This is an essay I wrote for the Liberal Arts Essay Scholarship Competition. Bon Appetit.
Evolving Political Thought
Since I was in the 2nd grade I can remember forming basic political opinions by talking to my parents. We voted in mock elections in elementary and middle school for the presidency so I always asked my parents who they liked. In 7th grade I ran in a mock presidential election for our class. Several of my peers and I debated on the real issues of the day like the war in Iraq, the economy, and gun control as best as we could. But it was in high school that I started developing a strong interest for politics and world events. I watched hours of what I once considered boring news and radio talk shows. I started reading books and articles on complex issues like Middle East diplomacy and trickle-down economics. But I was an anomaly. A handful of my classmates shared my passion, and the knowledge I acquired was confined to Facebook discussions and occasional chats with friends or family. Yet I had no regrets about my hobby. The return on investment for the hours I spent absorbing the world like a sponge was the satisfaction that I was not letting myself be unaware of the world spinning round and round, and I would have been fine going on like that forever. But then I came to UW-Eau Claire.
When I came to Eau Claire, I already knew that I was going to be a Political Science major. I knew I was going to join some sort of political group on campus, but I had no idea what my level of involvement would be beyond discussion. What I’ve found is that colleges like this are a magnet for like-minded, ambitious youth from all over the world. The interaction and intensity of similar interests most people find rare is transplanted to a common face to face social experience. And that experience is not defined by meeting identical people. Being on a campus means being thrown into a pool of people whom you’ve never met, who live differently than you and come from different backgrounds. I’ve made good friends with people who think radically different from me, and I debate these people on political and world events because we are mature adults in the same stage of life. These personal relationships are vital to developing opinions. You think about your friends and family and how they would be affected by a new law or election, and that brings you to the reality where you see past the politics and into the individual.
In my year and a half on campus I’ve gone polling door to door, made phone calls, and stood out in the freezing cold gathering signatures for petitions, something I couldn’t have fathomed myself doing a couple years ago. I helped host political speakers such as Vice President Joe Biden and former President Bill Clinton, and I did that as part of a community who shared my passion. We are the future pursuing higher education and therefore are the center for such events. I was talking with old high school teachers and relatives as a political equal. I was no longer the youth being taught to or advocated for, but the advocate and tutor myself. I got involved writing articles for papers on campus any chance I got, and have since started a blog. I love writing about what I see happening in the world and enjoy the opportunity to have input and viewing from my peers. There is no greater pride than exercising your speech as a citizen to make society better, and being in an establishment that encourages the development of ideas and community has made all the difference.
When I knocked on doors in the brutal winter months, I met many people who were furious when I asked for their support. There is no greater discouragement than someone cursing at you and slamming a door in your face. But that experience has made me more sympathetic to opposing views to mine than ever before. It was common to see intense angry on both sides during the recall and presidential elections. The passion of many resulted in often uncivil discourse. But I have an extraordinary appreciation for anyone who has the courage to stand out and advocate something in public through protest, door knocking, or editorializing. Opposing viewpoints are no longer faceless ads and papers to me, but real people with real concerns. Anyone taking a stand and trying to be heard in the sea of turbulent politics has my sincerest respect.
As a Political Science major, I’ve had the opportunity to take amazing courses analyzing American and world politics from faculty who live for politics like myself. The emphasis from all of the professors I’ve had is to come into an issue and throw away your gut reaction to it; approach things from every angle to critically analyze it. The strongest political arguments are the ones made objectively because you persuade no one by writing speeches or papers based purely on emotion. You must be sensitive to being overly provocative and focus on presenting information in a non-biased way that’s logical and well thought out. The root of the word “liberal” is free, and to have a liberal education means to liberate yourself to a higher level of thinking, to subject your mind to an uncomfortably different environment that challenges your notions of how the world works, which makes you a better citizen not just for the political process, but for anything in life that demands free thought. Most important is to keep a healthy skepticism of all information. It’s easy to absorb the opinions of those around you, but a responsible citizen holds facts and opinions up to a light; they pick away at the unnecessary rhetoric and nonsense and dig up the raw, unbiased truth. If everyone took a step back to critically think in such a way, the public debate would be more organized, honest, and productive. An ideology is fine and well until it impedes honest critique and analysis, which happens all too often when emotion rules debate.
I was always going to have a profound interest in politics and history. But it is this great university, its faculty and students, which has taken my interest and engagement to the next level. I’ve made friends with people going to law school, political think tanks, and internships all over the country. The line between the professional and academic worlds blurs, providing unlimited resources and opportunity regardless of the degrees of graduates. Being a part of such a diverse but common place forces you to look at the world from a different perspective. You have to question your mode of thinking and ask how your opinions and actions fit into the larger picture for the future. I find myself surrounded by intelligent people who are able to directly contradict my way of thinking so that my skills as a writer and student improve. Without them there would be no evolution in the process of thought. Ideas are meant to be debated and disputed. Without civil discourse, the greatest inventions and institutions would never have come to be. We are social creatures and our best works come when we converse and collaborate to achieve a better product, both politically and professionally. This university has its principles grounded in that.