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The Carletonian

The Carletonian

The Carletonian

The downside of academic rigor

<eptionally privileged to be at Carleton, but it’s definitely not easy to do well here. There is an expectation of academic and extracurricular excellence that demands students dedicate themselves to a tremendous amount of work. This rigor accounts for much of Carleton’s value as an institution of higher learning, but it also has a way of distracting us students from the problems outside our little collegiate bubble. Reflecting on this, I cannot help but wonder: is it worth it?

The time constraints and resulting stress of Carleton’s academic and extracurricular life limit our capacity as students to interact meaningfully with the surrounding community. The battles of a small town like Northfield (the segregation of downtown, the future of development, the inequality of education outcomes) are certainly important and worthy of our attention, but they are also exceedingly personal and messy, well beyond the clean cuts of critical thought, and beyond the scope of four years. Engagement in such problems is a muddying affair, as any movement creates agitation. In order to be more than a disturbance, actions need time to settle. At Carleton, locked in the cycle of ten-week terms, time is not something we have a lot of and there is not much room for settling.

We at Carleton are not separate from real world problems, but the design of our education, with its hectic pacing and focus on achievement, keeps us from realizing that these problems are within reach, and that we could have a major impact on them if we made it a priority. Perhaps more insidious than this is that our busy lives have a way of imbuing us with a false sense of self-importance (“I don’t have time for this! I have a paper to write, and an externship to apply for!”) that reduces our ability to answer real world problems in the way they require – with humility and kindness.

The “answers” to the problems of racism, climate change, sexism, overpopulation, pollution, etc., all require a nonoutcome-based way of thinking. There is no immediate, visible outcome to not driving a car, to eating a sustainably raised chicken, or to checking some internal bias, but these are the actions required of us. In this way, Carleton is under-preparing us to be what every commencement speech tells us we will be: “leaders of the world.” The busy, hectic pace of Carleton, coupled with the me-centric rhetoric saturating our campus (you are an amazing person because you are a Carleton student, and you will get a great job because you are so great, and you will be such a great world leader someday), encourages selfishness and stifles reflection. Of course, these are gross generalizations, and not everyone is as vain and reactive as I am, but I do see it as a concern. The question isn’t whether Carleton is separating us from real world problems. The question comes down to; is Carleton helping us prepare morally and mentally for the difficulties of making moves in the real world, where outcomes are vague and often immediately unpleasant? As notable educator Kurt Hahn said, “Education must enable young people to effect what they have recognized to be right, despite hardships, despite dangers, despite inner skepticism, despite boredom and despite mockery from the world.” Can Carleton claim to be helping us in this regard, or is this something simply beyond the scope of a four-year collegiate institution? I’m not sure, but I believe it is at least worth considering.

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