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The Carletonian

The Carletonian

Johnson: The big seminar room in the sky

<s in middle school, my circle of friends started communicating over an online forum. It was a nice way to keep in touch for a group of fairly self-effacing adolescents, none of whom were ever likely to use something as drastic as a telephone.

At first, the forum mostly got used for loud discussions of video games and the internet. In this way it wasn’t very different from our face-to-face interactions. But we were naïvely opinionated in the way that only middle schoolers can be, and soon we started to have little fights.

We argued about progressive rock, operating systems, Thanksgiving and Star Trek. Many of us even took strong ideological stances on these things. We would write long rants, bolstering our positions with Wikipedia citations and dissecting our opponents’ arguments in little quote boxes. As the culture of these little spats started to develop, we even began to take on specific rhetorical roles: some of us were intractable and reactionary; others were cerebral and logical, and a few tried to be conciliatory and stay above the fray.

Our fights certainly weren’t the centerpiece of the forum. But at the same time, I can’t deny that they were extremely important to me. I might not have discovered who I was while I was insisting, no doubt in all caps, that we shouldn’t celebrate Thanksgiving anymore, but I certainly learned about how to formulate an argument, how to take an angle, and how to communicate ideas to other people. I’m sure I learned more about discourse and rhetoric by arguing with my friends than by sitting in class, at least in middle school. Some of what we touched on has even proven to have been fairly high-level – I’ve heard echoes of our arguments about Star Trek in discussions of the social responsibilities of art, for example.

What I’m driving at in all this is that the little tantrums that my squeaky-voiced friends threw at each other when we were in middle school basically amounted to an organic intellectual environment – and I’ll advance this argument by saying that I’ve never encountered a consistent environment like that again, not in high school, and certainly not in college. In fact, college almost seems structured purposely to discourage real intellectual engagement with the people around you.

The idea of education that we assimilate, sort of by osmosis, from this saline solution of convocation speakers, lecture series and panels that we all float in, is that all of us bright, motivated kids are doing this abstract thing called Learning. The closest approximation I can come up with of Learning is what you see in admissions brochures: a squadron of eager young students, clustered in a circle around an endearingly tweedy professor, ideally situated on the quad on a bright spring day, talking, gesticulating and generally giving the impression that whatever they’re discussing is so intriguing that they literally can’t focus on anything else. However it’s dressed up with degrees, gowns, and practical appeal, we understand that fundamentally, Learning represents this process. Learning is talking, it’s engaging with your peers, it’s discovering meaning. Most importantly, it’s communal.

Any Carleton student, however, knows that these brilliant moments in seminars are few and far between. The vast bulk of what we do in school, and what all American college students do, is not Learning, but work. It’s huddling on Second Libe over a book on economic theory until the bell rings and then going back to Davis and doing the same thing in your room, struggling to see straight at 4 a.m. because you have another paper to finish after this one and you can’t even spare the time to make more coffee, or implementing a new personal austerity plan to compensate for a C on your midterm. The actual work of college education isn’t an egalitarian discourse between peers, it’s an isolating, dissociative struggle for approval from a colorful body of authority figures, few of whom are ever endearingly tweedy. Learning, presumably what we’re really here to do, becomes at best a few oases in the desert.

We might literally learn more by this process – I mean, we might literally acquire a greater quantity of knowledge – but the process of doing so is so frightening and stressful and distant that it hinders real engagement. The raw material of our education is taken out of our hands and given to the faculty, the administration and society at large, and becomes a stick to threaten us toward whatever carrot we’ve chosen to pursue.

Judging from this, and setting aside for now the flashes of genuine intellectual insight that can and do arise, I think it’s important to raise questions about the intellectual efficacy of our education – because any nationally ranked liberal arts school that can compare unfavorably to a bunch of twelve-year-olds barking about Star Trek needs to take a long look in the mirror.

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