Image via Claremont Institute
The Claremont Institute, a modest building in an Upland office park, is home to a cluster of influential right-wing scholars. Founded in 1979 by alumni of Claremont Graduate University, the Claremont Institute has since become a “Nerve Center of the American Right,” as stated by New York Times Magazine last year. Recently, the Institute has gained notoriety for providing “a kind of intellectual justification for Trump,” as stated by the chairman of the Institute’s board. Currently, three Claremont McKenna professors are affiliated with the Institute: Professors Charles Kesler, Mark Blitz, and Joseph Bessette.
Recently, The Student Life published an op-ed entitled “CMC, it’s time to renounce the Claremont Institute.” The author, a Claremont McKenna student, declared that the Institute’s conservative philosophy is out of step with the philosophy and values of the Claremont Colleges, and that the two entities are easily confused with one another because of their shared namesake. Therefore, he argues, the colleges should “openly renounce the institute [as] an organization that platforms intellectual movements that oppose everything we stand for.” Issuing a public renunciation on behalf of the entire college, however, would be a grievous offense to the liberal arts education the college is supposed to provide.
In making his claim that the “[Claremont Institute’s] values and platformed beliefs are extremely far outside of anything any of the 7Cs seek to associate themselves with,” the author purports to be channeling the “stated values of the colleges,” which he lists as including “civil discourse, inclusivity, sustainability, community, social responsibility and impact.” A glance at the Claremont Colleges website, however, yields no shared “values of the colleges”––rather, being distinct entities, each institution crafts its own values. While Pitzer may prioritize “social responsibility, intercultural understanding, interdisciplinary learning, student engagement, and environmental sustainability,” CMC’s stated core values are “freedom of expression, diversity of opinion, civil discourse, and mutual respect.” The author, however, glosses over vast institutional differences in his convenient amalgamation of the five colleges’ distinct identities.
Regardless of the author’s specious account of the facts, I submit that even if the Claremont Colleges did hold the values the author purports, they would still be wrong to renounce the Claremont Institute. I share the author’s objections to much of the Claremont Institute’s intellectual project. But as a student seeking a liberal education, I oppose any effort for my college to take an institutional stance on political issues. To do so would be an offense to the university’s truth-seeking mission and set a dangerous precedent that threatens to send higher education further down the death spiral of ideological conformity.
The process of liberal education stems from the precious few principles of freedom of conscience, intellectual humility, and the open exchange of ideas. Beyond that, the intellectual playing field should be open to just about any position under the sun. Under this model, one is free to engage with ideas they disagree with, or even find reprehensible, as it’s understood that no one person is infallible. A willingness to engage with someone you think is profoundly wrong becomes a virtue that hones both your and your opponent’s grasp of a topic. As the famous John Stuart Mill quote says, “He who knows only his own side of the case knows little of that.”
The author seems to propose an alternative model where universities are not truth-seeking institutions committed to thoroughly vetting competing claims of truth but intellectual enforcers that reward sycophants to fashionable ideologies and bludgeon those who dare transgress popular sentiment.
If we accept this model, the assaults on academic freedom would devolve into absurdity. For example, if the Claremont Institute’s politics are disgusting enough to warrant a public renouncement, why not fire the CMC professors affiliated with it? And once that’s done, why not replace their classrooms with video feeds of morally upright individuals preaching the one true opinion? The college would have to review every professor’s CV, searching with a fine-tooth comb for any opinions that have run afoul of today’s campus climate and renouncing any offenders.
Taken to its conclusions, this logic is clearly misguided and dangerous. Treating one side of the political spectrum as having all the answers is silly, and does a disservice not just to those labeled ignorant beyond repair but to those who mistakenly think they have all the answers. Indeed, if the Claremont Institute is as influential as the author suggests, then it would benefit students to encounter these ideas head-on in class, where they can reason and disagree with influential professors.
To be sure, this is no reason for the Claremont Colleges to start recruiting maximally ideologically extreme intellectuals in hopes of exposing students to every possible ideology. The colleges should, however, prioritize hiring professors who are comfortable with confronting unpopular or noxious ideas and guiding students through the (perhaps uncomfortable) process of understanding them and their influence.
Fortunately, CMC and the Claremont Institute understand something that the author does not: that allowing for a discussion does not amount to an endorsement of the ideas expressed in that discussion. If CMC employs professors who say unpopular things, that does not mean that the college agrees with everything those professors say.
Likewise, the Claremont Institute employing fellows or contributors that make unpopular, inflammatory, or even misguided claims does not mean that the Claremont Institute––as an institution––agrees with them. For example, John Eastman, author of several erroneous memos designed to help Mike Pence overturn the results of the 2020 election, is a senior fellow at the Claremont Institute. Nevertheless, the Claremont Review of Books, the Claremont Institute's main publication, published the most thorough and searing critical analysis of Eastman’s exploits, written by Professor Bessette and edited by Professor Kesler. That is not the Claremont Institute eating its own in an act of self-destruction; it is the Institute allowing for internal debate and disagreement, with everyone emerging more informed as a result.
Thankfully, CMC has been wise enough to see the folly of institutional partisanship. It is college policy to “refrain from establishing partisan institutional positions that are not directly related to its educational mission.” As the policy wisely states, “when colleges and universities take sides, they corrupt the necessary conditions for learning,” a sage reminder that we should all take to heart if what we seek is a meaningful education and not a rather expensive four years of being told we have already got everything right.