Liberal Arts Education and Hope

In the midst of the vitriolic political discourse the United States is currently facing, there rages a debate as to the purpose of education generally and higher education specifically. Many seem to think that higher education should be an avenue to teach skills for jobs and careers while others see higher education as a means to teach mores, critical thinking, and the assist in students’ meaning making capacity. While the debate has not centered on a ‘winner’ the skill based education side seems to have the edge.

A recent study seems to indicate that a liberal arts education – the idea that higher education can teach mores, critical thinking, and assist with meaning making capacity – may yield positive results for liberal arts graduates (outside of just salary). This could be a huge victory for the liberal arts side of the debate, yet the article (and study) seem to miss the major point of one side of the debate. While the study focuses on graduates leadership capacity, orientation towards lifelong learning, and the like, proponents of skill based education do not even value those things that a liberal arts education hopes to instill in students.

The idea that an education should lead to better people is opposed to the idea that education should lead to high paying jobs (though they don’t have to be opposed). The debate will rage on and this study will embolden supporters of a liberal education but fail to impact those that believe a liberal education is not necessary in today’s global society.

Education, though, has to be about making individuals better versions of themselves. Education needs to teach individuals to think critically, the ability to sift through facts and figures, and the idea that two opposed views could be correct is incredibly valuable in today’s hyper-polarized society. The United States election of 2016 saw this debate play out on a national scale as Democrats and Republicans were yelling at one another, assuming the worst of the other. While this is not all explained by the philosophy of education, it certainly is embedded in it. A liberal education is ever more important in this complex 21st century. We cannot simply hope that graduates learn skills to do a job (though that is important – I want my doctor and electrician to know exactly what they are doing) we need to also hope that our graduates can think critically and hold opposing viewpoints. Education – a liberal arts education at that – is the only hope we have to begin to break down the divisiveness that our country currently is faced with.

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Election 2016

Please excuse the rambling nature of this post; there is a lot to be talked about.

By now every political news site, commentator, and novice political observer has commented on the recently surfaced comments from GOP nominee, Donald Trump. The comments made by Mr. Trump in 2005 indicate that he believes he can sexually assault women simply because he is a ‘celebrity’. And that is not liberal spin or an intentional misquoting of Mr. Trump. He stated that he feels that he can grab the groin of a woman, and start kissing her simply because he finds her attractive. I refuse to quote the actual verbiage of Mr. Trump because of the sexually explicit nature of the comments.

The comments (and subsequent spin from Mr. Trump’ and Ms. Clinton’ surrogates) have been predictable and what you would come to expect out of this asinine campaign. The comments made by Mr. Trump describe sexual assault, plain and simple. Mr. Trump’s supporters have been stating ‘who can blame a guy for being attracted to a good looking woman’ which is just perplexing. Do Mr. Trump’s supporters believe that when someone is attracted to a woman that it is okay to fondle and push yourself on her? Is sexual assault just something that we should accept? These comments by Mr. Trump’s supporters are sickening, even more than the actual comments from Mr. Trump. Since I work in higher education, I know I live and work in a bubble; yet it seemed that progress was being made in the realm of sexual assault and gender based violence. Yet, with the comments from supporters of Mr. Trump, we seem to be no further along in stopping sexual assault and combating rape culture.

Although the defense of Mr. Trump could be something just as disturbing as believing in rape culture. Mr. Trump’s supporters could be defending him because they feel that if they condemn and criticize their nominee that they will be supporting Ms. Clinton, Mr. Johnson, or Ms. Stein. The idea that if you condemn or criticize one candidate you must support the other is highly troubling. We do not live in a world that is dualistic; our world is more complex, has nuance, and is substantive. You can disagree with someone and not support the other. And if you do support the opposite candidate, what is wrong with that? Can we do more than coexist? Should we be able to work together, differences and all, to make the country a better place? It would seem that in the current political climate that we cannot, and both major parties are at fault for that.

The Presidential Election of 2016 is something this country should be ashamed of. The two major political party candidates are widely unpopular and have flaws that should be dissected and interrogated. Yet, Mr. Trump’s rhetoric, actions, and statements disqualify him from being president. The latest comments were not a ‘final straw’ for a candidate who entered the race by declaring that Mexicans are rapists and criminals. The comments are yet another example of the character of Mr. Trump and why he is entirely unfit to be president.

The election is a month away. Everyone should be thinking seriously about their vote and why Mr. Trump, a man who has the most divisive and incorrect statements since George Wallace, deserves one single vote. He doesn’t deserve our votes, let alone the presidency.

On Activism

By now, everyone is familiar with the largest mass shooting in United States history that occurred at a LGBTQ night club in Orlando Florida early Sunday morning. This latest act of terrorism is yet another addition in the never ending list of mass shootings in the United States. It is beyond comprehension, tragic, and disturbing that a U.S. citizen could walk into a crowded nightclub and open fire with a semi-automatic weapon.

This post will not attempt to tackle the gun control issue (which a good friend of mine wrote on earlier) or the issue of hatred for LGBTQ folks. Instead, I will attempt to tackle the issue of the current state of political activism in this country.


In the wake of almost every shooting (in particular the tragedy that occurred at Sandy Hook Elementary) a rise in gun control activism takes place. Elected officials (particularly Democrats) call for increasing gun control measures, while (mostly) Republicans discuss the 2nd amendment and gun rights. A few citizens get riled up enough to add their perspective on the issue, and within six months the nation is back to being fixated on the latest reality TV show or Netflix Original.

That disinterest in activism is not exclusive to gun control. The average United States citizen is more interested in anything but political activism. Why? Early on after the adoption of the United States Constitution, Founding Father and Framer, James Madison, introduced a series of amendments to the newly adopted Constitution. One of them, the First Amendment, enumerated six civil rights.

A Constitutional Interlude

The First Amendment states:

Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging freedom of speech, or of the press; or the rights of the people to peaceably assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

The rights contained in the First Amendment are crucial to a healthy civil society. The Framers of the Constitution believed it to be crucial to enumerate rights to better guide the nation in what rights were necessary for the new nation. Additionally, it is important that these rights are listed first in the Bill of Rights, as they are the most essential in the eyes of the Framers. The colonial history of the United States is all about religious freedom, the free exercise thereof, freedom of speech, press, and the rights to assemble and petition. Hence, their inclusion in the First Amendment. For the purposes of this post, the last rights listed, assembly and petition, are what we are focusing on.

Activism

Recently, with the rise of Black Lives Matter and the LGBTQ rights movement, you would not be criticized if you thought activism was alive and well in civil society. And yes, those two movements are great examples of political activism and the role activism plays in policy making. Yet, those seem to be the exception rather than the rule.

Citizens do not seem all too concerned with activism. Citizens across the nation seem to act as if activism plays no role in civil society. To be clear, I am not talking about joining large scale social movements, rather I am talking about being active in civil society. As an example, my parents live on a dirt road in a township with some of the largest reserves in the county. My parents have hoped for the last 21 years that the road will be paved. Yet, not once have they contacted their township board, attended a township meeting, or any of the other myriad of things that could be done to have their voice heard. This story is being played out across the country while everyone is complaining more and more about how government does not work.

The Framers truly believed that for a successful republic (we are not a democracy) the citizenry needed to be involved in the civil society; they needed to do more than vote every two years.

And so, with the recent events in Orlando, many on social media will be quick to post, tweet, or snap their opinion on gun control, LGBTQ rights, immigration, or any other issue embedded in this latest tragedy. Yet, how many citizens will write a letter, be involved in a protest, or call their state representative with their opinion on gun control? I would be surprised if more than 10% of the United States do anything to express their opinion in civil society.


The attack in Orlando on Sunday is tragic. Senseless violence has occurred far too often in our country as of late. Everyone has an opinion on the issues embedded in the tragedy, yet hardly anyone actually takes part in civil society and attempts to make change.

As a republic, we cannot continue to look to our elected officials to craft good policy. We cannot sit back and trust that the country will be run effectively. We are not doing our civil duty when all we do to participate in civil society is vote in the Presidential and Congressional elections. Citizens need to be involved and take their role in governance. The Constitution, after all, begins with “We the People…” not “We, the Elected Officials…

Reflections on We the People

For the past week, I have been volunteering at my old elementary school. My old fifth grade teacher reached out to me to, once again, help with the We the People Competition, which is organized by the Center for Civic Education. In short, this competition has five teams focusing on a series of questions about civics and constitutional governance. When I was in fifth grade, I participated in this competition which began my interest in politics and government. To be able to go back to my old elementary school and help students learn about civics and constitutional governance is something that I am proud to be able to do.

Yet, more importantly is the place that this program has in the American educational system. No other program, to my knowledge, has the ability to promote critical thinking, constitutional understanding, and an appreciation of history and current events. I participated in this program when I was a fifth grader, and once again as a twelfth grader. Each time, my passion for government, civics, and history grew. Ultimately, this passion for government, civics, and history had me attend the James Madison College at Michigan State University, where I earned my Bachelor of Arts in Political Theory and Constitutional Democracy.

My peers who were involved in the program with me are now doing all sorts of things with their careers, but we all are still civically involved and pay attention to current issues. That lasting influence that the We the People program has on its students is impressive, even more impressive than the fact that most of us could rattle off court cases that greatly influence our civil rights today (Lawrence v. Texas and Texas v. Johnson have a fond place in my heart due to their multiple influences on civil rights).

Yet, our federal government so often cuts funding for the We the People program, endangering the program. I have not heard any movements to defund the program as of yet, but this program is one of the few federal programs that seems to work and has an important role to play in our educational system.

Going back to the last week, I have worked with fifth graders on complex questions and seen them begin to grapple with these issues in a way that is beyond their fifth grade status. Working with one student on understanding judicial review (and McCulloch v. Maryland) was a challenge, but ultimately the student understood the role judicial review plays in our national policy discourse, and developed on opinion on the role judicial review should play.

This program will always have a special place in my heart because of its promotion of critical thinking and civic-mindedness. If you see this program in your area, you should take a minute to volunteer or go to the hearings and see what this is all about.

Teaching Discourse

Part of my morning ritual is to turn on the news and watch a half hour of CNN, just to get caught up on the days events. For the most part, this is a helpful aspect of my morning ritual, yet all too often there is a segment or two that devolves into two guests shouting at each other. The shouting is mind numbing, not because it is early in the morning but because the shouting commenced because the two individuals have no respect for one another and a hatred of facts. The shouting matches are ever more disturbing each time I watch them, because they all follow the same script. The loss of a respect for ideas and varying viewpoints is troubling, particularly as our nation grapples with issues that require thoughtful and solution focused policy.

The educator in me finds this rather troubling. In my own experience working with collegiate students, I find the same troubling lack of respect for different ideas. My own hope as an educator is to expose my students to multiple perspectives on a given topic and to allow them to interrogate those perspectives in a civil and critical manner. Yet, the students I have worked with go to their basic instinct which is to simply criticize and wright off a perspective from which they disagree. It took most of the fall semester to get 20 first year students in a leadership course to be comfortable with critically investigating an idea that they disagreed with.

This critical interrogation of ideas is missing from our society. Looking at our political climate, there is a dualistic, ‘with-us-or-against-us’ mindset that permeates through todays political climate. There are some bipartisan efforts being worked on, but those are few and far between. As a society, we seem to have lost the basic respect for our peers and a desire to move forward together by finding consensus.

For educators, reteaching this respect for different view points and critical interrogation (which I view as the act of analyzing and discussing an idea) is critical to the work being done in and outside the classrooms. Students need to be okay with engaging in ideas that they may seem detestable because when they are in the ‘real world’ and outside the comforting walls of the classroom, they will be forced to work with ideas and perspectives that they may disagree.

How do educators reteach respect for different view points and critical interrogation is beyond me. There is no ‘perfect’ solution, but the themes and values embedded in those two ‘soft skills’ are essential to the survival of the Republic in which we live and the health of public discourse.

The Sunday Morning News show is a quintessential American ritual. The news show will cover a variety of political issues and invite a politician to speak on an issue. Whether it is CBS’s Face the Nation or NBC’s Meet the Press these news shows are a big deal, especially for presidential candidates.

Turn on any of the Sunday Morning News shows as of late and you will see a Republican or Democrat whining about some policy issue or how a presidential candidate worked with the ‘other side’ during their time in the United States Senate. Of note, is Marco Rubio’s work on immigration reform.

While both sides can criticize the bill itself, a great deal of the attack on Marco Rubio comes from the fact that the Republican base could not fathom working with a Democrat on a policy issue. That concept is not unique to the Republicans, as Democrats often whine about the same thing.

So what’s the problem? Why is there such a distaste at the notion of compromise in governance amongst our governing elite?

Even the casual observer of the race for the Democratic and Republican presidential nomination can see the lack of desire to compromise. Most notably on the Republican side, long-time front runner Donald Trump’s rhetoric is centered around the idea of not compromising and winning. And this appears, perplexing to the Brooding Millennial, to be working with the Republican base.

Again, why? Why does the rhetoric of divisiveness and unwillingness to compromise attract voters in a way that measuredness, bipartisanship, and compromise simply cannot?

Constitutional Compromise

Compromise created the United States of America. Famously, the Framers of the United States Constitution crafted a document that represented the interests and values of all stakeholders. While not a perfect document (the three fifths compromise, case in point) the Constitution is a document created out of compromise. What would Republicans think of that!

The most striking example of compromise is the Great Compromise. A major debate in the Constitutional Convention was how the legislature (i.e. Congress) would be structured, along with the rest of the federal government. Instead of simply yelling and then leaving the room, the Framers got to work during that hot summer in 1787 to create a structure that would appeal to many in the room.

While not perfect, the Framers designed the system and compromised for the betterment of the country. Further, at the core of the Framers design was one of compromise. For the government to function properly, governance would have to be done through compromise. Looking at the government today, it seems that history lesson was lost.

Partisan Compromise

The history of compromise did not stop with the Constitutional Convention of 1787. While a history of compromise in United States political history would be complete without talking about the Great Compromiser, for sake of time (and readers) a discussion of a more recent history of compromise is appropriate.

Ronald Reagan and Tip O’Neil are the patron saints of modern conservatism and modern liberalism, respectively. The 1980s are, for conservatives, a celebration of conservatism at work. For liberals, the 1980s is not the decade that they look on with the fondest of memory. Yet, for the moderate Brooding Millennial it is a time for celebration.

Chris Matthews book, Tip and the Gipper is a tale of how two titans of conservatism and liberalism clashed about how to craft policy for the United States and, ultimately, had to compromise to govern. While the Republicans (and Reagan) had the majority of the wins in the decade, their policy victories were still a result of compromise.

Compromise is not a sexy thing to talk about. Yet it is the only thing that, historically speaking, has lead to progress and good times.

Moving Forward

Since Reagan and O’Neil ruled Washington, compromise has been a rare feat for the political class. Instead, the hyper-partisanship has only increased to this new political atmosphere that, on its best days, leaves Republicans and Democrats simmering in anger as opposed to outright hostility.

With the rise of Donald Trump, an increased sense that compromise, even the mere idea of compromise, has been all but lost. It is not the fault of the Republicans nor Democrats on their own, but, rather, they have both created this atmosphere where compromise is untenable.

While it is easy to get frustrated, it is vital that voters pay attention to how candidates speak about compromise on the campaign trail. Instead of flocking to the most partisan candidate, voters (and the silent moderate majority) need to embrace candidates who have paid attention to the history of the United States and know the importance of compromise. Voters need to elect candidates that not only speak of compromise fondly, but who go out and compromise.

Governing is not about pushing an agenda through without debate. Governing is not a zero sum game. Governing is a nuanced and methodical dance that requires leaders to sit down, get to know one another, and then get to the hard task of governing.

With the election coming up in 10 months, it is vital that compromise takes center stage rather than the hyper-partisanship that has plagued it thus far.