women,” among other terms, were replaced with gender- and sex-neutral phrases, such as “the student” or “students.”

Now that the Scripps administration has issued a new policy that allows for the intentional admission of transmen and -women, will it pick up where the students left off?

Effective in the fall of 2016, Scripps will consider applicants for admission “who report that the sex currently listed on their birth certificate is female” (including transmen) and “who self-identify as women” (i.e., transwomen). The college advertised the admissions policy in a Dec. 6 letter as one that “reiterates Scripps’ identity as a women’s college.” According to a FAQ page that the college created to address the new admissions policy, “the broader purpose of the women’s college has always been to provide a safe haven to build the minds of the gender marginalized in our culture.”

The proffered excuse for the new policy – that women’s colleges are really institutions for the “gender marginalized” of society – strikes one as little more than an ad hoc rationalization. Scripps had an end – touting the popular liberal stance on the issue of transgenderism without compromising its identity as a women’s college – and invented the means to get there.

But, of course, women’s colleges were not created as institutions for every subset of the gender-marginalized of society. They were created as institutions in which to educate one particular group discriminated against in the higher-education market: women. And regardless of one’s opinion on the politics of transgenderism, one of these groups, either transmen or transwomen, must be considered men. The intentional admission of men to an institution created for the purpose of educating only women does not reaffirm, but is rather a radical departure from, that institution’s identity.

Although the reasoning behind Scripps’ new policy is dubious, will it have any tangible consequences? Not only could transmen who applied as women already attend the college, but admitting a few transwomen would seem to have a negligible effect on the Scripps student body and the experience of the average Scripps student.

As the administration rightly points out on the FAQ page, because of its situation as a member of the Claremont Colleges, Scripps has never been a space only for women. Even though Scripps will now intentionally admit men, men from the other colleges can already attend classes at Scripps, eat at the dining hall, and access many of the college’s facilities as frequently as Scripps students themselves. The primary logistical problem that the policy presents concerns on-campus housing, but there are many remedies available to the Scripps administration to ensure that every student is comfortable with his or her living arrangement.

Yet, the policy still threatens to change Scripps irrevocably through a more subtle mechanism. It is not the physical presence of men, but rather the collision of the transgender movement with the values of the modern liberal campus that will ultimately be Scripps’ undoing.

On a campus where every distinction is a “micro-aggression,” every potentially offensive idea accompanied by a “trigger warning,” and every hurt feeling satiated in its demands for reparations, Scripps cannot survive the politics of transgenderism unscathed.

Although Scripps rationalized its new admissions policy with the purpose of serving the gender-marginalized, it will have to uproot many of its traditions and significantly alter its campus in order to ensure that those it claims to be protecting from gender-marginalization do not actually feel marginalized by expressions of gender at the college.

Take, for instance, the college’s unofficial motto, “The Women’s College”: How does a motto that excludes a segment of students at Scripps – on a particularly sensitive distinction, no less – aid Scripps in its mission to serve as a safe haven for the gender-marginalized? Will the Dean of Students Office dismiss the complaints of a male student who feels marginalized and out of place because of the women-centric rhetoric at the college – as if he were not really a member of the community – as if he were invisible? Will an energetic group of student activists – who already voted to rid their own bylaws of any reference to those with two X chromosomes – really stand for such injustice?

Why not change the motto to something more inclusive, such as “Scripps College: College of the Gender-Marginalized”? Or, to take a page out of the student handbook, “Scripps College: The Students’ College.” At the very least, “Scripps College: The [Trigger Warning!] Women’s College.”

And there are other elements of Scripps’ campus that demand revision. When Scripps ornaments its campus with papier-mâché molds of the female anatomy, students who lack such a body, but still view themselves as women, may feel their gender identity being compromised before their very eyes. Mount Holyoke College, an all-women’s school in Massachusetts, will no longer perform The Vagina Monologues for this very reason.

Indeed, the experiences of other women’s colleges are indicative of what Scripps can come to expect. Although Wellesley College, a women’s college in Massachusetts, has not revised its admissions policy to include transwomen, it has become embroiled in the national debate because of the advocacy of several transmen who are alumni of the college, such as Alex Poon, who graduated in 2012. In her New York Times essay, entitled “When Women Become Men at Wellesley,” Ruth Padawer recounts Poon’s experience of winning Wellesley’s hoop-rolling race, a 131-year-old tradition at the college:

A small local newspaper covered the event, noting that for the first time in the school’s history, the winner was a man. And yet the page on Wellesley’s website devoted to school traditions continues to describe the race as if it involves only women. “Back in the day, it was proclaimed that whoever won the Hoop Roll would be the first to get married. In the status-seeking 1980s, she was the first to be C.E.O. Now we just say that the winner will be the first to achieve happiness and success, whatever that means to her.” But Alex isn’t a her, and he told me that his happiness and success includes being recognized for what he is: a man.

By continuing to call itself a women’s college and decorating its campus with references to “sisterhood” and other exclusionary terms and images, transgender students may feel overlooked at Scripps, like Poon and others have at Wellesley.

Perhaps the all-women’s college has simply lived long enough to see itself become an outdated institution in the battle for progress. Progress seems to dictate that Scripps no longer call itself a “women’s college,” stop referring to its students as “women,” and rid its campus of any inordinate expressions of sisterhood.

After that, what is it, really? Certainly not a women’s college in any meaningful sense of the term.

And, frankly, that is tragic, especially for alumni who are rightfully concerned about where this new admissions policy threatens to take a beloved college that they thought crucial to their development as women.

Somehow “Scripps College: The Students’ College” doesn’t quite have the same ring to it.

Claremont School of Economics

An annual topic of conversation in the Ivy League world is the rise of the economics major. As Kevin Roose points out in New York Magazine, economics has been the most popular major at Harvard, Princeton, and Yale for several consecutive years, with between 11 and 15 percent of degrees conferred in that subject at each school. The major is even growing in popularity at the usually unconventional Brown, where the proportion of students graduating with a degree in economics has risen from 4 to 14 percent from 2003 to 2013.

This is one of the many trends that author and notable higher-education critic William Deresiewicz laments in his recently released Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life. Deresiewicz sees the rise of the economics major as a symptom of what ails academia: students at elite colleges are no longer incentivized to pursue their passions or cultivate potential interests (particularly in the humanities), but instead believe they must do whatever will land them the most prestigious and highest-paying job upon graduation (such as by majoring in economics).

As the cost of higher-education tuition skyrockets around the country, and as more students become saddled with burgeoning student-loan debt, it is difficult for students not to perform cost-benefit analyses of their educations. According to Deresiewicz, these sorts of external, market forces have transformed the university into little more than a stepping stone for the professions, not an opportunity to find one’s true “self” or passion or calling in life.

Deresiewicz’s bête noire in the book is undoubtedly the Ivy League. (He holds three degrees from Columbia, where his father taught, and spent a 10-year stint teaching at Yale himself.) In this respect, Deresiewicz is not straying far from the norm; popular critiques of higher education – such as William F. Buckley Jr.’s conservative cult classic God and Man at Yale, Nathan Harden’s follow-up Sex and God at Yale, and Ross Douthat’s Privilege – often have the Ivies in their particular crosshairs.

But Deresiewicz is also more than familiar with Claremont McKenna College and its students. He spoke on campus most recently Nov. 17 (his third visit in as many years) to promote the book, for which he even spent a month researching at CMC. While the majority of his criticisms are supported with statistics or anecdotes deriding the Ivy League, it is perhaps not surprising that much of what Deresiewicz has to say can easily be applied to CMC. Actually, if one takes the Ivy references and general focus out of Deresiewicz’s work, Excellent Sheep reads as though it were written specifically with CMC in mind.

Take, for instance, what Deresiewicz writes about the trend in higher education to characterize its central mission as one of creating “leaders”:

What they mean is nothing more than getting to the top. Making partner at a major law firm, or running a department at a leading hospital, or becoming a senator or chief executive or college president. Being in charge, in other words: climbing to the top of whatever greasy pole of whatever hierarchy you decide to attach yourself to.

Harvard and Princeton may say that they are creating the “leaders of tomorrow,” but can their students actually take courses or graduate with a sequence in leadership? While the Ivies may promote the idea of leadership – in Deresiewicz’s view, a false one – CMC is obsessed with it.

Data Source: CMC Registrar
Data Source: CMC Registrar

As for the rise in economics majors: while Brown and Yale see 10 to 15 percent of their student bodies enrolling in economics and wonder if that represents an educational crisis, more than 27 percent of CMC graduates last year held either a single, dual, or double major in economics (Figure 1). And including multi-disciplinary majors that incorporate economics, such as Econ-Engineering or Econ-Accounting, nearly 50 percent of graduates in the class of 2014 received a degree that had the word “Economics” on it (Figure 2).

Data Source: CMC Registrar
Data Source: CMC Registrar

All this is to say, perhaps CMC is simply ahead of the curve – what Deresiewicz and others are afraid the Ivies and higher education in general are quickly becoming. But comparing CMC to the Ivies or even to other liberal arts colleges is not particularly apt. Deresiewicz put it very succinctly to a student questioner during his Nov. 17 talk: “CMC is a liberal arts school in name only.” Although he probably meant that somewhat condescendingly, there is some truth buried beneath the sneer: CMC is not a typical liberal arts college.

Like many other liberal arts colleges, CMC sees its mission as creating members of society fit to act with the virtues and skills necessary for responsible citizenship and, yes, leadership in a free-market democracy. But, unlike other liberal arts colleges, CMC has sought to fulfill this mission by focusing on the liberal arts that more closely relate to public affairs, such as government, international relations, and economics. CMC has always taught the traditional liberal arts, but it places a special emphasis on those subjects it deems to be more adaptable and “pragmatic” to life beyond the ivory tower. Because of its history as a liberal arts college rooted in public affairs, CMC tends to attract students who are actually interested in those areas of study, who are not necessarily selling-out by taking courses in fields like economics, as Deresiewicz believes is happening around the country.

But just because CMC should not take everything that Deresiewicz says to heart because of the unique niche that it fills in the liberal arts tradition does not mean that his criticisms are completely inapplicable to the school. While economics is and always has been a central aspect of CMC’s curriculum, it is quickly becoming the curriculum – especially, it appears (although correlation does not equal causation), at the expense of governmental studies. While CMC’s dual pillars of economics and government each sat at around 25 percent of all majors in 2004, there is now a nearly 14-point gap between the two (Figure 1). That disparity increases to about a 20-point gap when one includes multi-disciplinary and related majors into the discussion – again, from a relatively equal footing in 2004 (Figure 2).

There are several potential reasons for this apparent shift toward economics and away from government. Two major events that have colored our generational lens to this point are the election of President Barack Obama and the Great Recession. Although one might have anticipated a boom in political interest with the election of a charismatic president like Obama, young people to this point have been dissatisfied with the president and his promises for change. This may have created a greater sense of political disinterestedness in the pool of applicants to CMC in recent years.

“There was a burst of excitement around the election of President Obama,” CMC Government Professor John Pitney said in an interview. “But that’s long since dissipated.”

Couple that political apathy with the largest financial crisis since the Great Depression, which has heightened students’ anxiety about the future – in addition to providing thesis fodder for many an economics major – and a growing disparity between economic and governmental studies at CMC seems like a very natural, short-term phenomenon.

There are also institutional practices at CMC that may be fueling this growing divide – to which Deresiewicz’s criticisms more neatly apply. As Deresiewicz points out, the rising cost of attending college and increasing student loan debt, which undoubtedly motivate more students to think of their education as an investment and select majors that maximize the return on that investment, are obvious factors. But more compelling is the influence of CMC’s Robert Day School, which partially subsidizes the tuition of a select group of students (to the tune of roughly $15,000), who must in turn take courses in economics, finance, and accounting. There is good reason to be suspicious of the influence of RDS, which was founded in 2007, right about when a major uptick in economics majors and a major downturn in governmental studies began (Figures 1 and 2).

“If you look at graduates, the number of government majors is definitely down; one cause is RDS,” Pitney said. “It’s a basic rule of thumb that when you subsidize something, you get more of it, and if you subsidize economics majors, you get more of them. People who otherwise might have majored in government are majoring in economics.”

Although students do not have to major in economics to become Robert Day Scholars, if one is already required to take a certain number of economics-related courses in order to qualify for the scholarship, then it makes little sense not to add at least a dual or double major in economics to one’s degree. Furthermore, while $15,000 is probably not enough to convince students passionately interested in unrelated subjects, such as the humanities, to major in economics, for those at the margin – debating between, say, economics and government, which are subjects that overlap in many ways – the financial incentive and the resulting prestige associated with becoming a “Robert Day Scholar” may be enough push them over the edge.

“I know people who were motivated to go RDS because it was a lot of money and their families needed the money or they needed the money,” CMC Philosophy Professor Paul Hurley said in an interview. “And if that person is doing RDS instead of being a government major, that’s a problem; they should be choosing the course of study that’s best-suited to their interests, not the course of study that’s best-suited to immediate financial incentives.”

Yet, while some students are undoubtedly incentivized by financial considerations provided by RDS to change or alter their major toward economics, perhaps that is not the primary method by which RDS has transformed CMC’s student body.

“I think, if we get rid of the external world around us, the incentive to major in economics or STEM-related activities, I think that the fact that there are more faculty around to teach economics classes, classes in a great diversity of economics, I think that’s more important than the financial incentive,” CMC Economics Professor and Dean of the Robert Day School Brock Blomberg said in an interview. “I’d say about half of the increase is due to the interest in more practically focused education, and the other half is that we’ve been able to hire more faculty to interest students.”

Although the narrative that the Robert Day School drives students interested in literature and philosophy to become economics and accounting majors against their better judgment is the more compelling argument for the School’s critics, perhaps the more persuasive one is that RDS has given CMC a certain image to prospective applicants. RDS, especially with its B.A./M.A. program in finance, is a very unique and visible institution, one not readily available to students at other colleges. With the creation of the Robert Day School, perhaps CMC has become a Mecca of sorts for students interested in economics; perhaps high school seniors interested in economics are simply taking notice and applying to CMC in greater number. Even more, once students get here, they may be more interested in taking a diverse array of economics courses – such as those related to environmental and political economics, rather than your run-of-the-mill micro- and macroeconomics courses – offered by an impressive array of RDS professors.

The question going forward is how CMC should adapt to change: If one believes that the rise in economics majors poses a problem to CMC’s intellectual diversity and public affairs tradition, then how should the administration react? Is the answer to curb RDS’s influence? How? And by how much? Should the response to uneven growth be to cut everyone down to the same level?

Or should departments feeling squeezed-out by RDS respond by trying to broaden their appeal to students?

Programs such as the Dreier Roundtable, which may have the side-effect of increasing student interest in governmental studies and attracting more applicants who are interested in politics – in addition to its other missions on campus – may go a long way toward evening out the balance at CMC. But $200 million is a difficult threshold to overcome. (Congressman Dreier’s goal is to raise $1 million for the college over several years.) How do we ensure fair competition without punishing success?

Seems like a question for an economist.