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Another new year, another full college line-up

by John Pixley

RuPaul isn’t on the list. But Arianna Huffington and Desmond Tutu are on the list. So are Ken Kesey, Anderson Cooper, William F. Buckley, Bono and Spike Lee.

Mitt Romney, Jonathan Frazen and Anita Hill are on the list, as are Oliver Sachs, Tony Kushner, Elie Wiesel and Karl Rove. Others on the list include Billie Jean King, Steve Forbes, Seamus Haney, Dianne Feinstein, Condoleezza Rice, Ralph Reed, Jesse Jackson, Joyce Carol Oates and Antonin Scalia.

They are all on the list of people who have spoken at the Marian Miner Cook Athenaeum at Claremont McKenna College. A few, like Bono, Anderson Cooper, Spike Lee, Ken Kesey and Karl Rove, didn’t speak at the Athenaeum—they spoke at bigger venues like Bridges Auditorium and McKenna Auditorium—but the talks were all presented by the Athenaeum.

The list takes up a full page of a triptych pamphlet, which appeared this last fall, describing the Athenaeum (“the Ath,” as is often called) and its speakers program. There are plenty of other names on the list. Names like Philip Glass, Bill Clinton, John Irving, Michael Eisner, T. Boone Pickens and Reggie Jackson.

There are also many, many names of people who have spoken at the Athenaeum that aren’t on the list. RuPaul, arguably the best-known drag queen, with his own TV show, is one. I remember him strutting in, making an entrance, not in drag but in a plaid suit and with his shaved head gleaming, and speaking about growing up different. Not that this is anything like a slight. There are plenty of others, hundreds of others, who have spoken at the Athenaeum that aren’t on the list. There may be thousands.

That’s because, during the semester, it’s not unusual for the Athenaeum to feature talks every evening, Monday through Thursday. That’s four talks a week, more often than not. Plus, there are sometimes lunchtime talks.

I don’t know if the Athenaeum has had this schedule since its inception in 1970, but this has been the schedule in the 15 or 20 years that I have been going there. I haven’t gone to every talk in those years—not by a long shot—but I figure I’ve gone to hundreds.

That there have been so many talks at the Athenaeum is almost as extraordinary as who has spoken there. Indeed, as it’s pointed out in the pamphlet, the Ath is “unique in US higher education,” and many of the speakers make note of how special the Athenaeum is. They often remark that it is a real honor to be included among the speakers there.

I go for the talks, but the Athenaeum is also unique and known because of the food that is usually served before the talks. As noted in the pamphlet, in a note from CMC President Hiram E. Chodosh, “The Ath is a culinary experience.” For those who pay for lunch or dinner—and most likely free for the students—the meals look quite nice, even elegant, and are reportedly very good.

With all this in a beautiful setting, complete with displays of original artwork that change from time to time, the Athenaeum is an one-of-a-kind experience. All the more so for being on a college campus. As President Chodosh writes in his welcoming note, “The high-caliber speakers, social and intellectual energy, delicious food and captivating setting together create a transformative experience.”     

What’s more, the Athenaeum, as remarkable as it is, is just one offering at the Colleges. The Athenaeum isn’t the only place on the campuses where one can hear speakers. The other Colleges have a steady parade of speakers, many of which are well-known and distinguished. Just one example is Pomona College hosting US Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor last semester. Scripps College has its Humanities Institute lecture series and Harvey Mudd College has a series of talks, both with a different theme each semester.

Of course, there are a number of other speakers at the Colleges, other than in these and other themed series. These include some at Pitzer College by those involved in social movements and activism, which are often not widely advertised.

It is not unusual for me to go to an after-dinner talk at the Athenaeum at 6:45 and then go on to another talk at another College. Who needs TV!

It also seems to me that this has been more and more the case in the last five or 10 years. It seems that the Colleges, perhaps inspired by the Athenaeum, have grown to attract a remarkable number of presentations.

And I’m just talking about speakers. There are also all the concerts and recitals, plays and films and other presentations. Some are by students, and some are by professional artists. Many of these are free, like the talks, or involve a nominal fee.

It’s a lot to look forward to, as we start a new year and as the students start coming back from winter break for the spring semester, which tends to be even busier than the fall.

That’s just at the Colleges. We are reminded of this this week, as we will kick off the new year with the dedication of the new stage at Shelton Park in the Village. Not only is the new stage a nifty opportunity for the city and the Colleges to collaborate, it is yet another thing to do in Claremont. 

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