Learning in a Time of Politics: Liberal Arts Education and Political Engagement
The Eighth Annual Conversation on the Liberal Arts
February 15-16, 2008
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We live in a highly charged political climate, and the need for well-informed, discerning political engagement is acute. But all too often instead of information we get sound bites, instead of analysis of issues we get coverage of campaign horse races, instead of deliberation we get debates, instead of critique we get attack. The fairness of our sources of information is doubted in every direction. Analyses of issues are everywhere assumed to be tainted by political prejudice.
There is nothing new or surprising about this political climate. But it does present a serious challenge to a central goal of a liberal arts education—to help students become engaged and thoughtful participants in our political life. Some students turn off, regarding the political realm as a swamp of self-interest masquerading as public good. Others engage passionately, but at times simplistically, carving the political landscape into realms of good and evil, and failing to bring their critical skills to the claims of friend and foe alike.
The task of "Learning in a Time of Politics" was to learn from each other how best to help students become critical, informed, and engaged participants in our shared political life. We considered classroom strategies and extra curricular programs as well as broader questions of campus climate and how academic institutions are themselves political agents.
Harvard historian of education Julie Reuben served as catalyst for our conversations. Professor Reuben has done outstanding work in the relationship between educational institutions and American political life. Her contributions offered us concrete examples of efforts to educate for citizenship: what has motivated those efforts, what assumptions and values have undergirded them, and what their results have been. In addition to the three plenary sessions led by Professor Reuben, we also enjoyed ample opportunity for discussions on campus-wide programs and classroom strategies that foster fruitful political engagement.