Rediscovering the role of public citizen and the art of public discourse
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Our country has undergone a monumental election, the results of which will likely change the world in which we live. After one of the most divisive elections in our country’s history, we are left with half the country in celebration and the other half in mourning.

This election season saw a coarsening of public discourse, with candidates and their campaigns obscuring the truth and, in some instances, releasing false information.

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Now, with our country so divided, it is more important than ever for us to be seekers of truth and to learn to seek that truth out and accept it, even and perhaps especially in dialogue with those with whom we have fundamental disagreements.

Nothing can transform someone into an effective seeker of the truth better than a liberal arts and sciences education. Only education and the desire to continue learning can propel us into the light.

A liberal arts and sciences education prepares us for a meaningful life, a purposeful life and a productive life. Meaning, purpose and productivity are sometimes thought of as wholly separate from one another or — even worse — incompatible. But, in fact, they are inextricably intertwined. Without all three, a life is incomplete. Without all three, we cannot improve our own lives or the lives of those around us.

The prime example of where all three meet is the preparation for what Supreme Court Justice Louis D. Brandeis called America’s most important office: “that of private citizen.” 

“The duties of the office of private citizen,” Brandeis explained, “cannot under a republican form of government be neglected without serious injury to the public.” Brandeis’ observation has never been truer or more compelling. There are three sets of skills needed to perform the duties of the “office of private citizen”; each is developed by a liberal arts and sciences education.

First, a private citizen must be able to turn raw information into knowledge. Much if not most of our information inundation comes to us without benefit of curation, editing or vetting of any form. We are left with snippets of information — some true, some false and some half-true.

Many people have difficulty picking the fact from the fiction because they were never taught the skills needed to do so. They are left guessing — sometimes incorrectly — and basing their actions on of this false information.Fortunately, among the core purposes of a liberal education is to imbue us with the ability to sift through raw data and determine for ourselves whether the information is trustworthy and true.

Rather than being forced to rely on the word of others, who may be twisting the truth or simply misinterpreting it, we can form our own conclusions from the basic facts, allowing our view of the world to be shaped by truth rather than the bias of others.

Second, a private citizen must be able to evaluate arguments. Just as statements of fact must be proven, not merely asserted, arguments must be rational and logical and not simply spewed. A liberal education prepares the private citizen to weigh the actual merits of someone’s argument, not merely its emotional appeal. Charisma should not be confused with persuasiveness.

Finally, a private citizen must be able to engage in reasoned debate with others. Once we are able to determine the validity of another’s point of view, we can present our own understanding of events and circumstances in a logical and comprehensive manner. 

Presenting one’s own rational claims, based on provable truths, as well as being prepared to listen thoughtfully to those of others, is the hallmark of a liberal education. I was reminded of this while reading Phi Beta Kappa book award winner Gordon Teskey’s “The Poetry of John Milton.” Milton said “Let [Truth] and Falsehood grapple; who ever knew Truth put to the worse, in a free and open encounter?” Milton’s value of an open mind seeking knowledge should be our guide.

Now that the election of 2016 is over and we face an uncertain future, the skills taught in a liberal arts and sciences education are more important than ever. Our country is divided; the only we can come back together is to seek out some measure of common group.

We must seek out the facts, determine the validity of the arguments of others and then proffer our own argument based on the truth, respectfully listening to other's who do the same. To do so, to be a “private citizen,” is truly the most important office in our country.

Lawrence is Secretary and Chief Executive Officer of the Phi Beta Kappa Society and the former President of Brandeis University


 

The views of Contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill