There’s an adorable little lie that we tell ourselves when we attend a college like Carleton. We tell ourselves that we’re really here for the classes; that what’s important are the grades, the majors, concentrations, and the future potentials that they suggest. It’s a rather limiting perspective because it presumes that at the very least, the most central experience is the learning that occurs in the classroom. Besides the already dubious policy of forcing a single person to prepare 30 hours of content 3 times a year it presumes that the purpose of college is the “content” of the stuff itself.
Especially given the liberal arts philosophy, which prides itself on teaching the “intangibles,” I’m not actually sure how the content of the liberal arts could be the classes themselves. But perhaps this is just my own failing? I feel like when we ask ourselves the question, “What major are you?” it probably means we think the classes are supposed to be the most important.
Actually, though, liberal arts colleges are really special because they create really interesting communities. In a traditional community, the people who determine the course of the community are at the center, they are the most elite experienced members of the community. People traditionally enter communities on the outside and work their way inside. The problem is that this creates an inherent bias against new people and an inherent resistance to change. But college is different, the newest members (the Freshman, and the students in general) have the largest say in the movement and direction of the community. Over time, the older members of the community (graduating seniors and alums) move away from the center as their focus shifts towards more external problems and larger contextual issues. What’s interesting about this is it creates a naturally inward facing “elder” population. The center and the periphery, traditionally two sectors who can’t seem to get along with one another are incentivized to do so at liberal arts colleges.
In fact, I would argue that this community is the strongest, most important part of college, without even a question. An op-ed in the New York Times which ran about a year ago talked about the massive disparity in social, economic, and political connections between the privileged and the un-privileged. The community is the thing that creates, develops, and matures these questions. But sometimes it seems as though we talk about the community as though it were a side-thought to what we’re actually doing here. I mean, yeah, we try to develop a strong, equitable community, but we do it so we can get back to the “real” work of college, you know, the academics.
The reality is that learning how to communicate, connect, and interact in a community of (trading carefully) diverse people is the single most challenging test for the human race. Learning how to work with people who have fundamentally different views (academically, socially, economically, politically, etc.) is the most challenging task the human race faces. Instead the school seems to be focused on presuming that giving people those views is the most important part. I think developing personal views and skills is really important but it’s not the endgame, or even really close. It’s sort of like teaching someone how to kick a soccer ball really well without ever teaching them how to play the game. If you just assume “they’ll figure it out” somewhere else (perhaps the “real world”?) then you’re missing a critical opportunity to teach a fundamental skill that can’t just be “learned elsewhere.”
The biggest challenge towards seating community at the center of the college experience is the professors. And it’s not so much that professors are a problem it’s that to say that community is the most important part of college necessitates a transformation in the way we think about professors and teaching.
First, let me say that I’m not advocating for removing professors from the college. Far from it, I think professors provide one of the best ways to transform college. Professors are people who are steeped in methodologies, practices, and sub-communities and thinking about what it means to be a contributing member of a community.
By de-emphasizing the idea of the “teaching moment” and recentering college around the (already dominant) idea that we are a community coming first and foremost to learn we gain the ability to not lock our community into a predominant form of learning which biases a very specific subset of people (type A personalities) who are very good, and rote, repetitive learning. Instead of making hand-wavy gestures at “exploring new learning possibilities” while really basically re-instantiating the same system that we had all along (Weitz Center I’m looking at you), we can actually become a college worthy of the title the best teaching and learning institution in the country.