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The Carletonian

The Carletonian

The Carletonian

Former editor-in-chief reflects on her Carleton experience

<ir="ltr">It feels false to announce resolutely that “I love Carleton.” As well-educated students, we are inclined to qualify and hedge everything. As it should be. Nothing is perfect; everything has flaws; we must be skeptical. Still, I’m flummoxed that, even after four years, I cannot pinpoint exactly what I think about this school.

Part of what I liked about being involved with the newspaper – I was Editor-in-Chief of The Carletonian my junior year – was how it forced me to engage with campus going-ons, to try and put my fingers on the pulse of Carleton. I heard stories from all kinds of students, staff, faculty and administrators. In a myriad of ways, I sought to understand this place as an outsider, even as I was an insider. It was mostly exciting, sometimes dull, always tiring, often frustrating, but – I’m still convinced – ultimately rewarding.

What I will say with resolution is that these past four years have been a compelling time to be a college student. I certainly do not envy the graduates of the 2000s, who suffered under the morass of the Bush presidencies, or the classes who graduated in the aftershocks of the 2008 economic recession.

The Class of 2016 entered college in the midst of a presidential election and we leave in the midst of another one. By virtue of this, the hoopla of presidential politics, the thrilling sense of upheaval, the large-scale discussions about social change and the “direction of the country,” have all bookended our college experience.

But even more compelling during our time at Carleton has been the rise of what I will call, for lack of a decided upon name, social justice discourses on college campuses across the country and especially, on selective liberal-arts campuses (SLACs).

These are discourses about gender and racial identity, privilege, class, structural and institutional inequities, power structures, micro-aggressions, histories of oppression, cultural appropriation, exoticism, capitalism, tokenism, intersectionality, trigger warnings. An expansive list and not exhaustive. In tandem with these discourses we’ve also witnessed and been part of a rise in student activism and agency – notably, in the Black Lives Matter movement and the fossil fuel divestment campaign, but through other avenues as well. And ridiculously, ironically, practically unbelievably, in the midst of such discourses and movements, we’ve now watched a racist, xenophobic lunatic – Donald Trump – ascend the throne as the 2016 GOP presidential nominee.

Compelling, right?

I admit to being a bystander to most of this. I adopted – perhaps due to my position with the newspaper, perhaps due to a deep cynicism and wariness of social pressure towards certain beliefs – a neutrality that, once again, I hoped would allow me to see these phenomena as an outsider. I wanted to be even-handed. I understood the sentiment of my classmates. I agreed with many of their convictions. I disagreed with others. I listened to counterarguments about college students being coddled, self-centered, entitled, too sensitive; about the stifling of freedom of speech and expression and the importance of intellectual exploration. Some of these arguments felt valid. Some led me to believe that the older generation was stodgy, outdated and defensive (maybe, too “sensitive” themselves).

I have been equally uncertain about where Carleton – our student culture and our administration – should stand on these issues among SLACs. Part of me has always wanted Carleton to be more radical than it is. When attending the May Day parade in Minneapolis this year, a friend from Seattle said that the parade was like “Seattle diluted in a gallon of water.” Carleton often feels this way to me. We’re like Reed or Oberlin – diluted in a gallon of water. But if you’re going to be something, why not be it fully?

Still other times, I’ve felt like Carleton has been too eager to join “the cause” – like that kid during gym class who begs for you to pass them the ball, wanting so badly to be part of the game, but who you know will drop it immediately. We want so badly to be radical, to fight the system, to overturn power structures – but there’s still something about this campus that stifles anger and pushes us towards conventionality; there’s classes to go to, assignments to complete; after four years, we graduate, we need to find jobs, we need to play into the capitalist economy even more than we already do (and we all do); we end up being a simulacrum of radicals rather than radicals themselves. And all the while the administration wants us to be the “Harvard of the Midwest.” To be exemplary, to squash the radicalness as well because it doesn’t look good, and to make our “quirkiness” a consumer product while simultaneously trying to stamp out our “quirky” traditions. We end up like a simulacrum of quirkiness, too. These things are not unrelated.

Do not mistake me: I’ve enjoyed my time at Carleton. I feel privileged to have had excellent professors, intelligent and passionate peers; on the whole, a top-notch education. My individual experience has been superb.

But when I expand my scope and reflect upon Carleton as institution and student body, these questions and confusion surrounding the primary discourse of my four years here – and how Carleton does or should fit into that discourse – lend me towards hesitation. Waffling. Qualifications. “I loved Carleton, but…” But what? But students were occasionally unrealistic. Administrators, unreasonable. As a whole, the school maybe doesn’t know what it wants to be.

Which is okay.

Carleton, in my opinion, hasn’t grown fully into its millennial identity yet. I don’t think our identity is “quirky.” I posit we’re more robust than that. I don’t think we want to be Reed or Oberlin (or, for that matter, the stupid Harvard of the Midwest). I view us kind of like a gangly teenager who’s going through a “thing.” It’s okay not to know who we want to be. We’re vacillating. It’s not cool to vacillate – certainly not as cool as being angry, or staunch, or making grand statements of purpose – but it’s real.

Social justice discourses are frustratingly framed in black-and-white terms when they are not dichotomous in the least. Complex problems require complex responses. I qualify and wrestle with these ideas, with Carleton as concept and reality, as I should. As you should, as we all should. The stories of our experiences here, and of these discourses, cannot be distilled into a palatable product. They need to be meditated upon, scrutinized, argued – “unpacked,” as our SLAC professors might say. But so long as we’re doing that kind of work and thinking, we’re doing good work and thinking. We may not achieve some grand apotheosis, but we’ll achieve something, and it will be better for our resistance to dogma.

To announce resolutely that “I love Carleton” should feel inappropriate. It’s too axiomatic. Carleton, ironically, taught me to think this way. It gave me tools to be skeptical, to analyze everything, to not “sell out” or “buy in” haphazardly. And I’m grateful for that. It is, after all, the mark of an exceptional education: that an institution has given you the apparatus of analysis you need to be critical of that institution itself.

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