These past few years have seen a dramatic challenge to the values of marriage and religious freedom in our nation.
California’s famous “Proposition 8” is under appeal; the current administration has repeatedly voiced its support for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered rights; and the Department of Health & Human Services has denied Catholic health-care providers the freedom to follow their consciences.
In response, many University of Dallas students and alumni have fought back admirably with phone calls, protests, Facebook groups, petitions and their decisions at the voting booth. Though essential and irreplaceable, these efforts pale in significance to another activity we can carry out as students: serious studying.
Like any cause, the struggle for marriage and religious freedom needs not simply members but members who can make real contributions. And as with all areas of life, how much you can contribute depends on how much you have.
If you are a leading physician, CEO or professor and you speak out against gay unions or restrictions on religious freedom, many people will stop to listen. You will have contributed the credibility of a competent professional, a credibility which will force many otherwise obstinate partisans to give your position a second thought.
If you are a polished writer, you can publish your prose in various newspapers and magazines. If you are an articulate speaker, you can speak out in TV and radio interviews. If you are a successful lawyer, you can represent clients in defense of marriage and religious freedom.
But if you are a mediocre professional or lack real expertise, you may still have the best of intentions but you won’t get published, you won’t get the interview, you won’t get the case, you won’t be listened to – life’s just tough that way.
Acquiring this expertise and professional standing, however, is not the work of a moment; instead, it takes years of sustained and diligent effort. But like any edifice, the building of this expertise and credibility requires a solid foundation. Here’s where serious study comes in – for us UD students, that foundation is our undergraduate education.
On a practical level, our performance at UD sets the trajectory for much of our professional life. Our GPAs and undergraduate resumes will largely determine the quality of our first jobs or the rank of the law schools, medical schools, MBA programs or graduate programs into which we are accepted. The stature of this job or advanced degree will in turn largely determine our next professional steps, which in turn will determine the next.
Given this cumulative nature of professional life, our performance now as undergraduates will likely determine much of our future professional stature – and thus our capacity to contribute to this struggle to protect marriage and religious freedom with our professional standing and expertise.
In addition, the UD education, if taken seriously, offers us a unique opportunity to learn many simple but highly valuable skills for excelling in our profession, skills we may not learn on the job.
Through carefully parsing and discussing various philosophical texts, we can sharpen our ability to break down and evaluate complex ideas and to communicate them effectively, and pleasantly, to others. Through writing dozens of essays, we can learn to craft persuasive and concise prose. Through immersing ourselves in the literature of the Western Tradition, we can learn to deal with people of abrasive temperaments or personalities before we have even met them.
Moreover, many of these skills themselves are essential for effecting political and social change. An opinion piece in a major newspaper can significantly influence public opinion but demands excellent writing. Winning over those pivotal swing-votes requires patient and reasonable dialogue. Coalition-building, the bread and butter of effective politics, nearly always entails joining forces with those whose personalities and temperaments clash with ours.
At the moment, we may not have any of these skills. But if we take our UD education seriously, we will be well on our way to acquiring that refinement in writing, that persuasive reasonableness in conversation, and that ability to deal with the Achilles or Mrs. Norris in our group that effective political work demands.
The struggle for the basic values of marriage and religious freedom will soon need its next generation of leaders. As students, let’s continue to make phone calls, sign petitions, organize Facebook groups and vote our consciences.
But more importantly, let’s put real effort into getting the most out of our UD education so that in the years to come, we can make the far more significant contribution of our professional credibility and expertise.