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The Carletonian

The Carletonian

The Carletonian

Differences of opinion

<f the things that we are quite good at, as human beings, is to seek out and hold on tightly to differences. We crave a clear identity for ourselves, not to mention one that we approve of, and one quick way to add texture to our own self-concept is to make assumptions about other people. But there are different ways of dealing with difference.

At a liberal arts college, tolerance and curiosity are considered practiced virtues. Although just like anyone else, we form assumptions about people who are radically different from ourselves—people from another culture, age group, race, political party, or economic class—we then amend those assumptions and let go of the ego for a little while in the interest of our own education.

However, it is not as easy to be open-minded and ego-less around those who are closer to home: the acquaintances walking around our campus, the people in our classes, and even our closest friends. In fact, it can require constant self-restraint. After all, our purpose for being here is to make sense of the world and its people—an ultimately impossible task—and so we often form strong, categorical opinions on our immediate reality, if only to make life just a little simpler. 

At Carleton we are taught, through mission statements and speeches on “the value of a liberal arts education,” to be endlessly curious and open to differences in opinion, personal philosophy, and lifestyle. While the arguments themselves escape me, I can still conjure up the feeling that swept through me at Steven Poskanzer’s opening convocation my junior fall, when our new president reminded us of the remarkable position we were all in simply by being Carleton students. We have the freedom, and the encouragement, to regularly change our minds about what we think, based on the insights and opinions of others. I vowed then to rise above my own intellectual insecurity and my consequent judgment-forming and comparison-making. If there was anything which I knew could dramatically change my experience at Carleton, it was to finally learn how to view other students not as barometers of my own originality and depth of thought, but as other young people who care just as deeply about understanding the world and not looking stupid.

This is hard. It is one thing to applaud tolerance and open-mindedness because doing so fits with our concept of whom, as liberal arts undergrads, we should be aspiring to be. After all, cognitive dissonance is painful, especially for smart and self-reflective people. But it is another thing to genuinely relish disagreeing and being disagreed with, being challenged and thinking again, having our opinions pulled out from under us and being forced to admit that maybe, we don’t know what we think.

I certainly don’t find those moments pleasant, and I trust I am not alone in at times steering away, out of fear, from the possibilities they present. We all have the tendency to grip onto our opinions tightly, and exhaust ourselves pointing out other peoples’ differences just to give a boost to our own tender sense of self. In those moments it is important to remember: it is better to be uncertain of what we think than to be sure, and we are all much more similar than we may seem.

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