by Claire DeLaval ’17
Claire DeLaval was a finalist in the 2017 Bailey Oratorical competition. This year’s prompt was: “At the heart of the liberal arts is civic engagement: How can we use the values of our liberal arts education to heal divides in our nation and world?”
I love my life. This semester I’m taking all politics and economics courses, like Human Rights and International Political Economy. Once I’m finished with my day on campus, I head down to the fire station next to Johnny’s, Huntingdon Regional District 5. Three nights a week I have to be there by six o’clock to do my fire classes: four hours of classroom or practical skills all about how to lay fire hose in the bed of a truck so that you can pull it out quickly and smoothly; how to rescue a person from a vehicle; how to fight fire in its various forms. Being a volunteer firefighter in Huntingdon is just as important to me as being a student of the liberal arts at Juniata, but sometimes I feel like, in my daily life, I have to cross a divide between these two spaces I care about. I’m sure I’m not the only person here who’s experienced that–the feeling of belonging, somehow, in multiple places that are divided from each other. And on a societal level, it’s clear that we’re struggling with how to live in a divided America. Hillbilly Elegy, the memoir by J.D. Vance, was chosen by the New York Times as one of the “six books to help understand Trump’s win.”
For me, living in both these worlds has been a test of my values. I have learned that the values of one person’s reality will not always be a road map to understanding another person’s reality. I have had to suspend my reflex for quick judgment, practice open-mindedness, and most of all, confront my assumptions. Let’s confront the assumptions in tonight’s question.
“How can we use the values of our liberal arts education to heal divides in our nation and world?” I think we cannot put our liberal arts education to real use if we don’t start by seeing and second-guessing our assumptions. Historically, and even in the writing of this prompt, the liberal arts seem arrogant. Are we assuming too much? Until we confront our assumptions–examine each and decide whether or not it can stand–we are not ready to engage in civic action.
First, let’s examine the assumption that everyone wants these divides to be healed. There are clear divides between the fire station as it exists in the community and our college, up on the hill. But, since I started, my presence has created new divides in the firehouse itself. I’m the only one of us not from Pennsylvania. I’m the only woman. Not long after I started, the guys found out I was a politics student. I knew I was the only one in the station with my political views, but I value honesty, and so I was honest. We had arguments about Benghazi, and emails, and conspiracy theories. I told them I thought there was no way Trump would win. I heard a lot about that after the election.
Despite all our differences, the guys have let me in and we all get along. But we are firmly divided along political lines. We talk about politics in the station, but none of us is going to heal this divide and it seems no one really wants it to be healed, because we would each rather coexist with this divide than change our political beliefs. I find some of their views morally outrageous. They think I am an out-of-touch leftie. Sometimes, I wonder if I am. In electing Donald Trump, our country and our friends chose the candidate campaigning against intellectual elitism, against unity, and indirectly, against the values of the liberal arts. The changes people have experienced in the United States and the world have been a long time coming but the nationalism, racism, and separatism that define the world’s current divisions have been, in part, reactions against ideas that the liberal arts values, and against the condescending assumption of liberal elites that they know best. For us to assume that divides must be healed before different people can coexist is a critical mistake. If we demand that these divides be healed before we engage with people different from ourselves, we are walling ourselves in.
We have examined the first assumption of the question (that everyone wants the world’s divides to be healed), and it is up to each of us to decide whether or not that assumption can stand. The second assumption of the question is that we are owed a special ascendancy because we are students of the liberal arts. How can we–distinguished from others by our prestigious education, which we are lucky or talented or rich enough to receive–use our values to alleviate the disunion? It is dangerous to assume that if we only find the right strategy, stringing together the right parts of what we have been taught, we will be what is needed. If we allow this particular assumption to stand, we fail to live up to our liberal arts values by failing to face the world’s discrimination, exclusion, and inequality of opportunity. In the words of bell hooks, an academic and activist whose life’s work has been to challenge assumptions, “If we want a beloved community, we must stand for justice, have recognition for difference without attaching difference to privilege.” We students are in this room because, somewhere along the way, we were privileged enough to attain an expensive liberal arts college education. When we graduate our experiences here, in our classrooms, in our labs, on our sports fields–these will have shaped our educations and they will set us apart. We will be different from the 68 percent of Americans who did not have a bachelor’s degree in the 2014 census. Our educations may allow us to do things other people cannot do. But we must not ever forget that the differences between people–whether it is the degrees we have, the colors of our skin, or the bathrooms we wish to use–do not make us better than each other.
The third assumption in the question is that we are the only people with liberal arts values. Our fire station is full of misogyny. But at the same time, the guys are committed to making sure I succeed as a firefighter. They encourage me to take leadership roles. Last year, when I told our Chief that I was applying for a Forest Service training program in California to get certified in fighting wildfires, he did everything he could to help me train for the fitness test. The crew I trained with in California made the news, and for a few weeks Chief kept forwarding videos he found online of me training in California, because he was proud of me. The guys encourage me to be the best firefighter I can not because they have read bell hooks or even because they spend their free time thinking about workplace discrimination, but simply because they believe a woman can do the same physical job just as well. They believe this even though they laugh at rape jokes in my presence. The complicated thing about values is that other people can share your values without sharing all of your values; other people can share some of your values while also having values that are completely antithetical to other things that you value. People do not have to be us to be good people. People with liberal arts degrees are not the only people with good and useful values.
Civic engagement is indeed at the heart of the liberal arts. From its beginning in late Classical and Hellenistic Greece, the liberal arts education was formed around the subjects considered obligatory for a free person who would participate in civic life. I argue that before engaging in civic action, we must challenge our own assumptions, and that this is best done by getting an outside view of our world. If divides are going to be healed, anyone can lead the way. Let us be open-minded. Our liberal arts do not preordain us to heal the world, but they may be our best tool in civic action. Let us remember what we have been taught. We can take note of opposing views without compromising our own values. We can listen to what others think without forgetting or abandoning what we think. We will not necessarily be the people who heal our divided nation and world. Let us have faith, and remember that our values are strongest when tested by the challenge of reckoning with our assumptions.