A Reflection on “The Purpose of a Liberal Education”

By Marissa Klass, AU SPA

“Are you being challenged in your fundamental beliefs?” asked Dr. Robert George, a political philosopher and American legal scholar at Princeton University. Robert George was accompanied on stage by his ideological rival Dr. Cornel West, a political activist and American philosopher at Harvard University. If you were to see these two intellectuals speak on the news or simply glance at their social media accounts, you would never guess that George, a conservative, and West, a progressive, share the same core values, especially when it comes to the importance of a liberal education. During a discussion moderated by Dr. Tom Merrill, an associate professor within the School of Public Affairs, the men spoke about the importance of making yourself uncomfortable in the process of learning.

Before I walked through the doors of Constitution Hall, I had little idea of who Dr. Cornel West was, my only understanding being that he holds progressive values. As for Dr. Robert George, I knew nothing about him except that he supposedly held the exact opposite political beliefs of West. I found that my lack of background on the two scholars was essential in allowing me to see the two simply as individuals with opinions rooted in philosophical and political thought. This discussion challenged my beliefs in a way they had not been tested since I arrived at American University.

Cornel West and Robert George spoke of the value of challenging your own existential beliefs in search of truth. It is something that must be endlessly sought after and requires a constant state of learning, questioning, and challenging. George made the audience chuckle by suggesting that us students pay American University a great deal of money to be made uncomfortable. In that quip the law scholar conveyed the value of listening to the opinions of your peers and reflecting on some of the best historical philosophers in order to challenge and rethink your set of beliefs. Learning is a process which encourages the seeking of truth, rather than the gathering of information to compliment an existing perspective. This acquisition of information is not something to be handed over. To gain a true liberal education is to chase after the discomfort in which you feel like your most core beliefs are being constantly challenged.

It is clear to students at American University which political party stands dominant on campus. While this political homogeneity is not uncommon across many liberal arts college campuses, I feel that our university, which sits in the nation’s capital and is ranked the “most politically active,” holds the responsibility of stimulating more uncomfortable discussions in order to really get our money’s worth, as Robert George suggests. In order to be challenged, it is essential that students break out of their comfort zones by engaging with and even befriending peers whose views are different than their own.

In my own experience, I have found this practice to be a successful one. By forming close relationships with people who I disagree with politically, I have been able to gain a better understanding of their perspectives and where they are coming from. Sometimes, I have found the ideas of my peers to be so convincing that I have adopted them as beliefs of my own. We are a campus that preaches inclusion and community, and it only seems just that these values include political affiliation.

The two intellectual voices of West and George offered a call to action: to get uncomfortable, to understand the other, and to challenge yourself until you are shaken to your very core. It is crucial to maintain a level of discomfort in order to have the motivation to continue learning. This ongoing process of learning will spark new ideas and questions. The undertaking of constant truth-seeking allows individuals like you and me to take in new ideas and perspectives in order to understand the other. Challenging conversations generate thoughtful ideas and theories which have the ability to make you reevaluate your most basic values. Cornel West and Robert George have challenged the way I learn and, through this event, have assisted me in grappling with my knowledge in a discovery for the truth.

Marissa Klass is a first-year Political Science and Justice & Law double major at American University. She is a member of the School of Public Affairs Leadership Program and has a passion for civics, racial justice, and criminal justice reform.

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