[Written for the CMC Forum]
Having so frequently rubbed shoulders with renowned artists, intellectuals, and public figures, Athenaeum director Bonnie Snortum could easily be one of the more intimidating members of CMC staff. Yet interviewing Bonnie is, among other things, a lesson in humility. By simply speaking with her, you would have no idea that she’s helped host the likes of Condoleezza Rice, David Sedaris, Desmond Tutu, John Wooden, and Milton Friedman, or that she began her long and prosperous career at the Ath not as an employee but as a guest, invited three times to perform. And, while others might find the Athenaeum director position a convenient means to pursue a personal agenda, for Bonnie it is simply a welcome opportunity to engage students in meaningful discussion of relevant topics, promote interest in the fine arts, and foster a community of intellectual curiosity – goals that not only resonate throughout her career, but span her entire life.
Raised on a farm in a Norwegian community of North Dakota, Bonnie’s formative years were spent speaking both English and Norwegian, doing various chores around the farm, and developing her lifelong love for learning in a one-room country schoolhouse.
“The first eight grades shared one room and one teacher,” she recalls, “So the older children taught the younger chldren – we were all responsible for each other. “
Despite her schoolhouse origins, Bonnie eventually made it to the many-roomed Concordia University in Minnesota, where she majored in music performance – the culmination of 15 years of dedication to the piano. It was also at Concordia where Bonnie met John Snortum, the soon-to-be Claremont McKenna College psychology professor and her soon-to-be husband. The pair married shortly after their graduation; while John pursued psychology, Bonnie served as the organist and choir director for a church, gave piano lessons, became the musical accompanist at the university, and performed in a chamber music ensemble.
With John’s 1967 employment as a CMC psychology professor, Bonnie was first introduced to the Claremont McKenna community as a faculty wife. She later established herself around campus as an accomplished pianist with the performances of her chamber music ensemble at the Athenaeum once in 1986 and twice in 1987.
However, it wasn’t until 1989 that Bonnie’s role in the Marian Miner Cook Athenaeum became more than that of performer. With the passing of her husband, who died of cancer in 1988 at age 53, Bonnie sought a way to assist the school that had so recently provided both employment and community for her husband. Taking on the position of assistant to then-Athenaeum director Jil Stark, Bonnie began the career that would eventually come to both define the culture of the Athenaeum and provide a wider emphasis on substantive learning in the CMC community.
Now, as Ath director, Bonnie’s greatest joy is the ability to expose CMC students (and herself) to a uniquely diverse education through the speakers and performers she brings to the Athenaeum.
“I have a strong feeling that we should be a place for ideas,” she remarks, “And that we should never be afraid of ideas.” She continues: “With new ideas you have the opportunity to learn something that will help you understand the world, and look at the world in a more circumspect way.”
For Bonnie, the Athenaeum has never been a forum for presenting polarizing viewpoints or emphasizing her own opinion. That, she asserts, would be an utter misuse of the Athenaeum platform.
“It can be very unproductive – to polarize people,” she says. “In doing so, people are made to determine whether they’re on one side or the other.” But the reality of any topic or controversy seems to be that the conflicting ideas surrounding it are never dichotomous, which makes Bonnie’s insistence on being “receptive to hearing all ideas” some of the most valuable advice any student can receive.
When asked about her experiences with celebrity speakers, Bonnie waves away the question, noting simply that “it does not do well to be too much in awe of celebrity.”
“In other words,” she continues, “Interesting people do interesting things, but they’re real people, so you can relate to them in a very honest, real way.”
She admits to eliminating certain potential speakers from consideration regardless of the extent of their celebrity in order to preserve the culture of intellectual curiosity at the Ath. Though a famous speaker might make for a popular talk, Bonnie insists that “you don’t judge success by the size of the crowd.” “That’s not the goal, to bring in lots of people,” she says, “My concern is to keep the intellectual integrity of what we do – celebrity is fine, but there has to be substance to it.”