Instead of bubbling through mind-numbing standardized tests and bs-ing personal narratives, would-be Carls of the 19th century brushed up on their Shakespeare and Milton. Tuition hovered around $200. I suspect that, by graduation, those students were be better read, initiated into a wider range of disciplines and more cultured (Latin, Greek, French AND German) than I am.
But I don’t pine for a return to our classically oriented “Great Books” past. The Great Books are more than capable of resting on their own merits rather than on their institutionalization. It’s better to have a classroom filled with people who choose to read Shakespeare because of excitement rather than requirement. The dissolution of the shared cultural inheritance that once formed the locus of a Carleton liberal arts education was brought about by world-historical shifts that we are familiar with and to a large extent ought to affirm as higher education, has been made easier to access by a larger and more diverse public.
What I think is tragic, though, about the decay of the shared cultural inheritance is the loss of the shared part. With no common core, we’re each tucked away in different majors and subfields of majors, developing autonomous vocabularies for and understandings of what meaningful questions are.
I recently took a trip with carful of Carls and en route we all sat, ear-buds in, listening to our own separate playlists. This scene is symbolic in some ways, I think, of our experiences here. When I ask my friends what book has been most influential to them, it’s infrequent I hear a book I’ve heard of before, and only in the rare case have I actually read it myself. Whereas spring term in 1870 the entire senior class explored together the “History of Civilization,” our Carleton academic experiences will culminate in that solitary prying of a neglected corner of scholarly literature we call COMPS. If we do hear about each others’ projects, it’s likely to be only in the form of griping about the workload– not anything much of substance. We tend to be too humble or polite to insist that the interesting things we’re doing should be of interest to those any distance outside our academic niches.
“Do people outside of certain majors and certain artistic groups care about art as part of their Carleton experience?” a senior wrote last week in the article “Fall Arts Preview: Who Cares?” I’ve thought that here the arts are probably the most important communal event left to us on campus. We no longer pray together, but we do play together, and at the theater we consistently see other students take stances on and confront in a very public, exposed way loneliness and the doom that eventually awaits us. And so if it’s true that the “’culture” of the “Carleton community towards art is inherently apathetic,” then what we feel toward disciplines like biology or geology that show even less earnest or responsibility about translating their work into a form that can be processed meaningfully by larger public must be even more troubling.
The fragmentation of the academic experience into various departments and subfields is certainly more efficient. Unless you’re Harry Potter, we’re no longer going to force you to sit through Botany, and if you’re a humanities major, you can Encounter Quantitative Reasoning by taking “Love and Friendship” or “Rhetoric and Self-Presentation.”
But this isolation and specialization lead us to focus on only part of a problem or see it from only one angle. Thus, perspectivism, an interesting theoretical argument, becomes a frightening practical reality since when we do happen to be in the mood to try to make sense of a whole – the meaning of history, for instance, or civilization, or even just our own lives (incidentally, the Chaplain’s Office reports, that 75 percent of Carls say the primary goal of their education is “develop a meaningful philosophy of life,” whatever that means) – we lack the conceptual breadth to do so or else lack any effective way to articulate it to anyone outside our narrow speciality or clique of friends (that is, to anyone different enough from us to be in a position to question it radically).
Poverty of a common language resulting in part from our loss of common tradition, coupled with the natural awkwardness of Carls (which I think is also an admissions requirement) means we have difficulty saying anything deep or interesting to one another, and so things that unite us become increasingly superficial (c.f. Carleton Drinking Culture™). We don’t know how to express our opinions to begin with (or how to express our opinions in a way enables others to challenge them without it turning into an ad hominem affair) we don’t capitalize on the increased diversity the opening of the curriculum was supposed to foster in the first place (or we give up altogether on the principle that anything substantive can be conveyed to anyone else, a move a ‘tonian columnist seemed to take last week in his piece “Stop Giving Advice to Freshmen”).
All this as apologia for why we’ve decided take up this silly task of trying to inject greater time and energy into the Viewpoint section. Friday publications are one of a few important places on campus in which we can combat the intellectual narrow-mindedness that fragmentation breeds. A robust space for public discussion prevents us from living what Thoreau called “lives of quiet desperation” by making us aware not only that we are not alone in our struggles but also that our way of struggling may not be the sole (or best) way.
Of course, we wouldn’t put much time into this if we weren’t confident that Carls have really rich things to say. My experience the past three years at Carleton and the past two summers studying with non-Carls has made it clear to me how lucky we are to spend our peak years learning in this grand cosmic soup bowl. This makes it all the more urgent to try to get and give as much as we can with you all before this happy adventure comes to a close.
If a more energized opinion section means generating more 800-word diatribes about PaperCut or generic “Why I hate Carleton” spiels, we reserve the right to fill the space with cat memes instead. The Viewpoint should be a place for discontent, but let our discontent be one that strives and seeks, not one preoccupied with pettiness or that merely marinates in its own decadence.
So if there are students here who do feel some of the urgency sketched above, we’re prepared to do as much as we can to provide the right kind of space to help them overcome it. We need biology majors to help us humanities people see how looking at stuff in tubes can in any way be an anodyne to the slings and arrows of the human condition, philosophy and arts folks to guide us through whatever the hell postmodernism is, and really just anyone who is brave enough to talk sincerely with strangers about their questions, problems and solutions.
We think it would be funky for a college as good as ours to have an opinion section that actually reflects a bit all the great stuff we’re doing here, and so we’ll work hard so that perhaps we’ll get Carls to consider reading the Viewpoint section once again.