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Making the most of education beyond Carleton

In that fateful email to Carleton students, faculty, staff, and parents last month, President Poskanzer suggested that Carleton is “not just a physical place centered on the Bald Spot; it is also a culture and spirit that transcends campus boundaries and physical proximity.”

I found much to value in the president’s email, and I wholly believe the college has made the right decision in not hosting physical classes this month. It has taken me no small amount of time, growth, and self-contradiction to be at peace with it, however.

I do not agree with the assertion, to paraphrase, that Carleton is a state of mind. That suggestion reeks of the same kind of logic that Stanford University has used to suggest students pay full tuition, as they apparently can receive the “complete Stanford experience” through a 15-inch screen.

That logic suggests to me that the “whole college experience” is more broadly, to some people, a mere vehicle to acquire credentials, a piece of paper, a bumper sticker, a line on your résumé. I do not think all or even most people see college this way, let alone most Carleton students, but I suspect those who want S/Cr/NC to be an option rather than mandatory may fall into such a category.

The ability to see education as a source of elevated grades and therefore status requires one to take the nature of education for granted in the first place. Rather than serving as a vehicle for self-improvement, rather than making our lives or our world better, more enjoyable, more meaningful, and richer, this perspective reduces a large part of your life experience—four whole years of it—to a tiny number only a handful of people in your life will ever care about at all, at best.

So while I don’t agree with the assertion that Carleton is not a physical place, President Poskanzer is right in saying it is not just a physical place. Our education can continue in absentia, because Carleton ought to be only a single part of a lifelong mission. That does not make Carleton any less significant, but it has, in the past few weeks, substantially changed how I understand my relationship to this college (I can hardly say “this place”).

Our education can continue in absentia, because Carleton ought to be only a single part of a lifelong mission. That does not make Carleton any less significant, but it has, in the past few weeks, substantially changed how I understand my relationship to this college (I can hardly say “this place”).

Toward the end of last term I developed an existential crisis that, despite further developing my Spanish skills at Carleton, I did not learn a new language in my time here. In an anxious haze, I wrote Professor Yaron Klein about learning Arabic after Carleton. I have been thinking about his reply ever since.

He told me that discovering new fields we haven’t had time to explore in college is a common experience for graduating students. I should not treat this as a lost opportunity, he suggested, but the beginning of a long life of learning. At the time I appreciated the advice, but now that I am more removed still from the physicality of Carleton I see even more deeply the truth of his words.

Carleton is a vehicle to further our education, to be sure, but education transcends credentials. The Libe, as with our local libraries and public university libraries, offers study materials far beyond what any single class—or group of classes—could ever provide. I may not be able to take Arabic at Carleton, but both the college and my local library system offer online learning in dozens of languages. We can teach ourselves so much once we do not restrict ourselves simply to being taught.

Nor do I believe being taught is the goal of a liberal arts education. Lifelong learning, “learning how to learn,” forming and reforming our own opinions, these seem to me far more beautiful—and useful—skills than basing our education on the courses we elect to take and their syllabi, over which we have so little control.

In my exile at home in San Jose, sheltering in place under the warmth of the California sunlight, I have realized this more deeply than ever before. The stacks of impulse-purchased books I’ve accrued over two decades that I never thought I’d finish look all the more significant now that bookstores are all but unavailable to me. Slowly, lovingly, I’ve begun to make my way through tomes I thought would serve only as decorations.

I have returned to my creative writing as well. Usually a hobby I find impossible during the school year, these new conditions have forced my hand. I’ve always harbored a fantasy of writing for a living, but for much of my life I haven’t focused on that dream; a “real” job seemed so much more practical and attainable. But given the precariousness of the job market at the moment, if I can’t find a job right away I may as well do something I enjoy in the meantime.

As I prepare to graduate early, a painful decision I never thought I’d have to make, my shredded heart finds some great comfort in these facts. I would have never pursued creative writing, or other languages, or autodidacticism the way I do now without my time at Carleton. Perhaps I should say with Carleton. Although I may not return as a student, and may never find the closure I so hoped to this term, I have many years to develop further the skills this uprooted place has allowed me to gain. I can only begin to express how much it has meant to me. This term is not a goodbye, not to Carleton, nor its people, nor its teachings, but another turn in the long unfolding dialogue of our lives.

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