Disorienting Dilemmas: Getting An Education

One afternoon during my first term at Carleton, Professor Mike Kowalewski encouraged us, his Intro to American Literature class, to attend a poetry reading that was taking place in the Atheneaum that day. A fellow freshman, who shall go unnamed, muttered softly under his breath about having too much homework to shower, let alone go to a poetry reading. To this, Mike responded, “Sometimes people are so busy learning, they forget to get an education.” 4 years later, I can confidently say that my classmates and I are leaving Carleton today with much learning under our belt but we are leaving with an education.

This is because more than anything, Carleton is a school of first times. It is a school that is very kind to members of its community that want to try something that they’ve never done before. I should know. Spring term my junior year, my best friend and I were poring over the NNB (Carleton Noontime News Bulletin), a veritable source of both useful and useless information, during a lackluster meal at the dining hall. We noticed an open casting call for the Carleton Players’ Production of a two-person play called “Going to St Ives” and decided that it made complete sense to audition for it with our utter lack of experience in any theater work. The last time I was in a play, I had no lines since I was one of the many plump 5-years-olds asked to don some angel wings and a glittery halo for a Nativity play. Despite my apparent lack of experience which was not so apparent to me then, I bumbled through the audition and the call back and excitedly called my friends when Professor David Wiles decided to cast me in this play. Never mind that I still have difficulty remembering which part of the stage is upstage, Carleton is precisely the kind of environment that affords its students the opportunity to try, regardless of what experience or knowledge they come with to this institution. These many first times have a purpose. They do not simply create those horrendous photographs in the yearbook that we will sorely regret, every time someone asks, “Is that you running away from the soccer ball?”

Beyond providing a nurturing environment that makes its students eager to try their hands at incomprehensible sports like broomball or perhaps dancing in public for the first time, Carleton is both an institution and a community that allows for these ‘first times’ to make for transformative moments. These transformative moments are birthed by “disorienting dilemmas,” a term coined by education scholar Jack Mezirow. The Carleton community offers a myriad of these “disorienting dilemmas” where we are repeatedly confronted by experiences that defy the confines of our own established world views. Our world views are shaped by the people who have come to celebrate with us today, our families, and later our schools, neighborhoods and many a time, our countries. These disorienting dilemmas emerge in our four years here in a variety of shapes and forms. Sometimes they appear as a Minnesotan native who introduces your hip hop loving self to the marvels of a Norwegian band called “Kings of Convenience.” Or the woman from Chicago who tells you that it is not possible to ask to try a grit. It’s grits,she says, not a grit. Perhaps they appear as a SouthKorean floormate who firmly but ever so kindly offers to empty your recycling bin for you since you keep throwing recyclables into the trash. Or maybe these dilemmas come in the form of an articulate, Aeneid-reading gentleman from Boston who challenges your belief that the word “gay” is an epithet that can be thrown around in jest while watching a game of football. These dilemmas act as commas in our busy Carleton lives, forcing us to pause for a moment whether in the library, the lounge or in Sayles and to reflect and reevaluate our previously accepted world views and the privileges that come with those views. In doing so, we often find ourselves reconfiguring what we assume to be truths.

On one night, not too long ago at the Contented Cow, a fellow senior lamented, “I hate the fact that I have to leave my comfort zone now.” As much as I wish I too could stay for just one more year, I humbly disagree. While the Carleton community’s warmth and openness is not an entirely accurate representation of the world that awaits us, it is anything but a comfort zone. At some point in our time at Carleton, all of us have felt alone, confused and challenged by the dilemmas that we face. The dilemmas that we puzzle over constantly destabilize any static world view that we may have. They have prepared us to be taken by surprise and to be thrown off kilter and yet, after that, to reposition ourselves in the world armed with new knowledge and a cognizance of the difference that surrounds us. While our diplomas and this very ceremony mark the end of how much we have learned from being in freshman seminars and junior colloquiums, and writing that inevitable but got awful comps paper, our education persists as we find that new normal each time we are disoriented by the unfamiliar. To the Class of 2008, it has been both a pleasure and privilege to have been disoriented both by you and with you. Congratulations and I wish you much disorientation and much education to come!