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The Carletonian

Poskanzer lights up Carleton with “Setting Prairie Fires”

<rleton College’s newly-appointed eleventh president Steven G. Poskanzer delivered a passionate and energetic address for the first convocation of the academic year. Aptly titled “Setting Prairie Fires,” Poskanzer’s discussion revolved around how the liberal arts enterprise closely imitates the dual nature of a flame; whilst destructive and dangerous, a fire also has the power to “stimulate life as well as taking it.” This metaphor throughout his speech highlighted the expectations of a Carleton graduate and the future of the college’s liberal arts mission. The presentation included comments about the flooding that hit Northfield, as well as the rapid appearance—and consequently, disappearance—of the Schiller bust.

With strong emphasis on the nurturing qualities of a top educational institute such as Carleton, Poskanzer stated what was already associated with a student coming from a rich liberal arts background. Because such programs are so “fluid and ever-changing,” graduates are “expected to speak cogently, think critically, draw new conclusions between disciplines, and experience beauty in art.” He also added that these programs “open one to criticism” – a state of vulnerability that is undoubtedly very unnerving, but ultimately a prompt for growth. He added a quote from a graduate of the class of ’61 – that “such humility makes me listen to others.” In refining these expectations, Poskanzer then mentioned the incessant urge to develop and advance – that even as Carleton puts into a place a new academic curriculum, we “still smell smoke and see fires on the horizon,” prompting the question: how could liberal arts at Carleton be improved fifty, a hundred, two hundred years from now?

Poskanzer moved on to state five major requirements of liberal arts students as they tackle issues of a modern world. He stated that they “need the suppleness of mind: that students must learn how to approach different parts of a complex question.” Armed with this flexibility and versatility, students must learn to grasp the next requirement. Liberal arts “must lead to heightened discernment,” accentuating the need for critical thinking and analysis through different prisms. Poskanzer also articulated the power and importance of links and connections, developing on his third point of maintaining a certain “depth of human interconnectedness” and the skills required to maintain such crucial links and allow them to flourish. He further emphasized the utmost importance of environmental sustainability, referring to the preservation of the McKnight Arboretum and the recent construction of the wind turbine as critical developments. By stressing that “we cannot be idle bystanders in environmentalism,” Poskanzer highlighted the requirement of protecting and nourishing the natural world. Finally, he focused upon the necessity of leadership: graduates of a liberal arts background must be eager to assume significant roles, and learn to organize in culturally different spheres and regions.

Poskanzer maintained that Carleton “fulfills critical needs ar critical times” as it continues to focus on teaching these five aspects to each of its students. With this he answered what he called “a smoldering question” – if one agrees with the important nature of these requirements and wishes to invest in them, is the residential campus experience necessary to learn them? He argued that from a pedagogical viewpoint, there is a great and unparalleled connection in the discovery and transmission of knowledge when the professor and student are interacting directly. Only under such settings can the fiery passion for learning really take place, where in the classroom a student can have his or her opinions directly challenged, but can also in turn observe and test the stability of the professor’s argument.

He concluded the presentation by stating the what he called the ultimate goal of liberal arts: to live a fulfilled life by using the knowledge one has gained. By drawing upon the previous presidents and saying to have inherited their excellence, Poskanzer vowed to continue their pursuit in enhancing Carleton’s greatness, primarily through increased attention to the academic curriculum. This, he stated, is fundamental to improving the college’s future, not just for the institution’s sake, but for the entire liberal arts enterprise.

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