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Mirror, Mirror

February 16, 2011 at 5:17 pm
By Rachel Levit '13

Once or twice a term, the chaplain’s office and EthIC (Ethical Inquiry at Carleton—more on this later) put on a talk by a member of the Carleton staff or faculty called “What Matters To Me And Why.” Yesterday, the talk was given by our new president, Steven Poskanzer (affectionately, “Stevie P”).

We trust the president of Carleton to speak for our school, fund raise, and handle administrative tasks we don’t quite understand. We see him around campus: he dresses up for our Halloween concert and holds open office hours for students. He speaks at opening and closing convocation, and has dinner with the winners of various school events. He played broomball, and handed out cans for the food bank when we trick-or-treated at his house. I think Carleton students generally understand the work of the president to be a part of our Carleton education, but we don’t really think about it a lot. I am now in a position to assert that he, in fact, does.

The question of classes, majors, and purpose has been prevalent in conversations I’ve had with recently with other sophomores: How should I decide what to major in? What’s the utility of taking this class, actually? In an art history classroom, in an hour, President Poskanzer managed to remind a room of confused, stressed-out, hyper-rational students, and some circumspect faculty, why we’re actually here.

Here’s what I’m thinking now, a conjunction of Steven Poskanzer’s talk, two really quality conversations, and thirty minutes of late night roller-blading (yes, it’s been that warm): We make choices and those choices create at least part of the direction of our lives. (I’m talking mostly about choosing to pursue certain opportunities and not pursue others). The departmental T-shirt for the math majors last year had an illustration of one sphere that led to two spheres and said: Now, that’s choice. Maybe mathematically, but…no. My ethics bowl coach is a professor in the economics department, and he sparked my interested in the notion of opportunity cost: when you opt for one opportunity, you opt out of another. This can be scary, especially if you’re not sure you can afford to be cryogenically frozen. But all you can do is use as much information as you have at the time of your decision-making. Really. Think about it.

So, your decision enters the mind-space, wearing a tie that you just know will make you think of fractals, which is just not helpful. But then you take a moment, and I’m inclined to think you should summon Steven Poskanzer’s advice (one incantation should do it). Unfortunately, I need to explain it in context, but I think you’ll get the idea: You get to the good choices by working hard. That’s the mode of advancement. And that hard work comes from, or at least is seriously aligned with, pursuing your passions. If you’re having trouble finding passion, or if you just want a suggestion for, you know, what might be a cool passion to consider, try improving some part of the universe outside of yourself. Or connect your current passion to this for an extra flavor punch. And then… you’ve been working hard at something meaningful, and suddenly, you’re facing fractal-tie: decision time. What to do? Think about where your passion lies now and what kind of meaning you think you’re after now. Maybe this has changed, maybe it hasn’t. Your final check: will you be able to look at yourself in the mirror at the end of the day and respect yourself? Good. Then, pursue! Rinse. Repeat.

This process, it seems, has guided Steven Poskanzer's life, and I think we're pretty lucky that his hard work, passion, and desire to make the world a better place (why yes, I did read Miss Rumphius two nights ago) brought him to Carleton and guide him in furthering our school, and the people our school contains.  It's really easy to be cynical about purpose on a day-to-day basis; this talk was a great reminder of how that doesn't need to be the only option.

So was this sunset:


I have about a week to pick classes and a term (half a term?) to choose a major. OK...


  • February 17 2011 at 12:35 pm
    Hannah Joy

    Can I come to your room and read Miss Rumphius sometime soon? Also, this post made me feel slightly better about my thank you!

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