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The Carletonian

The Carletonian

Yale Prof. Garsten talks about meaning of college education

<le University Professor of Political Science Bryan Garsten delivered his convocation speech Sept. 23 with a focus on the importance of persuasive speech. The author of several books on the history of political thought, with a special interest in the use of rhetoric and personal judgment. In his talk, “What is College For?” Garsten discussed the issue of learning how to properly “dress an argument for the occasion during one’s time as an undergraduate."

He reflected on how college both “opens up the mind,” when a student is taught to approach a subject from different angles, and, in the view of some colleagues, can potentially “fill the mind with stuff, before closing it and killing off its creativity.”

This particular Convocation served as a complement to the Argument and Inquiry seminars. Prior to his speech, Garsten joined Professor Peter Balaam of the English department and the first-year students in the “Persuade Me” seminar. The class responded to an article written earlier this summer which argued that we currently live in a “post-idea era,” where the prevalence of information has resulted in people doing little thinking. As the class shared their views, Garsten remarked that “ideas are not something you can be without. Rather one is filled with many conflicting ideas – yes there are inconsistencies, but they are there.”

Garsten’s entire convocation speech was the sharing of a hypothetical dialogue between himself and several other professors – an “experiment” which he admitted was less for the college students in the audience than it was for himself – in exploration of college’s purpose. The discussion included characters within the world of academia: classics professors, an economist, and, at the very end, an inebriated Frisbee player – most likely specifically catered to Carleton.

Throughout the dialogue, Garsten grappled with the issue of critical thinking: “is it really useful in all situations? What if it helps with the set-up of Ponzi schemes?” His counterarguments included the purpose of liberty and freedom – free thinking in the space of a liberal arts institution. The conversation then built up to a mini-competition of sorts; which professor could come up with the best account of what college is really for? The answers ranged from the importance of a college degree as a credential, to the mission of liberal arts in places like Singapore.

The dialogue concluded with the Frisbee player, who in his tipsy state summed up his experience on the field and used the game as an example or “understanding one’s place in the world” and “using all one’s capacities.” Garsten ended the dialogue on an ambiguous note, without a definite answer as to whether college allowed one to maximize this feeling of completion and fulfillment discussed by the Frisbee player.

During the question session following his speech, Garsten concluded that the Frisbee player’s voice is usually “lost in the debates.” Garsten said he believes a crucial aspect of college is the curiosity it prompts in students to learn for the sake of learning, and to truly discover what enthuses and enriches them.  

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