As you likely know, my time as Carleton’s president will conclude at the end of July. One of the true privileges of serving in this post over the past 11 years has been getting to know and work alongside alumni whose lives have been indelibly shaped by their student experience and their ongoing connections with their alma mater. This space has served as an avenue for you to hear directly from me and, I hope, as a channel to spark dialogue about some of the important work that binds us all together.
While preparing for this last Laird 100, I returned to my first column, which was published in fall 2010. I found the following passage:
What is it about this place that has captured my heart? I knew, even before I was approached about this position, that Carleton is academically superb and has a nonnegotiable commitment to excellence in the liberal arts. Those values reflect my own passions; they helped draw me to Carleton.
These words still ring powerfully true for me. And therefore, I’d like to take for my valedictory subject Carleton’s approach to the liberal arts and why such an educational focus continues to matter so much.
Our world changes ever faster and in unpredictable ways. The notion that across four years of college one could acquire the knowledge needed for a career seems quaint, if not ludicrous. Professional paths and lives take unexpected and frequent turns. In the midst of such flux, I am convinced that by far the best educational bet for smart, curious, ambitious, idealistic, and kind young people—in short, the students we most want and who in fact enroll at Carleton—is exactly the distinctive residential liberal arts experience we provide. Carleton’s nonnegotiable commitment to providing world-class learning is also intentionally mindful of how our graduates aspire to make the world a better place and forge successful, fulfilling lives.
While our curriculum is always evolving to encompass new fields of knowledge and to address emerging issues, Carleton students hone intellectual skills and acquire life lessons that serve as an unshakeable foundation for all that will follow. These superbly adaptable tools include the ability to read and think independently and critically; to construct logical and compelling arguments both in writing and in verbal discourse; to draw connections between different bodies and types of knowledge; to collaborate with others, learning from their critique and example; to think creatively and boldly, grasping, in particular, the power of the scientific method; to understand the importance of data and how it can be used (or abused); to embrace diversity of experience and outlook in pursuit of the knowledge and shared purpose those differences engender; to appreciate the timeless lessons literature, history, and art can impart about what André Malraux called “la condition humaine”; and, in wrestling with the challenges of modern humanity, to recognize and thoughtfully take account of the broader social, political, economic, environmental, and moral context in which our lives play out. This is hardly an exhaustive list, of course. In essence, though, a Carleton liberal arts education equips one to live a life of purpose and meaning in which curiosity is unquenchable and learning and growth never end.
We owe our students such an education, and we also owe them our best help launching them into the world to achieve their dreams. That’s why a principal element of our work this last decade — and in coming years as well — must be to prepare students for their post-graduation careers and lives. This is utterly consistent with the cherished values of a liberal arts education. Done wisely and well, career preparation and a liberal arts education are symbiotic and mutually self-sustaining.
I closed that fall 2010 column by pledging that I would “safeguard and support the essence of Carleton” because this is “an absolutely remarkable institution [and] taking care of the college and helping position it so that it will succeed for the long term is a noble task.” With the benefit of hindsight, and reflecting upon your unstinting friendship, I can aver that I’ve never spoken truer words, or been more grateful for the opportunity to serve a college that means so much to us all and whose future shines so bright.
— Steven G. Poskanzer