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What do we teach at Carleton? Professors and students respond

<lf of the student organization Dialogue on Education at Carleton, I’ve been making an effort to speak to as many professors and students as possible about whether our humanistic coursework should facilitate asking of “big questions” about being human and life. The following is a very rough outline of the perspectives I’ve encountered after having spoken with sixteen professors and upwards of twenty students. The group of people whose opinions are profiled below is not meant to be representative of the campus as whole; rather, in general they were sought out because they were particularly receptive to answering questions.

A slight majority of the professors I spoke with were of the opinion that our coursework should, at least when the texts we’re dealing with are, be touching upon enduring human questions such as “What is important for human beings?” and “How should I lead my life?” They saw these questions as the ends towards which any kind of technical treatment of a text (or other types of meaning-rich subject matter) is ultimately a means. This being the case, they saw it as important to connect what they do in their courses back to these bigger questions about human life, in some way or another, in order to complete these classes and make them whole.

Others, who disagreed, saw this kind of question asking in conflict with the objectivity that we should be striving for as scholars, and thus as something necessarily distinct from the work that we do as professors and students. Nevertheless, such respondents saw the kinds of things we do as scholars as providing us with the “scaffolding from which we could plunge” into deeper questions about life if we so choose. Though these individuals all hoped that their students would take this kind of a dive, they saw themselves in their role as professors as incapable of encouraging or facilitating this.

In the case of students I spoke with, a wide majority thought that our coursework should be drawing on the dimensions of the material that concern fundamental questions about human life, provided these dimensions do in fact exist. For the most part, however, these students were disappointed with their humanistically-oriented courses, feeling as though these had a tendency to skirt around the most important aspects of whatever was being studied. Nearly all of them agreed, though, that at least some courses managed to make these connections well.

The minority of these students were of the opinion that we should not be focusing on larger questions about life in our courses. Generally speaking, they saw this as interfering with the main purpose of our education, which is to teach us to think critically from the perspective of a given discipline. If our courses begin discussing the implications of the material we’re dealing with for our lives, this can cause class to devolve into an unproductive conversation about issues that can not be settled using the tools we have available to us.

Keep in mind that the above is an extremely brief distillation of answers that were much more complex and nuanced than could be done justice to here; few professors and students fall neatly into the categories of perspectives presented above.
It is also important to remember that the group of people whose views I’ve outlined here is not a random group of professors and students. Though among the people I’ve spoken with, the majority support connecting what’s being done in our courses to questions about human life as part of this coursework, I’m under the impression that the opposite is the case – that the classroom is more commonly understood as a place in which one should attempt to adopt as objective a standpoint as possible, which inherently comes in to conflict with the discussion of claims concerning humanity, what it is, and what is best for it (for such discussion seems to be invariably subjective).

Though there’s a sense in which its natural and even healthy that we as individuals – both professors and students – have different ideas about what it is we should be (and are) doing here, there’s also a sense in which it’s problematic. If we’re all working with one another, whether as professors within a department, or as students and professors in a class, having different ideas as to what we are and ought to be doing can pose difficulties for us. This project, and also the student organization which set it in motion, is an effort to mitigate these difficulties by helping us to better understand where each of us is coming from in regards to this issue and what it means for the education that we give and receive.

-Peter Berg is a fourth year student.

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