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Anne Dalke's picture

Choosing our Limits

Our discussion opened with a discussion of the work of Andrea Zittel, who has experimented extensively with the creation of compact "live-work" spaces, in accord with the notion that "What makes us feel liberated is not total freedom, but rather living in a set of limitations that we have created and prescribed for ourselves." To choose limits, it was suggested, is to be invested in those possibilities.

Discussion ranged from the sonnet form (a thinking about limitations rooted in aesthetics) through choices about what we eat (being vegetarian), how we get around (being carless), to decisions about where to go to college, where to work, whether to have children or health insurace--as well as some questions about the implications of being privileged enough to choose voluntary poverty.

The conversation then turned to what it might mean to advise our students about learning to limit their choices--and how that might differ from asking them to "step back" and consider their choices from a larger perspective. How careful must we be in the messages we give, as we model our lives for our students?
Coming to a women's college, they have chosen--some more consciously than others--a whole set of constraints. How useful is it to talk with them about the "roadblocks" ("checkpoints"? "tollbooths"?) the college sets up: those moments of assessment that are required of them, against which they might chafe? It may be helpful to get them to see that they are making choices even when they don't perceive that they are--that they are participating in constraints they may see as imposed. For example, it is not the case that "they don't have the time"; rather, they (and we) are choosing to "find" or "make" the time to do some things and not others. What happens if--having brought all our resources to guiding them--they "mis-choose," make choices that are ill-advised or even harmful? If they don't choose the necessary restraints, should we choose for them? And what of the fine line between embracing our constraints and being resigned to them?

It was suggested that much of what people do is constrained internally (if one elects to take one's own life, is that a choice?). Why might two siblings, from the same modest background, make very different choices--one living as a maximalist, the other as a minimalist--in the ways they live their lives? Is there another way to conceptualize choice than as denying oneself the "huge basket of goods" that is life, and so "choosing impoverishment"? Perhaps by thinking about each choice we make as opening up a range of possibilities, rather than closing off others? This would be choice not as denial, but as openness. Think, for example, of the honesty of wedding vows with "no endpoint," but an open-ended commitment to learning with another. Mention was also made of the "beggar's bowl," of "liking to work with little," of "radical dependence," of "coming to college with only an empty pillowcase" and what it could hold--and seeing how far you could go with that.

We need to learn to see as choices the things we think are necessities. (How about re-writing "when in the course of human events, it becomes necessary...." in terms of making a choice?) When students feel they have no alternatives, we need to advise them that they always have some, resisting the tendency to use the lack of alternatives as a justification for (non) action.

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