Opening Convocation 2022

12 September 2022

Thank you, Senator Klobuchar, for those thoughtful remarks. Let me begin my own remarks by noting that Carleton is a college that is intimately connected to its local environment — our lovely campus, the wonderful Arboretum, and the neighboring community. It is fitting, therefore, that we acknowledge the history of the land that surrounds us.

We stand on the homelands of the Wahpekute and Mdewakanton bands of the Dakota Nation. We honor with gratitude the people who have stewarded the land through the generations and their ongoing contributions to this region. We acknowledge the ongoing injustices that we have committed against the Dakota Nation, and we wish to interrupt this legacy, beginning with acts of healing and honest storytelling about this place.

We share this acknowledgment on public occasions to help foreground our commitment to ongoing study and dialogue about the experience of indigenous peoples in this area. Last year we undertook a number of initiatives in this regard, including presenting the Why Treaties Matter exhibit, and hosting reciprocal visits with members of the Prairie Island Nation, including its president, the first such visit at Carleton. We are excited to continue this work with the help of a new staff colleague, the Indigenous Communities Liaison who joined our community earlier this summer, as part of our ongoing efforts to become a more broadly inclusive community.

The start of a new academic year is a joyous time, particularly after a period in which gatherings such as this were more difficult to accomplish. It has been wonderful to see students return to campus to take part in new student week and other activities; to see faculty and staff engage in retreats and discussions to prepare for the coming year, and to see all the signs of strength in Carleton that give us confidence a wonderful year lies ahead. (Even U.S. News rankings are smiling on us today!)

Nevertheless, there are still many challenges facing Carleton and colleges like us. We are living in a time in which higher education is facing intense scrutiny. Concerns over high levels of student debt nationwide, and a longstanding strain of skepticism about the practical benefits of a broad-based liberal arts education, are converging with broader efforts to undermine faith in expertise, information, and educational institutions of all kinds. We are seeing not just familiar critiques of elite colleges and universities with large endowments, but unprecedented attacks on school boards, high school curricula, and libraries.

Within this highly politicized environment, it is important that we respond to, and not simply shrug off, questions about the benefits of the kind of education we offer that we may feel have been asked and answered many times before.

To use a recent example, the release less than two weeks ago of some Federal Reserve data on college majors and incomes has led to a spate of articles focusing on the financial benefits of specific fields, along with opinion pieces suggesting that college students should all seek to major in specific, largely STEM, disciplines.

These articles ignore the fact that recent survey data also notes a strong trend towards workers seeking, and being most individually successful at, work they personally find meaningful and fulfilling. This is consistent with the advice most Carleton students are likely to get from advisors here, which is that majoring in an area that excites you is a far better approach than choosing a field based simply on current trends or imagined career prospects. As we now recognize, it is impossible to know in today’s rapidly changing world what jobs will be desirable, or even exist, ten, twenty, and thirty years from now.

In fact, the premise of a liberal arts education is that it is trend-proof, as it provides a holistic, broad-based education in which the learning process is often more important than the specific field that you study. Whatever you major in, you will proceed through a curriculum that provides an introductory grounding, gradually more complex and sophisticated challenges, and finally the opportunity for independent work that tests your intellectual agility and capacity for original thinking.

While there are some career paths–like that followed by those of us who become professors–where specific disciplinary training is needed, many Carleton students go into careers in areas wholly unrelated to their majors. They carry with them a capacity for analytic thinking, thoughtful communication, and working collaboratively that are the very characteristics employers say they are looking for. Having spoken with many Carleton alumni across the country in every imaginable line of work, I have heard first-hand accounts of the value of, not so much the specific major field, but of the breadth of education they received here.

I hope that those of you who are first year students, or as yet undeclared sophomores, will take seriously the process of deciding on a major, but not fall prey to the claim that this is a life-defining decision on which every aspect of your future depends. Every field at Carleton is the “right” major, and our alumni demonstrate that every field can lead to a life of success, fulfillment, and service.

At a time when our culture seems determined to reduce every issue to clear cut binaries, pitting one side against another side, it is important to recognize that the different disciplines we offer at Carleton are not in competition with each other, but complement each other as part of a robust and well-rounded curriculum.

As an English professor, I of course love what we call figurative language, so I can’t resist closing with an extended metaphor to illustrate this point.

Not long ago, a faculty member in Biology sent me a lovely picture from the Arb, of azure, or sky blue, asters, noting that the combination of azure asters and goldenrod throughout the Arb were a lovely evocation of Carleton’s traditional maize and blue colors.

I know that some members of the Carleton community are familiar with the work of Robin Wall Kimmerer, a professor of environmental biology at SUNY and an enrolled member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation who spoke at Carleton in 2020. In her book Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants, Kimmerer recounts a key anecdote that happens to feature asters and goldenrod.

As an entering college student, Kimmerer tells a biology professor that she is interested in botany because she wants to know “why asters and goldenrod look so beautiful together.” He notes reprovingly that such a question “is not science.” After Kimmerer has earned a PhD in botany and become a professor herself, she comes back to the question of why these sharply contrasting plants seem to harmonize, incorporating knowledge of plants she has gathered from indigenous elders, an understanding of the visual effects of color and their impact on bee pollination, and other sources that she weaves together. She asks finally, “Science and art, matter and spirit, indigenous knowledge and Western science – could they be goldenrod and asters for each other?” The two plants represent contrasting yet complementary ways of knowing that together offer a more complete picture than either one can by itself.

Kimmerer’s metaphor is a wonderful description of liberal arts education. It captures the holistic balance that Carleton offers – of science and art, social sciences and humanities, quantitative measurements and creative experience – all of which come together in recognition of the fact that knowledge is always partial, and not just multiple individual perspectives, but different ways of knowing must be applied to any problem.

The essence of metaphor is that it links two separate ideas, creating a delicate balance in which the resonance between those ideas creates new meaning that depends on them both. So in the Carleton curriculum, every discipline gains meaning through comparison and contrast with the fields around it. It is not a matter of valuing, as opinion writers suggest, STEM vs. humanities, but valuing STEM and humanities, social science and art. Like the maize and blue flowers we admire in the Arb, they are woven together into a rich tapestry that is more beautiful for its contrast and complexity.

In a world that seems determined to force every issue into sharply opposed categories of black or white answers, our ability to discern, and create, this kind of multicolored nuance will be critically important in the future. In the end, that is the case for liberal arts education. It creates thinkers who are not trained to perform tasks designed by others, but inspired to think differently from those around them.

As students, you can feel confident in the “value” of your degree because that value does not depend on what you chose to major in at Carleton, but on what you are capable of doing after Carleton. The habits of learning you develop here will ensure that your abilities continue to grow throughout your life. Your Carleton education is a renewable resource.

As faculty, you can feel pride in offering, and staff can feel pride in supporting, this extraordinary education. It is a privilege to join you in this effort, and be among the gardeners of this beautiful field. Thank you for your contributions to making Carleton what it is, and best wishes to all for a wonderful start to a new year together.

Thank you.