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2011 Spring Issue 8 (May 27, 2011)

Carleton: Academic stimulation or alienation?

May 27, 2011
By Hannah Watson

“I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do, and I understand.”
-Confucius

Over the past year, I’ve spent several hours a week writing editorials for The Carletonian about the meaning of my education and the moral complexities of my college experience. I have only begun to understand myself.

Whenever the topic of higher education’s role in personal development is brought up, it seems that we encounter an impasse by discussing at academia should do, ideally. Academia should let us 1) describe texts, and 2) evaluate them. The third step – figuring out what they mean for us – is hard to accomplish in the classroom.

This statement comes from professors who have far more knowledge than I have, but also more experience working with it. Even if I disagree, it makes sense that we should learn the way they learned. Right?

When I look at the levels of academic alienation here, at Carleton College, lauded as the most intellectually curious campus in the country – I think we need to take a step back. It’s heartbreaking to watch: Freshmen pulling all-nighters writing papers they don’t believe in, tearing their hair out trying to verbally imitate scholars they don’t understand…Some of this is symptomatic of poor discipline and mental rigidity, which can improve over time, but no one should be asked to be so patient when it comes to finding out why we’re here in the first place, spending $53,000 a year.

This, I think, is the dangerous optimism of our professors. They seem to assume that when given a text, a paper, a book, any 18-22 year old will have grandiose moments of intellectual or spiritual (ah, same thing, right?) epiphany as often as they did. It’s something to strive for. But how easy is it to process the amount of information we’re given every week without relating it to our own lives?

The main reason I’ve thought about my education so much is because unlike most Carleton students, I’m not that busy. With the schedules most of us keep, the “outside the classroom” time that Carleton seems to assume we use to have deep conversations about the meaning of life – it’s all used up.

And without the space to find fulfillment in our classes, we drift from activity to activity, searching for an epiphany that never comes. We fall into a cycle of “work hard, play hard,” complaining about our workloads and perpetuating a massively destructive drinking culture, simply because these two things – work and play – are the only guarantees in college life.
We have been asked to wait. It will all be worth it at graduation. Like magic, we will have become better people.

When does this happen? After a year? A term? A class? When do we pay attention to who we are becoming?

The truth is, most of us come here without having thought too much about the meaning of education. We like learning, we probably read books as children, we’re generically ambitious. And we would like to be good people.

But we’re here because it’s the next step. College is what successful people do after high school. Selective colleges are where smart, talented kids go so that their brains don’t “go to waste.”

So this assumption that all learning is unmitigated good for moral growth – not only is it reductionist, it’s a little dangerous.

Let’s accept the notion that there is no such thing as an evil idea, only evil ways to use it. We can look at history: Hitler, for example, twisted Darwinism to justify genocide.

Would he never have done this if he had received a liberal arts education? It’s not something we should rely on. Exposing someone to a broad range of ideas doesn’t keep them from using whichever is most convenient for personal gain.

But imagine if the first time Hitler encountered Social Darwinism, it was in a classroom where he was encouraged to think about his own life – his experience getting rejected from art school, his poverty, his family’s misfortunes. In this context, it may not have seemed like such an attractive concept. What if he had shared that classroom with Jews who were also sharing personal insights?

Once you take an idea away from the human lives it claims to understand, it becomes much easier to use against them.

I’m not proposing that we turn every class into a group psychoanalysis session. But I think the levels of abstraction we’ve reached in the humanities actually impede our learning in fundamental ways. Once you’re afraid to bring up concrete, real-world examples of ideas, you lose the opportunity to make vivid connections to your previous experiences. And neurobiology suggests that’s actually how learning takes place.

The fatigue of analyzing texts with complete detachment can lead to two unhealthy outcomes. One, we stop believing that what we do in class has any bearing on our lives. In the inherently extrinsic-motivation-based system of grades and diplomas, we stop caring about our moral development because it comes second to academic success. Two, we latch onto whatever theory grabs us. Without any guidance, this process can be bad for everyone. Hitler did it; so did Sarah Kofman, a French philosopher who killed herself on Nietzsche’s birthday.

Let’s not let college be a cerebral dream from which we wake up lost and cynical. If we don’t start connecting the theory of human life to the practice now, when will we start? When there are no grades at stake? When it’s our employees, our students, our children?

Hannah Watson is a fourth year student and a Carletonian coumnist.

Note: This article was featured in Dialogue, a publication that came out last Friday by a new organization of the same name. If you’re at all interested in this topic, you should get involved! Meetings are great fun, I usually drink beer, Todd usually drinks less beer, I think Djallal just eats, and most importantly, we have honest and thought-provoking talks about what we do in our classes. A lot of us are graduating, so it would be a dream to know that these kinds of questions kept being asked. Contact Kate Athens or Pete Berg.

 

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