A Reflection on “The Purpose of a Liberal Education”

Marissa Klass headshot
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.

Identity, Allyship, and Discourse: A Follow-Up Interview with Ian Madrigal, the Monopoly Man

Amanda Werner dressed as the Monopoly Man at Senate hearing
By Jason Steuerwald, AU SPA 

Editor’s Note: Since speaking at American University, the speaker changed their name to Ian Madrigal.

It seems like every day the news is covering the increasing marginalization of one group or another. One day they’re reporting on the mistreatment of migrants seeking asylum at the border, the next on the possibility of the repeal of protections for LGBTQ+ Americans, and the day after on the continued epidemic of police brutality towards black men. These are only a few examples of the many stories and groups that are being impacted by the particularly hateful climate currently shrouding American politics.

While it can often be hard to find the light in this situation, my discussion with Ian Madrigal, a creative advocate best known for their work as the Monopoly Man, reminded me that times like these can lead us to evolve as communities and individuals. In a follow-up interview after they spoke at American University, Madrigal discussed how different identities can play a role in how we interact with each other, both as activists and simply as human beings.

When I asked Madrigal about their experience with the ways that identity can interact with advocacy, they pointed out how being trans and queer has allowed them to live their life from a number of different perspectives. Because their identity and expression has developed over time – having a “stint on every letter of the LGBTQ” – they have seen things evolve through more fluid stages rather than the more common interpretation of reality set in distinct steps and categories. They went on to explain how as their transition has progressed, they have had to “straddle the dualities” of people’s perceptions. In certain spaces, they are now sometimes seen as a straight white man, which gives them a certain degree of privilege they had not had before. But other times, such as when their voice is read as being trans, that safety that comes from passability can quickly dissipate as feelings of unease set in.

As a transgender person myself, I have spent a lot of time navigating this phenomenon. For most people, privilege is generally immutable. Your race, your class, your gender, they stay relatively stable. But as trans folks, we often have the unique opportunity to experience a spectrum of gender-related privileges and discrimination alike. This resulting awareness is something pretty unique to the trans community and Madrigal is actively using this awareness to try and effect change.

Specifically, Madrigal talked about how showing up to a hearing dressed as the Monopoly Man gave them access to space in a way they wouldn’t have otherwise had. Madrigal explained that the Monopoly Man, as many of us know, is the “pinnacle of privilege.” He’s a straight white man drowning in money and real estate holdings. Because of this status, even though they were in costume, Madrigal was able to lean into these associations and the resulting confusion to participate in the conversation in a way that an uncostumed Ian would not have been able to.

I asked Madrigal about the role of race in the Kirstjen Nielsen protest they organized and how we can use our different privileges to advocate for groups while also respecting individual boundaries. Most of the protestors were white or white-passing and Madrigal discussed how they believe the event and their interaction with the Secret Service would have gone drastically differently if the group had not been majority white or white-passing. In fact, the Secret Service grabbed the one Latinx member of the group and proceeded to speak mockingly to him in Spanish.

In reflecting on an educational equity course they had taken in college, Madrigal encouraged using privilege rather than giving it up. “Good people should take and hoard privilege and distribute it,” they said. It’s not useful to “reject” privilege because you can’t really reject how another person is going to see and treat you; that just gives the privilege back to people who will use it solely for personal gain. Instead, Madrigal urges people to use their positions by staying aware and putting their necks on the line when others can’t afford to.

In the same vein, I asked Madrigal about allyship, the surrounding discourse, and how to improve each. And though the idea of their answer seems so simple, it really is the largest missing component of allyship practice today: listening and learning. In order to be effective allies, we need to “take our cues from the marginalized folks in the community. And if they’re not there, figure out why that is.” For example, Madrigal talked about the current wave of white supremacy in the United States, saying that many people are thinking “Oh wow, I didn’t know there were actually Nazis in the country. People of color did.” But it’s important to talk about white privilege with other white people too and not always rely on our marginalized friends to walk us through these discussions. On the other hand, Madrigal encourages us as consumers to be skeptical of what people in power say, not automatically believing or disbelieving anyone, but taking it back to a balance of healthy criticism.

Shifting the conversation, I asked Madrigal about the boundaries and definition of civility. Using the context of the Nielsen protest, Madrigal broke it down into two categories: moral and tactical. In terms of morality, they argued that we can go pretty far in situations like that. Because Nielsen was “putting literal babies in prison,” Madrigal said that morally, a lot could be justified. People bring up incivility when cultural norms and etiquette are broken, but these things should get thrown out the window when questions of human rights violations are involved.

Tactically, however, things become a bit more limiting. Though we may have a “radical view of what morals allow,” odds are that not everyone is on the same page as to what this means. It is important to be able to read the culture you are working within and approach the issue effectively, often aiming for harm reduction in cases of social justice and human rights. Because Nielsen and the imprisoned children were at the forefront of the news cycle, the cultural outrage matched the efforts and allowed Madrigal and their fellow protestors to convey the message appropriately. Being aware of these issues and implications allows us as advocates to navigate the complexities of activism and civility.

In speaking with Ian, what stood out to me was their call to harness our identities and privileges to be better advocates for ourselves and those who don’t have as much of a voice yet. And the only way that we can do this is by actively listening to each other using what we hear to effect change. Knowing that there are people like Madrigal who are creating change and empowering the rest of us to join in makes that constant daunting newsreel feel less like a ball and chain dragging us down and more like a match and gasoline igniting a movement.

Jason Steuerwald is a second-year Justice and Law student at American University. On campus, he is a part of the School of Public Affairs Leadership Program, a member of the executive board of PRIDE, and an overnight library assistant. Outside of school, he is involved in drum corps and got to spend this summer touring the country and competing as a member of the Oregon Crusaders.

The Value of Bringing Speakers to Campus

By Yazan Hanouneh, AU SPA ’20

Something unique to our education at American University is the idea of being academically engaged at all times. When students step out of their classrooms, they know that there are endless educational opportunities at AU and across D.C. There is no end to the knowledge we as AU students can seek, from on- and off-campus events to downtown internships.

What’s even more unique to AU is what our students congregate around and get excited about. The Super Bowl? Just another Sunday. But election night? Students can either attend one of a seemingly infinite number of watch parties on campus or join their entire residence hall floor with their eyes glued to the TV. This trait comes from an inherent desire within AU students to contribute to the world around them, affirming a commitment to public service that has defined American University for over 125 years.

These unique characteristics of AU yield two interesting questions:

  • How can we bring these aspects together to provide students with an educational opportunity that will inspire them to amplify their commitment to public service?
  • How do we have civil and educational conversations on the ideals of this commitment to public service?

One of the most powerful solutions to these questions are speaker engagement events, which provide students with access to some of the most powerful changemakers from across the globe. These events allow students to engage with leaders and ideas they either celebrate or disagree with.

At AU, the majority of these major speaking events are hosted by the Kennedy Political Union (KPU) within the AU Student Government. For 50 years, KPU has served as the student-run, student-funded, and nonpartisan lecture group on AU’s campus, helping to inspire students and initiate difficult conversations by inviting global and local leaders with various political ideologies to speak at AU. You may have attended some of our most recent events with the Parkland Students, Loretta Lynch, Elizabeth Warren, Carly Fiorina, and Malala Yousafzai.

Student takes a selfie with Senator Elizabeth Warren
An excited student takes a photo with Senator Elizabeth Warren.

In KPU, we play an important role in promoting civil discourse and discussion on AU’s campus by giving students the opportunity to explore topics further and get excited about inspiring leaders. When Malala Yousafzai came, students waited in line for hours just for a chance to hear her speak on girls’ education. And when the Parkland Students came, we filled up Bender Arena and brought the national discussion on gun control and civic engagement down to AU’s campus.

But beyond the excitement that speakers generate, there is real benefit to bringing them to campus, even the controversial ones. These speakers provide valuable insight and inspiration for students seeking careers in service, even if students have different perspectives about our events. One student may leave saying “I am so inspired by this speaker and I want to be just like them one day,” while another may say “I strongly disagree with what they said and I’m going to commit myself to pursuing the opposite policies that I believe in.”

This is the value in bringing speakers to campus and how KPU answers the questions posed above about our commitment to public service. Students constantly get excited about the events KPU hosts and use them as a means for civil conversation. The power of KPU events is not just what students experience at the lecture, but rather the conversations an event will ignite elsewhere on campus.

Student in audience asks a question to the Parkland students
A student in the audience asks a question to the Parkland students.

One prime example of this was when we hosted the Parkland students on campus. Prior to the event, one student had written an article highlighting why they didn’t think KPU should bring David Hogg to campus. After they posted the article on Facebook, multiple students proceeded to comment on their post respectfully disagreeing. These individuals then continued to engage in respectful debate over this issue and even after the event these conversations continued elsewhere on campus, such as in the lounges of the first-year residence halls.

Since KPU does not take a stance on any of the speakers we bring, this conversation is one of the greatest indicators of a successful event, as it has achieved its purpose of stimulating dialogue on campus.

As the Director of KPU, I work with 19 other passionate students on our team to decide which speakers we invite to our campus. We work our hardest to ensure that students have the opportunity to hear from leaders from a variety of ideological backgrounds and that we use our resources to amplify the voices of marginalized and underrepresented communities. It’s not only a key mission of our work, but a responsibility.

This responsibility to provide a forum for students to engage in civil discourse is especially relevant in our current political climate, where it is often easy to disregard other opinions as invalid. Guest speakers help break down that barrier by establishing a sense of credibility in what is brought to the conversation, even the controversial ones. More importantly, civil conversation is what helps unite us, and it’s important that we continue to take advantage of it during our time at American University.

Yazan Hanouneh is a Junior at American University studying Political Science. He currently serves as the Director of the Kennedy Political Union and as an AUx1 Peer Facilitator. Previously, he served as the President of the AU College Democrats.

AU YAF Response to Tom Lebert’s Post about Dinesh D’Souza Event

AU YAF Facebook profile photo
By Kate Minium, AU SPA ’20
Editor’s Note: Kate Minium represents the American University chapter of Young Americans for Freedom and is writing in response to Tom Lebert’s post about YAF’s event with Dinesh D’Souza.

I will begin by addressing Tom Lebert’s accusation that a member of our board used expletives and names and demanded that Lebert leave the event. What Lebert failed to mention was that he accused the individual of being homophobic, to which the individual responded by saying that he “was raised by two gay dads” and asking Lebert to leave. These accusations become a he-said/she-said scenario which we addressed and labelled as largely untrue in our statement released last week. I am confident in saying that our board member is only being put under such scrutiny because he was involved in hosting the Dinesh D’Souza lecture. If anything unjust had occurred, I would not stand for it. However, I have no reason to believe that is the case. Lebert’s credibility in criticizing the event was tarnished when he made his criticisms personal, such as when he claimed that hosting D’Souza was “an insult to [my] intelligence” in a Facebook post the morning it was announced. There is no gain in giving this further attention, as this is not what the lecture was about.

I agree with Lebert that American society does place debate on a high pedestal, claiming that a marketplace of ideas will allow the best ideas to succeed. As conservatives, we love our free markets and debate is no exception. A problem arises when what are considered to be the “best” ideas are, in fact, not ideas based on truth.

While D’Souza is being put under the utmost scrutiny (which I take no issue with), I would argue that rather than D’Souza going out of his way to avoid the use of verifiable facts, the opposition is going out of their way to find faults in his arguments. Again, I take no issue with the latter– it is even encouraged. I am simply arguing that D’Souza did not go out of his way to avoid using evidentiary support.

This event was also not advertised as a debate, but as a lecture with a Q&A session. The event hosted the following night, which no one from the opposition attended, was intended to deepen the discussion. D’Souza has no lack of credibility and his speech was not of malicious intent. His perceived inflammation would not be enough to justify us rescinding our invitation for him to speak without sacrificing our principles.

I am not going to defend D’Souza’s Twitter feed or Dinesh D’Souza himself, as we are not a “Dinesh D’Souza” club. I am going to defend conservatism, because we are a conservative club and D’Souza is a conservative. Based on the content of Lebert’s article and the criticism vocalized at the event, I feel comfortable assuming that the disagreement here is on truth. Is what D’Souza said true? The answer is yes.

To support this, I’ll address one of D’Souza’s primary claims during his speech which seemed to receive the most criticism. D’Souza claimed that fascism is predominantly found on the left. This is not a game of “who is more fascist,” but a response to conservatives being called fascists on a regular basis (a popular one that we get is “Young Americans for Fascism”). D’Souza was saying that if one side of the political spectrum is going to be fascist, it is certainly not going to be the right. The claims of conservatives being fascists are painfully ironic, and I will explain why.

Merriam-Webster defines fascism as “a political philosophy, movement, or regime (such as that of the Fascisti) that exalts nation and often race above the individual and that stands for a centralized autocratic government headed by a dictatorial leader, severe economic and social regimentation, and forcible suppression of opposition.”

Most importantly, the implementation of any of the ideas in that definition requires big government.

The essence of conservatism is it’s focus on the individual, with a very slight, but necessary, attention to their role in society. The individual is what matters. That is in direct contradiction to the definition of fascism. Being a conservative means believing in natural rights. If you ask a conservative where their rights come from, you will get a response along the lines of “a higher power” or “they are ever-existing.” YAF is not a religious organization, but for argument’s sake, government is not God and it doesn’t get to pretend to be. Government should be as small as is possible, safe, and feasible while still fulfilling its duty of protecting its citizens and ensuring their rights can be exercised freely.

In contrast, many individuals do not believe in natural rights. If questioned where their rights come from, they will likely respond along the lines of “they come from the state” or “they are given by the government.” These individuals would fall on the left side of the political spectrum. This is where one of the lines between right and left is actually drawn. If the state is believed to be the endower of rights, this gives them the authority to grant and take away rights as they please. This opens the door to big government.

These are two very different ideas: the state as the ensurer of rights versus the state as the endowed of rights. The concept of big government can only exist when the state has dominion over what is considered to be a right. As conservatives, not only do we believe it to simply be untrue, but we see a huge danger in that. D’Souza was correct when he said that if fascism is going to exist today then it would have to be on the left, as right-of-center ideologies are, by definition, mutually exclusive with the essence of fascism.

It’s time to consider that some mainstream ideas might be illogical, not the ‘best,’ or not based on truth. I used to be on the left and I got to where I am today through questioning myself. On the bright side, it seems evident today that fascism is a movement that nobody at American University wants to be a part of and I think we are all on the right page there.

There are many events on campus that right-of-center students don’t believe promote good conversation or discourse. The D’Souza event is being treated differently purely due to its political alignment. The bottom line is that first and foremost, we are a conservative organization whose primary purpose is to empower and encourage fellow conservatives. Any debate or discussion that arises out of that is a wonderful thing. However, our primary interests do not lie in appeasing or even appealing to the other side.

Kate Minium is a Justice and Law: Counterterrorism and Home major and Computer Science minor at American University. Kate is chair of the American University chapter of Young Americans for Freedom.

Debate is Fragile. Dinesh D’Souza Took Advantage of It.

Tom Lebert headshot
By Tom Lebert, AU SPA ’20

American society places debate on a high pedestal, claiming that a marketplace of ideas will allow the best ideas based in truth to succeed. Dinesh D’Souza’s event on American University’s campus proved that debate and discussion are imperfect platforms and can easily be manipulated to serve one side’s ideas over another.

When the conservative commentator and filmmaker spoke this past Wednesday about what he called “fake history,” he challenged students who disagreed with his statements to discuss with him in the Q&A section rather than protesting and disrupting the event.

I attended Wednesday night’s event and considered protesting to oppose D’Souza’s invitation to campus by the student group Young Americans for Freedom and the ideas he spreads. I decided not to protest during the event as others did, but instead planned to ask a question during the Q&A section. The event ended before me and many other students in line could ask questions.

Following the event, I asked an executive board member from Young Americans for Freedom about his denial of members of the LGBTQ+ community being targeted by Nazis during the Holocaust. Another executive board member approached me in an intimidating manner and demanded I leave the event, using expletives and names to make his point clear. I posed my question to him, which he dodged before telling me to ask him if he cared. I asked, and he responded “no” before turning around and walking away.

At an event where the featured speaker calls for attendees to debate him and the group who invited him claims to promote free speech, it is extremely hypocritical for an executive board member to run away from the questioning that they asked for.

D’Souza claimed that the students who protested and disrupted Wednesday’s event were too afraid to debate him and others with his views. After attempting to do so, I would argue that those who protested knew that D’Souza’s lack of credibility and unwillingness to offer an even field for discussion meant that debate would be worthless and ineffective.

D’Souza wasn’t looking to present his view alongside verifiable facts and have a discussion as he claimed at the event. He was looking to turn it into a podium to push falsehoods and ideas not based in reality knowing that he controlled the conversation through the structure of the event.

It’s important to understand that some speech has value and other speech is worthless. Students are often taught early in life that credibility is important when making an argument, whether it be in speech or in writing. Facts that can be verified must be presented to build credibility. D’Souza has presented the opposite, both in the past and in his speech on Wednesday.

From what is essentially partial Holocaust denial to a repeatedly-disproven description of the evolution of political parties in the United States, D’Souza has torn down his own credibility. He has no background in history, and his writings have been panned by numerous historians.

A man who has repeatedly presented falsehoods as fact has no business speaking to a group of students about what is and is not historical fact. Furthermore, D’Souza’s speech was focused on using his version of history to build a political argument. It’s clear that D’Souza took advantage of his ability to receive a platform he called a discussion to twist and even blatantly misrepresent facts to make an argument in bad faith.

This is the problem with the glorification of debate and discussion—such platforms are imperfect and can often be taken advantage of. Discussion and debate can quickly turn into a one-sided advertisement for one side’s view while another side is criticized for not engaging in this uneven playing field. This exact sequence of events unfolded at the D’Souza event.

It is critical to understand the limitations of debate and discussion in order to advocate for it. Heavily regulated debate—including equal speaking time for all parties and fact-checking by neutral arbiters, among numerous other checks—can be beneficial for sharing ideas and understanding another side’s views, but rarely plays out in the real world. D’Souza asked for a discussion, but even in the Q&A section of the event, follow-up questions were left to his discretion, D’Souza spoke for long periods of time with no ability to check his claims, and as a result, discussion was utterly neutered. No value could be derived from such an uneven and unequal exchange.

The Young Americans for Freedom event on Wednesday included no even-sided debate or discussion. Supporting debate and discussion should mean supporting even debate and discussion that requires participants to present actual truth and make reasoned arguments. Young Americans for Freedom, Dinesh D’Souza, and others cannot claim to support these platforms when they take advantage of them to push ideas that cannot be defended when they’re able to be checked.

Tom Lebert is a sophomore at American University majoring in CLEG and minoring in Economics. He currently serves as Chief of Staff of the Residence Hall Association and is the former Treasurer of the AU College Democrats. He also started his high school debate team and served as Vice Chairman of the club for over a year.