The Societal Effect of an Undervalued Liberal Arts Education

“You’re a political science and sociology major? Good luck getting a job!”

There is a persisting sentiment of condescension towards the liberal arts on college campuses across the nation. With a globalized economy that is deeply cemented in the advent and advancement of digital technology, the perception of a liberal arts education that of an antiquated, obscure subsection of academia which houses the crazies who are more concerned with theoretical impracticalities than tangible ‘real world’ issues. Areas of study based in the Science, Technology, Engineering, Math (STEM) subjects are considered to be far more valuable and appealing to potential employers and the public than those based in the social sciences. And this trend is not completely without merit—to thrive in this economy we must have people who are dedicated to math and the physical sciences that will further the pursuit of efficiency and a better connected world. Further, people educated in business, STEM, and medicine can create solutions to tangible, specific complex problems that our world is facing better than someone educated in the social sciences. Notwithstanding, the lack of legitimacy that is awarded to the social science disciplines has the potential to be disastrous to the future of our society. To put it more acutely—there is greater utility in a liberal arts education than anyone wants to admit.

What separates a liberal arts education from the subjects mentions in the former is that their focus lies chiefly within the specialized skills associated with the subject (coding, accounting, physical therapy, mechanical engineering, etc..) while the focus of a liberal arts education lies almost exclusively within the approach to the acquisition of knowledge and worldly understanding. This is not to say that the liberal arts don’t teach specific skills; I have learned about the inner working of campaign finance, the process of public opinion polling, the causation of social stratification, and the empirical effect of public policies put into action. However, what I have derived as being most valuable about my education is that I have a true understanding of how to approach knowledge and ideas to find what is important and translate that to a practical use. Why do I find this so crucial? Because without it, we are too easily susceptible to influences that are adverse to the interests of ourselves and the interests to our society as a whole. We lack the ability to decipher the merits and pitfalls of ideas and are vulnerable to malicious intellectual, societal, and political takeover. No example seems more poignant than our current domestic and international political climate.

It is no secret that many political establishments around the globe are experiencing extraordinary, normative beliefs-changing turbulence. The frightening increase in the frequency of terror attacks around the globe from a more complex and decentralized terrorism system, the international migrant and domestic immigration question, the dereliction of nations from super-national governing bodies, and the splintering partisanship along with the redefinition of ideological lines have all been contributing factors to the rise in anger and dissatisfaction of the average citizen in America and abroad. And instead of working to unite the public and approach our problems with a pragmatic solution, we have leaders that are stoking our fears through the blatant and conscious distribution of misinformation that only compounds our problems, not alleviates them. How is this beneficial to the betterment of our society? What goal is this accomplishing? If a certain faction blocks a congressional bill that would objectively good for our nation for the sole reason of political affiliation, what is intended outcome or purpose? Congrats, you won! Your reward? A polarized political climate, populist anger, horrible job approval rates, widespread distrust due to widespread lies, and more work for you. Why would someone not only prefer, but also actively work to create a system like this? It seems so incredibly counterintuitive and unappealing that I have a hard time coming to grasps with this reality.

However, a large piece of a liberal arts education is taking an objective look at an issue, identifying the root of the problem, understanding the historical factors that helped create the problem, and figuring out a way to efficiently solve it while providing clear lessons and chronology for those who might an encounter similar problems in the future. Due to the foregoing, I am not ignorant to reasons we are here. I attribute my, and many others, existential recognition of this problem to a liberal arts education. During my tenure, I was taught not to blindly believe what is preached without diligently dissecting the merits of the point. I was taught how to understand psychological and conscious biases and guard myself against their influences. I was taught to view politics and society not as a closed room that fully encompasses every possible idea that can be thought of, but rather as an open field that encourages merited discourse as a tool of social advancement.

I have been lucky enough to have been taught this in my undergraduate education; unfortunately, the majority of the general public has not had the same opportunity  to share in my prerogative. To no fault of his or her own, many people have either not had the privilege to obtain a formal education, or chosen to focus on a different subject where this thought process is not an integral part of the curriculum. As a result, there is a serious void of constructive public discourse, deep scrutiny of groupthink mentality, factual accountability for our public figures, and the perceived value of compromise. What is most disheartening about all of this is that, as a public, we are generally cognizant that these issues exist. Congressional approval ratings are under or around 10%, a majority of the population think this country is headed in the wrong direction, and there is deep mistrust of our political system. The issue doesn’t lie within our ability to recognize, it lies within views on how to solve it. And so, we march forward with utter confidence, drowning ourselves in the white noise of party politics, meritless arguments, and the inability or will to take a scientific approach to something we don’t conventionally consider science; our well being.

There is, however, a way to solve our unique predicament.  (1) As a society we must embrace- or at the very least acknowledge- the importance of a population educated in the liberal arts and social sciences. This doesn’t mean diminishing the importance of other field; that would be contradictive to the core principals of a liberal education.  Rather, extent that same importance to liberal arts subjects as well.  Instead of streamlining young students into fields that earn the highest salary, expose them equally to the world of social sciences through a more diversely focused educational curriculum that demonstrates the legitimate societal value of all academic subjects.  (2) We have to normalize the value of a liberal arts education and the importance of the social sciences. Once it becomes normalized, the market, which serves as a tangible and monetary reflection of our values, will reward the new generations of social scientists with higher overall income and more visible merit recognition. One of the biggest discouraging factors for students interested in the social sciences is their legitimate fear of unemployment after graduation. Once we understand the intangible value, we can start assigning tangible value. (3) When our liberally-educated social science students matriculate into the economy, we must put their education to good use by imparting it’s important lessons on the public. That involves curbing the trend of telling people what to think about certain issues, and replacing it with an education of the philosophical ways and methods of thinking, then presenting them with the facts of a current issue, which they now have to tools to dissect.  Once our public internalizes this new way of thinking, we can engage in productive public discourse, champion truthful and beneficial governing practices, and start well on our way to living in a better world.

-MB

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The Disillusion of Modern American Exceptionalism

I want to start off this essay by admitting that I am both vastly under qualified and justly qualified to write on this topic. I am 21-year-old undergraduate college student that holds no education further than a few upper level political science classes, some months traveling abroad and reading done on my own. Hell- I wasn’t even old enough to vote in the last Presidential election. However, I, and many others hold a qualification that gives me not only a right, but an obligation to write on this: I am voting American. It is the duty of every American voter to understand the challenges that face our nation and aid in finding a solution. If we see a serious problem in our government, we have the power to make the necessary changes. Our nation is currently experiencing crippling gridlock and divide that has realigned the electorate’s goal from working towards ever-constant improvement of the once greatest Nation in the world, to the disillusioned civil war between two parties who’d rather die of starvation than share the kitchen. This is not the American way. We are living in a country that has internalized a misguided concept of American exceptionalism that is counter-intuitive to very ideal it represents. This essay will work to identify the problems with the current practice of our pseudo-exceptionalism and try to identify a pragmatic solution that can be embraced by all Americans and bring us back to the country we know it can be.

The concept of American exceptionalism is the belief that America is the best country in the world and that our values are the most noble; so much so that we must work to spread them to every corner of the world. This belief has been present in our country since our inception. Early settlers attempted to westernize the Native Americans and rid them of their ‘savage’ ways. Americans pioneers felt is was their manifest destiny to extend the reaches of the nation from sea to shining sea. The United states has engaged in almost every major conflict overseas because we feel that it is our duty fight against powers that threaten the American way, even if they it has no direct effect on domestic life. Because of this, we have grown to the world power that we are today. However, this ideal is by no means negative. America has fought for freedom for countries controlled by strict dictators, been at the forefront of revolutionary technological advances, and have created a nation that truly believes in and promotes the opportunity for success. In that sense, American exceptionalism isn’t a belief, but a truth and a force for good. We were proud of our accomplishments, but never settled for the status quo. We believed in our leaders and knew that they were looking out for the interests of the people, not themselves or their party. Americans had a jovial opulence that radiated from the beaches of California to the skyscrapers of New York. Unfortunately, this is not the American exceptionalism we have come to know today. Fearful of attacks and slander, we have come to know a brand of American exceptionalism where we are incapable of admitting our own fallibility in order to preserve our party’s image and take down the other. If we cannot admit our own mistakes, how can we expect to make substantive change in a broken system?

If you look at the infrastructure of any successful company or team, you will find a constant principle: self-evaluation and constant improvement. Companies are always looking for ways to improve on their past performances through a process of reflection. Silicon Valley, the mecca of technological innovation and progress, takes great pride in the process of trial and error. The more you fail, the more opportunity you have for success. If an idea doesn’t work, you acknowledge its shortcomings and make the necessary changes it needs to be a success. Admittance of failure isn’t shamed, but rather celebrated because there is an understanding that failing and self-evaluation is part of the process. Similarly, if a previously dominant sports team is in a slump, do they continue in their ways? No. They identify what they are doing wrong and make the necessary changes to get on their track of previous success. Knowing this, why does our nations leadership seem to ignore this process?

To be clear, when referring to this idea of self-evaluation, I do not include critiques from the individual on the nation by placing sole blame on the beliefs of the opposite party. This isn’t evaluation for the sake of progress, instead it is critiques aimed at questioning the competency of the individual. That is not to say that we cannot make legitimate critiques on the decisions of our leaders who the rightful fault is owed–in fact that is encouraged. The issue comes when we forego facts and place all blame on the opposition, so much so it blinds our ability credit them with legitimate successes that they experience. The unfortunate reality is that our leaders in our political system seldom admit personal wrongdoings for issues facing our nation; “it is never our own fault, but rather the fault of someone else”. If there is an issue in our country, it is because of the decisions that come from the other side of the aisle. Much of this can be equated to the two-party system and the inescapable reality that politicians must have public support for get reelected so they can maintain their employment. Our political system has become so partisan and our political rhetoric is so outwardly focused that the only way to survive is to assimilate to this faulty style of governance. Republicans outwardly assign all problems in our country to the decisions of President Obama without the willingness to congratulate his legitimate successes or even exercise the idea that policies implemented by a president take decades to fully manifest, and maybe some of the issues we are currently experiencing could have been the result of past leadership. Similarly, Democrats hold on to their lofty, ideologically driven policies without the ability to acknowledge the economical impractically of implementing such policies, and then blame the republicans when they fail. As a result, critiquing the decisions of our nation is perceived not as an attempt to improve on an already great system, but rather an attack on the American way and a faulting love and belief in our values. Our politicians are unable to admit fault without experiencing detrimental backlash to their public image and career as a whole. This brand of misguided American exceptionalism not only hinders our ability to soar to the great heights our country is capable of, but is harmful to the very principle it is seemingly trying to protect. How can we expect to grow, as a nation if we cannot do honest, public self-evaluations where we admit we are our judgment could’ve been better and look to the every American for new ideas without being ridiculed for our mistakes? We should be valuing are politicians as we do CEO’s inventors, musicians and athletes on their ability to learn from their mistakes and grow from them, not cutting them down for it.

So how do we change this system that we are currently stuck in? The first step may seem trivial and insignificant, but I believe it lies within the ability to empathize with people of dissenting opinions. It is no secret that our two political parties have different theories on successful governance. These theories reflect the inherent values they find important in a society they wish to live in. And while these theories and values may differ, each has the same goal: shaping a nation that provides its citizens with the rights and opportunities that are universal to mankind. Contrary to common rhetoric, it is ignorant to believe that either party has the goal of ruining this country with their policies; each believes that what they are doing is the right way to achieve the common goal and to believe otherwise is ignorant. However, for better or for worse, the reality is that we have a system that requires cooperation and compromise across the aisle. Therefore, we must employ empathy if we wish to make substantial change to our broken system. Sun Tzu famously said “to defeat your enemy, you must become your enemy”. It is not my intention to lay claim that the ‘other’ party is the enemy (though that statement wouldn’t be far off in the eyes of the public) but rather to apply this point to policy making. It is imperative to understand why someone believes what he or she does before fully discounting his or her claim. As mentioned before, everyone has a the same goal they’re working towards, so by understanding why someone believes what they do and acknowledging the validity of their intent, we can hold a rationally driven debate on the merits of each opinion and work to find some middle ground that accomplished the common goal. Not only does this practice make debates more efficient, but also it humanized the competitor and fosters productive relationships that can pay dividends in the future. This idea of empathy may seem insignificant and trivial in comparison to other issues facing our nation, but it undoubtedly a step in the right direction.

If, as a nation, we collectively decide to embrace this paradigm shift–applaud our leaders when they admit wrongdoing, reward empathetic debate and condemn crippling partisanship, we can start on the path that leads us back to true embodiment of our previously practiced American exceptionalist ways.

 

-MB

A City Built for its People

 

For the last four months, I have had the privilege to call the City of Dubrovnik my home. But just calling Dubrovnik ‘home’ would be doing it an injustice. It has been the catalyst for adventure, exploration, learning, triumph, failure, happiness, grievance, and love. It was a familiar friend, a distant stranger, a troublemaker, and a peace bringer. More than anything, this city was my home base for the greatest four months of my life. While there isn’t much I can do to repay it for what it has provided for me, the one thing I can do is try to scribe my thoughts on it and share it with others. So here goes nothing.

Every city has a ‘feel’ to it. Whether it’s the pride of its past, the unique architecture, or the people who walk the streets, the cleverly placed piles of stone, metal, and concrete have a way of personification that is unique unto it. Anyone who has stepped foot inside the ancient walls of Dubrovnik knows exactly what I’m talking about. You can’t explain what it is, but this city feels different from any other. Its more than just the aesthetics of its layout, more than just the unique natural beauty that houses it, more than just the resilient nature of its past. Above everything else, this is a city built for its people.

Go ahead, hop in a time machine and go back to any point in Dubrovnik’s history, no matter where you land, you’ll get that same feeling. This city was, through and through, built for its patrons. The walls were constructed high and strong to deter conquerors and protect its citizens. The alleyways, zigzagging intermittently up, down, and through the city, provide endless exploration and discovery. Travel back to the era of world empires; through clever diplomacy practices, the city of seven flags remained sovereign and free. Walk down a street scattered with boutiques and shops and smell the culinary excellence wafting from its nooks and crannies. Grab a beer at one of the many watering holes and indulge in conversations with the amazed tourist and the appreciative locals. Withstanding the testament of time, this city has stayed deeply rooted in the protection and well-being of the people who call it home.

While the walls are no longer used to keep out ambitious conquerors, instead they’re used to capture magnificent panoramic views of the city and the Adriatic. Fort Lovrijenac once stood guard day and night keeping a watchful eye on the horizon, now stands tall offering a peaceful spot for sightseers and Game of Thrones buffs alike to enjoy a sunny day. From its inception to present day, Dubrovnik sits at the foot of Mt. Srd looking, as my good friend Alex Costa put it, like a sandcastle constructed by God himself, built for the enjoyment and protection of its patrons.

This city is built for its people, and in return, the people gain strength, resilience, and pride from and for their city. Dubrovnikin’s (-ites? -ovs?, I’m not sure) are different unto mainland Croatians. They have a different culture, a different dialect, and a different history, and different pride than the rest of Croatia. This pride is based in its city; the winding alleyways, cobble-stoned streets, and tall walls that were built for them. The city of seven flags flies the Flag of St. Blaise the highest, the Patron saint who watches over its people. The people walk tall down the center of Stradun with their chest held high for they, are who this city is built for. And after 4 moths of living in Dubrovnik, I have had the pleasure to share in this pride.

Hvala, Dubrovnik, a piece of my heart will always reside somewhere in your walls.  You have given me more than you will ever know.

-MB

The Prerogative of Uncertainty

If you were given the opportunity to learn about all of life’s unanswerable secrets: the legitimacy of a higher power or the so-called ‘correct’ religion, every conspiracy theory known to man, what happens after death, women, the meaning and purpose of life itself, ETC… would you take it?

I was presented with this question the other day, and it has been on my mind ever since. On one hand, answering yes would provide you with the ability to achieve complete fulfillment in life. Our entire lives are spent searching for the answers that are unattainable, and getting these answers would provide you with ultimate closure. However, you run the risk of vacating purpose and drive for the remainder of your life. On the other hand, answering no would allow you to continue your pursuit for answers, allowing you to form your own answers to life’s question, ultimately providing real meaning and purpose. However, these questions are basically unsolvable, exposing you to the very real possibility of the absence of true closure.

If you were to ask me this question a decade ago, I would have answered yes without hesitation. I used to lay awake at night mulling over these questions, desperately looking for an answer that wasn’t there. But now, my answer is the complete opposite. This is because, through my 20 short years of life experience, I’ve come to understand that uncertainty is our prerogative.

For the last three and a half months, I’ve had the opportunity to take uncertainty head-on. No amount of blogs, books, videos, or personal accounts can prepare you to live in a foreign country. Sean Maguire (Robin Williams) articulates it perfectly to Will Hunting (Matt Damon) in Good Will Hunting when he exclaimed “So if I asked you about art, you’d probably give me the skinny on every art book ever written. Michelangelo, you know a lot about him. Life’s work, political aspirations, him and the pope, sexual orientations, the whole works, right? But I’ll bet you can’t tell me what it smells like in the Sistine Chapel”. We may think we know everything there is to the world, but until you walk the smooth stone streets of Dubrovnik, climb to the top of the Bran Castle in Romania, or have a conversation with a Yugoslavian War Veteran, we cannot fully come to understand the magnitude of the human experience.

It is this uncertainty that drives my ambition. If I were to be certain of what the world has to offer, I would have no need to get out and explore, to meet new people, to learn new information, or enjoy what life has to offer. Why would I want to have someone tell me the answers when I can get out and discover them for myself? Humans have been given a gift of thought and wonder, and to gain all the answers is to waste the unique gift that no other species has.

With three weeks left in Dubrovnik, the question of dealing with life’s uncertainties linger in my mind. I, as many others my age, am at a pivotal crossroad in my life. Summer is fast approaching, and before I know it I will be starting my internship, completing my undergraduate degree, and continuing on into the real world. Now, more than ever before, my future is filled with the uncertainties that come with the real world and the question is how do I tackle them? For me, the answer is simple.  Just as I always have: head-on without the thought of hesitation. If there’s anything that I’ve learned over this last three and a half months, it’s to learn to love, embrace, and strive to solve the unanswerable question that life has to offer, for it is this that you find life’s meaning.

-MB

The Value of Taking the Road Less Traveled

Throughout my life I always seem to take the road less traveled.  Do things that are different than the norm.  I attended hippy circus camp as a kid, played lacrosse when my school didn’t offer the sport, attend a small, relatively unknown university 3000 miles from home, and study abroad in Croatia instead of a more popular destination.  I’m not consciously choosing to do things different, these options have just always held greater appeal to me.  Maybe growing up as a left-handed Jewish Redhead poised me to make these decisions, but regardless of the reasons why, I have always gravitated towards doing things a bit different than others.  I had never really seen the value in this until I embarked on my spring break trip a couple weeks ago.

Instead of traveling to more popular Western European destinations like most people do (and there is nothing wrong with this), I decided to spend a week traveling through Serbia and the Transylvania Region of Romania.  I figured that I will have plenty of opportunities in my life to visit more easily accessible Western European spots, but seldom will I have another opportunity to head east and see some truly unique places.  In addition, Lonely Planet had rated Transylvania the #1 region in the world to travel to in 2016, so I felt that this was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up.

Unsurprisingly, no one in my program was planning a similar trip, so I was going to be doing this trip solo.  Most people would be disappointed by this, but I was actually glad that I was going to be doing this by myself.  It offered me a sense of freedom; I was only bound by my own ambition.  In preparing for my trip, I made a loose schedule of places I wanted to hit: I knew I wanted to see Belgrade, Serbia and the Bran Castle (home of Dracula) just outside of Brasov, Romania, the rest of my trip was left open to whatever I wanted to see.  I decided I wanted to do the majority of my traveling via train instead of flying because I felt that it would allow me more flexibility and exposure to life and culture in the areas I would be hitting.  So with just a skeleton of an itinerary, a backpack, and a ukulele, I set off on what would become one of the more challenging, intense, and fulfilling weeks on my life.

Almost immediately, I was met with unique challenges that come with travel in non-western countries.  To get to Belgrade, my first destination, I had to take a bus to Bar, Montenegro where I would catch a 12 hour train to Belgrade.  I arrived mid-afternoon in Bar to a bus station where no one spoke english, no wifi, and no ATM.  This seemed to be a persisting theme throughout my trip.  I quickly learned that I need to be prepared with ample money, and a basic knowledge of the language and directions to get to where I will be staying that night.  The next day I got to the Bar train station with 21 Euro in my pocket, expecting that there would be an ATM at the station or the ability to buy a ticket with card.  Wrong and Wrong.  Luckily for me, the train ticket happened to cost exactly 21 Euro.  Additionally, I arrived 20 minutes before the departure time because.. well that’s what you normally do. But because this is the Balkans, 18 of those minutes were spent standing in the back of the line while an old man argued with the teller.  Fighting my inner neurotic Jew, I was able to stay composed and hopped on the train legitimately 30 seconds before it left.

I could spend the rest of this just telling you about all of the situations similar to this that I encountered (being the only American on a decrepit bus that took us through the Serbian backcountry, missing my train in Timisoara, Romania because my phone didn’t adjust to the time difference, arriving in Cluj-Napoca, Romania at 2am without a room booked for the night, having my ukulele almost pried out of my hands by Gypsy kids, losing 2000 dinars at a Belgrade Casino, the list goes on..) but that’s not what this post is really about.  Instead, this post is about that value that comes from getting out of your comfort zone and embracing the challenges that come with dense travel through unfamiliar areas. On this trip I traveled through some of the most naturally beautiful areas I have ever seen.  I hiked the snow-capped Carpathian mountains in Romania, wandered through remote villages of Serbia, rode through the time-absent countryside of Transylvania where shepherds corralled their sheep and farmers carried hay in their horse-drawn carriages.  I visited some truly unique cities that were unlike anything I had experience prior.  I got lost in the graffiti covered back alleys of Belgrade which visually embody the grit and personality of the once Capitol of Yugoslavia, explored Sighisoara, Romania, the last truly medieval city in Europe and the birthplace of Vlad Dracul the Impaler, toured the breathtaking castles of Rasnov and Bran in Transylvania, giving me a glimpse of medieval feudal life.  I met and shared stories travelers from all over the world who live in the alternative universe of the global nomad.  I partied until the sun came up on boathouse nightclubs in Belgrade, drank homemade palinka (Romanian moonshine made from plums) in Cluj, and danced to Romanian pop music covered by the club’s in-house saxophone player.  By getting out and experiencing places that were totally foreign to me, I was able to have experiences that most people in this world will never get to have, and I feel very fortunate to have this opportunity.

Finally, my greatest takeaway from my trip with the realization that no matter what corner of the earth you go to, there are people living just as complex and intricate lives as yourself.  That fact may seem trivial; of course there are people living everywhere with complex lives.  But until you lock eyes with the construction worker in Montenegro, the Shepherd in Transylvania, or the barkeep in Belgrade, it’s hard to really internalize this concept.  There billions of people on earth who experience the same emotions and tribulations as us that we never spend a second thinking of.  And why should we?  They have no effect on anything that goes on in our daily lives.  But by doing so, we gain a sense of humility and compassion it is hard to conceptualize otherwise.  As with the rest of my life, this spring break I took the road less traveled by and I lived to tell the tale.  Hopefully you have the opportunity to do the same.

-MB