How were you selected to be among the original faculty members of Pitzer College in 1964?
I was a Pomona College graduate and two of my former Classics professors asked if I might be interested in filling a Classics position at a new college being established in the Claremont Consortium. It was a snowy day in the Midwest at a university where I was teaching, and I thought about the matter for thirty seconds or so and decided to apply for the job.
None of the original faculty members at Pitzer ever really regretted that decision to join the College. We all came because of the College’s first president, John Atherton, former dean of faculty and dean of the English department at Claremont McKenna College. He was widely read and had an astonishing level of amiability and good will. It was hard work founding a new college and his unfailingly positive outlook served and comforted us all continuously in that singularly demanding enterprise.
What is distinctive about Pitzer?
Sometimes amidst all the formal rhetoric about what makes this College distinctive, it’s easy to overlook a deceptively simple truth: Pitzer likes and trusts its students; it always has. One of the reasons that the College has a relatively small assemblage of rules and regulations is just that: By and large we trust our students, and so it is that, whatever they propose, it is unusual for us flatly to say no to them. Simple, as I say, but a good deal rarer than one might think. From day one when the College opened its doors, we have given students a full range of genuine responsibilities. There is no sense in preparing people to go out in the world and make consequential decisions if the only opportunities you give them relate to the color crepe paper to hang at the dances. It is that notion of mutual trust which played a large part in our ultimate decision to institute a community government.
Although it is customary for the outside world, and even us, to view Pitzer as a relatively free-wheeling college, it would be more accurate to say that the College is purposefully malleable. Yes, we can wield the firmer, more authoritative hand that some students look for in a college. That is to say if a student wishes to follow a doggedly pre-plotted and entirely prescriptive course of study devoted to the pursuit of something in the standard realms of, say, economics, history, or pre-med, Pitzer stands both ready and willing to become equally conventional . . . something the likes of a UCLA or USC. However, if a student wants to devise and invest in a more original course of study, the College enthusiastically says, OK, you can do that too and we will assist you in any way we can en route, but first we want to make sure that what you are doing is an enterprise of real pedagogical consequence, for ultimately, whether we embrace a standard or original route to a Pitzer degree, we care a lot about the legitimacy of the degree we ultimately award.
What do students gain from a Pitzer education?
I once wrote a piece years ago in which I think I said that the College doesn’t so much shape its students as it molds itself around their actual aspirations. So it is that when students look back on their four years at the College they think they were simply attending, what they actually see in a kind of high relief are three-dimensional images of themselves that they became when they concluded their tenure here. Pitzer and its students, then, have always had something of a close, symbiotic relationship. It’s nothing to do necessarily with any distinctive curricular emphasis per se, but rather the way we choose to work with and alongside our students whether they are immersed in something like Classics or something else more in tune with our stated curricular emphasis.
How has Pitzer been on the forefront of social revolution since its founding?
People forget what it was like in the ’60s—really roiling times. My students know almost nothing about those days, other than somewhat wistfully to regret that they missed them. Meanwhile, a surprising number of my current colleagues weren’t even born yet, or, if they were, they weren’t yet really sentient forms of life. Anyway, most of the original Pitzer faculty were young, and our students were younger (but not a lot younger) and uncommonly adventurous or they wouldn’t have signed on with an unproven college in the first place.
Given our chartered curricular emphasis, we found ourselves instantly on the leading edge of a newer education without ever having taken any formal steps to get there. We adopted and adapted to our role with uncommon speed, it seems to me. I mean . . . consider that schools and faculty are customarily taken by the public at large to be inherently liberal, even revolutionary. In fact, however, I can think of few professions that are as prone to do things the way things have always been done. In the teaching profession, revolutions usually come slowly and only with frustratingly protracted deliberation.
Deliberation is, after all, part of what we do professionally. Pitzer, nonetheless, moved surprisingly quickly, often to the consternation of our sister colleges in Claremont. Most folk around here take for granted the existence of, say, the ethnic centers and their accompanying curricula, or even, for example, the absence of parietal hours for women students in Claremont, but Pitzer led every step of the way to the generation of such things, and, I might add, we took a lot of lumps for doing so. Still, times have changed, and what was once revolutionary is increasingly commonplace. It was, all in all, a distinctive point in time and what continues to be distinctive about Pitzer is its inheritance of that very point in time. We were and continue to be preternaturally lively, sometimes to the point of exhaustion, but then I exhaust more easily than I used to.
How is Classics interdisciplinary?
My guess is that Classics is viewed as the most traditional or perhaps venerable of all the disciplines we teach at Pitzer, and yet it is by far the most inherently interdisciplinary and intercultural; it has been so for the last couple of thousand years. That’s largely the result of how the world of formal learning classifies its major subjects. Economics in the modern Western world may reside regularly in the department or field group of economics, but, before the middle of the sixth century CE it is Classics, and the same is true of history, art history, philosophy, anthropology, sociology, Women’s Studies, religion and so on. Each of us Classicists may not be equally adept at all of those constituent subdisciplines, but we are expected to be able to deal with all of them pedagogically on some level. So, with the study of Classics you are enmeshed in two extraordinarily long-lived and complex societies, together with the other richly endowed cultures that preceded or co-existed with the Classical world, and by which we in the West have been enlightened, engendered, or imprisoned, depending on your point of view. As a result, we Classicists are always bemused by what is to us a sudden and long-delayed interest in interdisciplinary and intercultural studies. Welcome to our world. In any case, Claremont and Pitzer are wonderful places to teach that world of Classics. In fact, Classics was the first cooperative program at The Claremont Colleges, beginning in 1948-9. Subsequent joint programs at the Colleges have all followed its model.
What do students of the Classics go on to study or become?
Classics majors or those versed in Classics go wherever they want to go. The notion that in order to be a you have to major in a has always seemed to me to be a peculiarly American perception. But, it is not true. Classics is widely viewed as one of the least practical, purely intellectual pursuits that you can engage in. And yet, over the years, some of our Classics majors have gone on to business school to pursue MBAs, many go on to become physicians, attorneys and teachers, but mostly they have gone on to become anything they want, which would not seem strange in, say, England. They call Classics “The Greats” at Oxford, and First Class Honors in the Greats still is believed to prepare you for anything you want to do. Interestingly enough, I still believe that. But, lest I seem to be nothing more than a county fair pitchman trying to sell his peculiar gadgetry that none but he can really operate, don’t take my word for it. Just read the section under “Classics” in the Princeton Guide to College Majors. Frankly, I was somewhat surprised at the editors’ findings, but not as surprised as they were.
Have you maintained close relationships with your students?
There is always a coterie of students with whom you do retain close relationships, but one of the down sides of teaching is that, while it is a service profession, it’s possibly the only service profession in which you don’t regularly learn if any service you ever provided has had any real effect. You teach your students and they go off and you never hear from them again, except for those few with whom you happen to be very close. At Pitzer, this problem of the few is doubtless much more serious for a Classicist than it would be, say, for a sociologist.
Plumbers fix your pipes or they don’t, lawyers win their cases or they don’t, physicians cure an illness or they don’t, but what readily discernible forms of success does a teacher achieve? What really are “learning outcomes,” as they have come inelegantly to be termed, and, far more important, when and how ought one to take stock of those outcomes? Certainly not when our students graduate, but rather ten or even twenty years down the line when one might legitimately hope to discover whether or not anything that went on in a college education actually had any lasting and beneficial effect.
Every now and then students in incredibly warm moments will write letters to former teachers telling them that something they had been taught turned out to be something they really valued. Those are wonderful moments on those very rare occasions when they happen. In the greater meantime, however, you must be content to nurture the pleasant conceit that there have been times when you really were an effective teacher, and that what you had to teach ultimately mattered.
Someone once wrote of teaching that “generations from now, people will be dancing to rhythms you yourself laid down and they will never know it.” I guess that’s as much of your reward in heaven as you’re likely to achieve.