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The Importance of a Liberal Education in a "Post-Truth" Environment

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What does it mean to be a fully engaged citizen at a time when our political leaders create their own facts? What should we believe when those same leaders point to any news report they dislike and proclaim it to be fake news?

Perhaps, more importantly, is there anything we can do to ensure that citizens have the skills and desire to think for themselves and to push back against ideas that make no sense.

At least one talented high school student believes that she has the answer. She’s McKenzie Murray, a senior at Olympia High School in Olympia, Washington and the winner of the Washington Consortium for the Liberal Arts 2017 High School Liberal Arts Essay Contest.

Her winning essay describes her fears bluntly: “I am terrified of what could happen in a society in which ‘truth,’ as a concept, is not valued.” Her fear arises from the link she sees between a dual assault on the truth and on journalists:

“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.”

While defining a solution to this serious problem, McKenzie offers an impassioned defense of a broad-based liberal education. “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 understands a number of points that so many politicians seem to have dismissed:

• all disciplines and all ways of knowing have something critically important to offer;

• interdisciplinary approaches are most likely to lead to solutions to complex problems; and

• critical thinking skills, which are the hallmark of the liberal arts, create informed citizens.

Mckenzie goes on to assert that by choosing to pursue a liberal arts education members of her cohort “won't choose complacency, and won't shy away from discussing the complicated topics that define our humanity.”

Those of us working in the field of higher education appreciate the transformative power of a liberal education. We believe that our efforts can develop a healthy skepticism in our students. Such skepticism, when coupled with the skills needed to evaluate data, both qualitative and quantitative data, can lead to meaningful insight. We also believe that a liberal education helps students develop a richer sense of empathy by encouraging them to think carefully about the lives, customs and desires of others. Or, in McKenzie’s words, a liberal education will help students develop a “commitment to respect and unity that we will need to practice throughout our entire lives.”

Students like McKenzie are well positioned to become active, fully engaged citizens who will influence the communities in which they live. Students like McKenzie will make it more difficult for politicians to substitute their opinions for facts. Students like McKenzie give me hope.

Niume community

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