Common ground: Athenaeum Fellows seek “fair understanding” by presenting opposing views

The Marian Miner Cook Athenaeum has an established and cherished history as Claremont McKenna College’s beacon for the cultural, social, and academic exchange of ideas.

“The Ath” brings some of the brightest scholars and speakers to campus to discuss—perhaps even debate—the most important topics of our time. In the spirit of community and fellowship, it’s all done over a shared meal in the Eggert Dining Room.

Two Woolley Fellows are selected each year to facilitate discussion with the featured speaker and help book the subsequent year’s programming. This year’s fellows, Hamsa Srikanth ’19 (Economics) and Bruno Youn ’19 (Philosophy, Politics, and Economics), chatted with us about their biggest goals and challenges for a venue they’ve come to appreciate as an essential part of the CMC experience.

Why did you want to get involved in Athenaeum programming?

Srikanth: Since starting school at CMC, I’ve reflected a lot upon what the goals of education should be and what it means to be truly informed. All the individuals I admire and respect are the first to acknowledge that theirs is not the final word. They are constantly seeking out information that disproves their opinion—because if they are wrong, they don’t want to be wrong for a minute longer. Over time, I’ve come to understand the value of this intellectual humility, as well as the Athenaeum’s role in underscoring CMC’s commitment to it.

Youn: Going to the Ath made me appreciate learning about things outside of my own experience. It has truly made a difference in my life. I specifically remember seeing (UC Berkeley professor) Tyrone Hayes in 2017. I’m not much of a natural sciences guy, but Hayes was talking about how he’s being pursued by the pesticide companies because of his work with atrazine and frogs. It sold me on going to more talks from people I didn’t know. I think that experience also speaks to a commonality among students at CMC, and how there’s an inherent tension between more esoteric, specific topics and what we’re all naturally drawn to because it already fits our interests. That’s a challenge I want to help the Ath with—getting people to turn out to talks that aren’t directly relevant to what they’re studying.

What characteristics are important to you when thinking about Athenaeum speakers?

Srikanth: Ath programming has always been diverse, but to some extent it reflects the political/international relations interests of the regular attendees. The Ath is a rare resource for a college campus, and I'd like for a wider student audience to really take advantage of it. As a fellow, I want to work toward a speaker schedule that represents the interests of our student body—including pioneers and minorities in science, literature, the arts, etc. 

Youn: I want to look for speakers that fall into areas that I feel are underdiscussed. The more specific a topic is, the more removed it can be from what CMCers normally discuss on campus. I want to seek out topics that aren’t on the front pages of mainstream media—topics that, perhaps, you have to go into the depths of a long New Yorker article to even begin to understand.

CMC promotes engagement with a diversity of opinions as one of its core tenets. How will you try to build on that backdrop with the fellowship?

Srikanth: I think it's incredibly important to present a diversity of opinions, especially on hot issues that require many nuanced perspectives to arrive at a fair understanding. Diverse, contrarian, and well-substantiated opinions are always welcome at the Ath as long as the speakers engage in good faith. As an Ath fellow, I'm interested in upholding the tradition of free speech, but also in ensuring that we invite people who can make civil and meaningful contributions to the debate.

Youn: Diversity of opinion is incredibly important to me. My goal will be to bring in what I’ll call a “steel man.” It’s the opposite of a straw man because it’s the strongest form of what your opponent believes. I want to show people the strongest form of an opinion that they disagree with. I think that’s what inspires more respect and civility—and what eliminates bad habits and bad faith arguments.

Why did you choose to come to CMC?

Srikanth: Bangalore (India) is the city that I call home and miss dearly. I didn’t have a college counselor and had never even visited America before CMC, so my college process is entirely credited to Google. I really liked the idea of a broad-based liberal arts education, and to be quite honest, California was one of the few U.S. states I knew back then. So, I just took the leap and applied to CMC early decision.

Youn: I grew up in Seal Beach, a sleepy town about an hour from Claremont. I came to CMC principally to get better at socializing. I saw it as a highly extroverted place where the most popular majors, economics and politics, are things that tend to lead to very social professions like finance, politics, and diplomacy. I figured if I was thrown into the deep end at college—that while it might be painful and I’d be forced to adapt—I’d emerge a more functional human being from it. That’s largely laid out so far.

How do you reflect upon your experience here?

Srikanth: I think it has been difficult, but very rewarding. The first paper I wrote at CMC didn’t have a thesis statement. I had never heard of the concept before, and distinctly remember crying in a staff member’s office at how foreign everything from socializing to learning felt. Slowly but surely, dining hall staff started to remember how I liked my omelet and every day at CMC felt a little more natural. Though I’ve maintained a relatively low-profile, I believe that each member of the community has supported or touched my life in some way.

Youn: I’ve learned so much here over the past three years—and I’ve really learned from my mistakes at an accelerated rate. CMC has such a small, tight knit community, it provides a real opportunity to form closer relationships and friendships than you would find at other colleges. You can get deeper with people here, and I think that leads to more opportunities to make mistakes that you can then learn from. I’ve appreciated the opportunity not just to succeed, but to fail.

—Thomas Rozwadowski