How to Fight the Man: Value of the Liberal Arts

Brian Choi – BA 2008 Political Science

We are confronted with difficult issues everyday, many of which we feel strongly about. But how does a liberal arts education equip us to process those issues and respond to those whose views may be the opposite of ours? And how much of our viewpoints are based on reason and objectivity as opposed to an emotional appeal to our own notions of morality?

My appreciation for a liberal arts education continues to grow in hindsight.  A recent op-ed in the New York Times reminded me of its latent, yet powerful effect on the way I think about things.  In How to Fight the Man, David Brooks comments on the growing number of people who have specific gripes about issues in religion, economics, and politics, but when prompted to discuss a solution, fail to deliver a concrete and thoughtful response.  Mr. Brooks writes that “a lot of the protest cries we hear these days” are based on personal experience and not enough of the foundational knowledge that shapes an issue. He posits, “If you go out there armed only with your own observations and sentiments, you will surely find yourself on very weak ground.  You’ll lack the arguments, convictions and the coherent view of reality that you’ll need when challenged by a self-confident opposition.”

I agree in part with Mr. Brooks’ assessment that many people express their disgust or support for an ideological issue based largely on the emotions they associate with certain experiences.  And when pushed even a little as to why they support or disapprove of a divisive issue, many people appeal to their moral compass as opposed to something more objective.  As such, our tendency to speak out may sometimes only be rooted in a visceral response to an inflammatory issue.  While I agree, as Mr. Brooks suggests, that we ought to rely more on the “ancient traditions” and established viewpoints to shape our own ideology, I believe his suggestion only goes half the distance.  To completely hit the mark, we should take the traditionally accepted concepts and use them to guide our experiences and emotion.

One of the hallmarks of a liberal arts education is that it helps us critically examine a topic by harmonizing what is systematically taught to us with how we internally feel about it.  It combines what Mr. Brooks intimates as traditionalism with the emotions we express as humans.  This view of liberal arts has been common to my experience as an LSA student.  Many of my courses as a student equipped me with the tools necessary to legitimize my view on hard issues, like the new healthcare law, and to ask questions like: How does it change the status quo? Who are the affected stakeholders? How is it justified? To what cost? Compared to what alternatives? How is its benefits measured? And what are its unintended consequences?

What I have learned in retrospect is that my coursework didn’t just focus on a rote memorization of facts and concepts – it emphasized the importance of empiricism and the credibility of our information to sufficiently base our opinions on.  Students were encouraged to engage in research with professors, and challenge each other in thoughtful dialogue during our discussion sections.  We were inundated with campus lectures that offered a diversity of ideological views.  We reaped the benefits of LSA’s year long themes – “The Theory and Practice of Citizenship” my junior year, and “ChinaNow” my senior year – which were programmed with courses, campus events, and cultural excursions geared towards such themes.

Whether I fully realized it then or not, my liberal arts experience is inextricably tied to my capacity to develop, define, and constantly adjust to an informed perspective of the world I live in.  It served as a foundation which now enables me to process sophisticated problems and engage in constructive problem solving.  And as I realize the fruits of my liberal arts education, I’ve found it much easier to reconcile the emotions I feel when Mitt Romney says this, or when Barack Obama quips that.  Years have passed, but I continue to utilize the fundamental tenets of the LSA liberal arts curriculum to internalize controversial, modern-day issues that cannot so easily be categorized as good or bad.  And finally, because things like empiricism, rationalism, and relativism are to be employed constantly when assessing and pursuing the issues we are most passionate about, my LSA education has taught me to remain amenable to the merits of others’ worldviews, even if they are not consistent with my own.

 Brian is a member of the LSA Dean’s Young Alumni Council and is a lawyer in New York City.


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