Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Vol. CLIV, Issue 8
Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Build understanding of policy basics

Photo Credit : Linnea Bullion

Whitman students love to celebrate the merits of a liberal arts education. Unlike many other college students, we brag our educations are well-rounded. English majors must brave the science building at least a few times; physics majors are forced to write papers on Homer’s “Odyssey.” The idea is that Whitman graduates will have a broader base of knowledge upon graduation. The liberal arts education also emphasizes small class sizes, so that students can participate in lively intellectual discussion, rather than enduring lectures in massive auditoriums.

When I was searching for colleges my senior year of high school, small liberal arts schools topped my list. As a college senior about to graduate, what do I think? Has my liberal arts education lived up to the promise it held four years ago?

In many ways, I think it has. But sometimes at Whitman we focus too much on the argument and discussion, allowing some of the basics to get lost along the way. Upper-level politics classes follow the seminar format, in which students usually lead the class. Oftentimes, the discussion is lively, intellectually stimulating and allows students to reach their own meaningful conclusions about the subject at hand.

Occasionally, however, the focus on discussion in small classes becomes stifling. We can discuss the implications of a particular scholarly work or piece of legislation ad infinitum, but if we don’t have the solid foundation of knowledge to build our arguments off of, we won’t get the true benefits of a liberal arts education.

Whitman politics majors graduate with plenty of knowledge about neoliberal economic policies, but perhaps not enough about the basic workings of the political system. Before we politics students discuss the implications of neoliberalism or neocolonial economic enclaves, we need to have a solid foundational knowledge of the way the political system works. We need to be able to define terms like civil society, understand how a bill works its way from congressional subcommittee to the President’s desk, and describe important U.S. Supreme Court decisions.

As an environmental studies-politics combined major, I also think that the environmental studies department could do a better job of informing students about the workings of environmental policy. A certain unnamed chemistry professor prides himself on being the only professor to teach students the basics of important U.S. environmental laws.

Before environmental studies students ponder the meaning of deep ecology, we need to stand on firm intellectual ground. We should be able to explain the history of the environmental movement, expound on the scientific mechanisms behind climate change, and describe how important environmental laws function. All environmental studies students, whether their focus is humanities, politics or biology, should be able to explain the basic provisions of the National Environmental Policy Act, know the different forcing potentials of various greenhouse gasses and explain why the environmental movement exploded during the social upheavals of the 1960s.

As Ralph Nader said in his lecture on May 5, colleges do a good job of educating students about the esoteric, but fare worse in preparing students to effectively participate in the political system. Nader suggested a dedicated civics course, but I don’t think Whitman even needs to go that far. Instead, we just need to focus a bit more on instilling the basics. If we do that, Whitman graduates will be better prepared to affect the world in positive ways.

So, four years later, am I happy with my Whitman education? Absolutely. I have learned a great deal and made lifelong friends here. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t make a good thing better.

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