Democracy and the Liberal Arts: A Student's Perspective

It would be easy to become despondent in the face of the relentless attack on the media and on facts that confront us these days. But there is reason to be hopeful.

McKenzie Murray, a senior at Olympia High School in Olympia, Washington, explained why, despite the troubling patterns she sees, she’s optimistic about the future. Her essay detailing her perspective which won the Washington Consortium for the Liberal Arts 2017 High School Liberal Arts Essay Contest makes it clear that she understands the nature of the problems we’re facing.

“Politically, we’re in the midst of some of the most divisive times my generation has ever seen. And as discourse surrounding policy devolves, and people realize that they can capitalize on confusion and fear, a completely new challenge has suddenly been added to our high school experience--the proliferation of ‘fake news’ on our social media feeds.”

She also understands the consequences of the problem. “Our democracy can’t function without trust between the citizens, our policymakers, and the writers that keep us in touch with one another. Undermining the media is a tactic to silence civilian dissent and cover up gross ethical violations by some of the most powerful people in our nation.”

Why, then, is she optimistic? Simply put, she sees a solution to the virulence that is putting some of our most cherished social values at risk.

“The antidote to this silencing is a liberal education--an education that spans disciplines and emphasizes critical thinking. The liberal arts give us a voice, and a framework for understanding and discussing our world. Literature and philosophy allow us to look at the idea of a ‘post-truth society’ and call it what it is--Orwellian, and a violation of our most basic civil liberties. Social studies allow us to look at when this has happened before, and what people did about it. Studying English and language fosters the kind of reasoning and judgment skills that we need to stay informed citizens. Mathematics and the sciences assist us in critical thinking, and seeing the logical underpinnings beneath hazy rhetoric and false claims.”

McKenzie recognizes the power the liberal arts has to shape the qualities needed for students to become active citizens. She appreciates the fact that no one discipline or approach is enough to solve our most pressing problems. And as she notes, a broadly based liberal education, can create important habits of thinking: “It fosters a kind of vital curiosity—a desire to understand life and humanity and to constantly keep learning.”

She is confident that her generation will embrace this sort of education and that by doing so members of her cohort “will learn the kind of critical thinking, truth-seeking, and commitment to respect and unity that we will need to practice throughout our entire lives.”

I find McKenzie’s optimism to be contagious. If high school students like her are able to clearly define some of our most troubling problems and to recognize the type of education needed to craft solutions, there is good reason to be hopeful. Perhaps this next generation will be less divisive and more skeptical, more willing to recognize the difference between opinions and facts, than the current one. If so, they will likely create a more rational and more just world while supporting the full stretch of human knowledge from the sciences to the arts.

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