President Gann now has that most internationalist of credentials-election to the board of the Council on Foreign Relations. The college's website celebrates President Gann's place on that august board.
But what exactly are we celebrating?
To be sure, an understanding of the foreign is essential to a liberal arts education. Indeed, ever since Herodotus, we have wondered what peoples live beyond the horizon. There have always been savages, but civilization has been the product of serious thought. It prospers, as we know, with commerce, and chief among that commerce is the trafficking of ideas.
Not all ideas are good. (Aztec ritual sacrifice comes to mind, as does Islamic suicide bombing.) And there is grave danger in loving the other for its own sake and not for the true things that it has to teach. This was, alas, one of the chief defects of the Civilizations course, the ill-fated precursor to the more globalist, Freshman Humanities Seminar, which had no foundation on which to teach Confucian thought or the Bhagavad Gita because students had no idea where to place these ideas in the context of larger thought.
To know others we must first know ourselves - and we are products of Western Thought. It is, after all, something we celebrate in our core requirements, one of the last liberal arts schools to avoid jettisoning all of it for something a bit trendier. This love of the West gives us something to offer that few other schools have: a seeping in Western culture. It is part of the reason we attract students from all over the world. Our first graduate was, after all, an international student from Hong Kong, and the generosity of Claremont donors and thinkers has created something of a Thai intellectual elite. One such member of that elite, then Minister of Foreign Affairs, Surin Pitsuwan '72 praised the American founding and the classics when he visited campus in 1998. In the wake of the Asian financial crisis, he quoted The Federalist, Aristotle, Plato, and Hume to shed light on developments there. And true to his education in Greek mythology, he compared his task to that of Sisyphus, but assured his audience that once Lockean concepts of property were developed, Thailand would recover.
That was then, though, and we conservatives on campus have become Sisyphean in our own right. Indeed, it seems as if Mr. Pitsuwan, who gave the commencement address in 2009, has given up the faith himself, exhorting us, like our president, to be "global citizens," as if the American founding didn't matter and that the love of country might be reactionary. Meanwhile, Jesse Jackson Jr., who once led a fight at Stanford to gut the core curriculum with the slogan "Hey hey, ho, ho, Western Civ has got to go," was an honored guest of our college. Time and again, the administration encourages students to study abroad without giving us any real reason to study here.
To be sure many students take this "study abroad" thing a bit too literally and prefer to study broads. Such students treat study abroad as something of a booze cruise vacation. For others, it is time for doing secular good works, for volunteering for NGOs, and for extirpating white guilt. It is not uncommon to hear of students spending their tuition money for the privilege of living in a hut. Few think that maybe the West, long detested for imperialism - as if their projects weren't imperial in some form - might actually have something to offer the darkest, most miserable corners of the earth. Instead, they are guided by compassion, not reason, the cultivation of the latter being the purpose of education, while compassion leads to excesses. The ancients for good reason regarded compassion as a passion that was all too easily confused with justice, which requires knowledge of the good or superior. Not that you will find much serious consideration of the good on your voyages abroad. And so it is that many Honors senior theses in international studies merely rehash students' travels abroad. The college hopes to archive all of these theses online, but few deserve to be read.
In fairness, college itself has become something of a vacation, too, where your parents (or scholarships or the government, if you are lucky) foot the $50,000 cover charge to the yearlong party. As on any vacation, we have gotten complacent, comfortable and entitled. How else to explain the rash reactions to the Dean of Students office asking that our student government kindly obey the rules and the law? Students have threatened that they won't donate because the college won't violate the law. Is their access to a keg on Thursday nights the sole reason that they would give back to this institution?
That decision by the Dean of Students is a welcome indication that this year might well be different. Such a decision seeks to minister to the body and bodies of our campus - it is true that binge drinking is a problem - but what of its soul?
In recent years, that has been neglected because our president does not know what our mission really is. She has no real sense of what makes Claremont McKenna exceptional. President Gann oddly suggested at convocation last year that we needed new founding documents-as if she could write them. She ignores the rich history of our founding president, George C. S. Benson, who wrote eloquently and often about the institution he was building. This institution would stand apart from the other colleges, who had failed to educate their students. Their biggest failure he wrote was failing to "present a positive view of American civilization." He would make little of President Gann's exhortation at commencement 2009 to be a "global citizen."
Global citizen that Gann is, she's been planning to increase both our brand abroad and the number of foreign faces in classrooms. This latter part makes financial sense - foreign students pay full freight - but the second is an exercise in forgetting what Claremont McKenna is all about. Such forgetfulness explains how President Gann could justify a Singaporean liberal arts college to her press agent and sometimes CMC Forum editor, Michael Wilner CMC '11. That college contract reportedly went to Yale, which, since it accepted the Taliban's spokesman, has long given up its motto of "light and truth," believing as they do, in neither. Much luck to them starting a liberal arts college in a dictatorship.
Meanwhile, at a board meeting in spring of this year, President Gann was chastened by Claremont McKenna's board to tune down her adventuring abroad. As one observer noted when Gann presented a proposal for a program in Korea, one board member stated emphatically that, "We are not the University of Phoenix." The vote over this proposal and other initiatives "wasn't even close."
President Gann remains undaunted. She has planned a new program modeled on the DC program and headed by Professor Bassam Frangieh (Arabic) in the Middle East after going on a junket this past spring. It is unclear where the money for such a program will come from, but it is very clear who will be instructing the new scholars of Arabic. Professor Bassam Frangieh, as this newspaper broke, is a supporter of the terrorist group, Hezbollah, but President Gann is perfectly fine with him instructing the next generation of leaders. She compares his advocacy with that of Ken Miller, who supported the people's right to define marriage.
This support for Frangieh is part of a larger slothfulness in our thinking, more indicative of institutional laziness than malice. It's why Amrita Basu, a potential candidate for full professorship was allowed to get so close to being hired, even after arguing among other foolish things, about "so-called terrorists."
All of this is not to say that there are not good Middle Eastern programs -- only that we aren't officially involved with them. Professors Constance Rossum (Government) and Manfred Keil (Economics) recently visited the American University of Iraq in Sulaimaniyah, a liberal arts college that seeks to teach the new Iraqi students Shakespeare and the classics of the West. To those students serious about studying abroad, I dare them to study there. Go see and see if the liberation of the souls of Kurdish kids was worth the blood and treasure we paid and report back. That, for once, will be a Forum article worth reading.
Of course these Kurdish students aren't likely to get the attention of President Gann. After all, they have no junkets to offer her. She won't get to wine (yes, Muslims still do that) and dine with royalty. Nor will she get to meet bigwigs and ambassadors. But she might just learn what the liberal arts really are. Near where poisoned gas once rained, Kurdish students study what we are supposed to be studying here - the conditions that make men free. It's time to put down our cups, crack open our books and have another look.