The Presidential Election, the Liberal Arts and an Engaged Citizenry

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In the midst of a presidential campaign in which bigotry, lack of respect and an absence of critical thinking have become the hallmark of one candidate, we have a great deal to learn from liberal arts students in the State of Washington.

Each year the Washington Consortium for the Liberal Arts runs an essay contest asking students to reflect on the importance of the liberal arts. The students who authored this year's winning essays addressed a wide range of topics of critical importance to society, topics that have the potential to be incendiary. What is so impressive about their work is the fact that they were able to tie disparate pieces of their education into seamless packages while looking beyond their own narrow self-interest. What they did is to integrate the most important parts of a liberal education - the ability to communicate clearly, to think critically, to integrate data, and to reflect on the lives of others - and demonstrate what the nature of engaged citizenship means.

Whether they were writing about homelessness, immigration, refugees or Islam, these students tied their classwork to their personal experiences and reflected on how their perspectives grew. Lauren Moses, an International Studies major from the University of Washington Seattle, explained the impact her educational journey had on her personal development.

My professors and classes consistently exposed me to new structures of belief and understanding. I discovered a rich diversity that was previously foreign to me. I rapidly consumed literature about feminism, world religions, human rights activism, histories of discrimination, and more. My education explicitly encouraged and indeed necessitated open-mindedness, self-reflection, and curiosity. Consequently, my worldview became more nuanced and informed, less narrow and predetermined. Moreover, my education advocated experiencing different cultures, which led me to Dubai and Istanbul last year.

Upon returning to the States, Lauren initiated a project in which she interviewed female Muslim students about feminism. Her work provided her with depth and breadth, transforming and broadening her perspective: "These incredibly articulate students granted me insight into their experiences as Muslim women.... These interviews, inspired by my liberal arts education, challenged and redefined how I saw Islam - and, consequently, the world."

Similarly, Emily Sawan, another UW Seattle student, discussed how she integrated coursework with a hands-on experience. In her case she was studying homelessness in an interdisciplinary honors course and participated in a service learning project at a local youth homeless shelter. She explained how theory and practice came together to yield insight:

This opportunity completely opened my eyes, and let me see a small glimpse into what it is like to be a youth living on the streets. This experience only drove the points we talked about in class further home, particularly that the people required to fix a problem need to be those directly involved in the problem.... I can only hope that we're not too late to find a solution to this problem. It will need to rely heavily on several disciplines coming together, as well as taking ideas directly from the source. Without the type of critical thinking I have learned to do with a liberal arts education, I wouldn't have seen the problem with how homelessness was previously being handled and addressed. Now though, I can cast a critical eye on how my city is trying to solve this problem.

Perhaps the most obvious trait that ties all of the winning essays together is the sense of empathy that they each display. Indeed, these students, like so many others all across the country, understand what it means to see, respect and celebrate difference, without trivializing it. They understand how we are stronger and healthier together.

Their experiences obtaining a liberal education have led them down this pathway. How very different, and how far more mature, their perspective is from candidates who, looking outward, only see "other" and often appear to be repelled by what they encounter.