We talk a lot in philosophy about when we talk about universals and when we talk about particulars. This blog is a particular—it’s my experience here. I haven’t studied the social sciences very much; I don’t know how much what I say can ever be taken as an indication of what’s going on with everyone else. So usually I spend time explaining what I’m thinking about or experiencing, in the hopes that it’s helpful to you.
But this week I want to make a case for the magical intellectual experiences. Mainly I want to convince you that we need to continue to believe in them. I certainly don’t think elite liberal arts colleges like Carleton have a stronghold on these conversations. But I do absolutely think they foster them.
In the movie Easy A, there’s a great moment where the “cool” teacher says he’s going to perform a rap about the book they’re reading, and asks a student to start dropping a beat. He goes for about a line, and then says something like: “No, I’m not going to do that. It’s cheesy and pandering and they do it in all the stupid movies.”
Carleton has really cool teachers. Some of our more exciting moments include the burning of a piano and rumors of a professor who has returned bags of shredded essays. But the truth is that most of the times when I’ve really connected with ideas haven’t been outwardly cinematic. They just feel that way to me. I’ve been with someone (or a group of people) in class or an office or in the library or in the cookie house, and suddenly my mind has caught fire. You know when Tom Cruise started jumping on Oprah’s couch? It feels like that, but it doesn’t mean that has to happen.
And, moreover, I don’t think these “serious” conversations have to be that different from the other conversations, about sex and money and internet memes. If college isn’t also about burning popcorn in the microwave and waiting in line at a Josh Ritter concert, I think something big would be missing too.
Am I trying to sell Carleton here? Sure. But moreover, I want to try to convince you of a vision of what education, in the broadest sense possible, can be like. I don’t think (and I hope that) no one in higher education would deny that spending six months abroad can be extremely important, or that you can’t have these conversations starting today, in your daily life wherever you are. But I do think that the college environment is very conducive to them.
There are a million reasons people go to college, and I would even go so far as to say there are a million reasons people should think about going to college. But a by-product of all of these, simply because it’s a by-product of what college is, is a kind of curiosity and passion. And that’s what’s worth seeking and holding onto. As Anna indicated, it doesn’t always happen. But it should.
From what I remember of the Dead Poet’s Society, there’s a cave and snow and fairies (maybe?), but what really resonated for me was this message of being yourself in light of an intellectual inheritance. The best learning should be broadening, not confining. It should be exciting. What an educational institution is allowed to do, in a way that might be difficult for other forums, is make that the focus.
I don’t think I need to talk here about how Carleton does this (I kind of end up doing that every week anyway). What I want to say, I guess, is that it is out there. And that you should believe in it, because it’s amazing.
I’m leaving college with a lot of things (and trying to think about how to get them back to California has been kind of stressful!). But if I had to say what I’m taking away the most from Carleton, it would be how to have a good conversation. They don’t happen all the time. And they don’t always happen when you want them to. Sometimes the best conversations are random and unexpected. Sometimes they’re not.
I played softball when I was younger, and I was terrible at it. I used to spend a lot of time in the outfield simultaneously terrified of a good hit but also waiting for something to happen. If the ball in this metaphor equals the conversation (which I’m going for), I’ve learned now that playing left outfield means you get a lot of space to run towards whatever you see coming—you don’t just stay near the fence with your glove pressed to your face waiting for the orange slices. And, in this metaphor, I would add that Carleton’s been a pretty good coach and the game goes by pretty fast.
I think the sort of existentialist idea that I’m going for here is that in college I’ve learned how to be more open to the possibilities of what sharing ideas can be. Which, at least in my experience, makes it happen more.
There’s a campus-wide conversation going on here these days about diversity. During my brief athletic career, I almost broke my thumb twice and certainly got a black eye or two. But I had a lot of friends, including friends who hit and pitched said offensive balls. I had family who came to my games even though they were terrible. Conversation is a mutual activity. And that means we need to support each other. I’m going to cast a wide and hopeful net, and say that here, we do. Or at least, we try.
When I was eight, I never understood why my friends who were hitting faster balls or playing more difficult games weren’t getting hurt more in proportion. Sometimes athletes, even the pros, do get hurt. I watch my brother now play pretty aggressive soccer and want to try new moves on his snowboard, and I cringe. But getting better at something, as an individual or an institution, means taking a risk. But it also means getting better. And it seems that that means learning a lot.