This Tuesday evening most, students at the College of William and Mary did nothing out of the ordinary. Some wandered through Colonial Williamsburg, perhaps, while others wrote papers in the third floor of Earl Gregg Swem Library. Over 100 miles away, two men spoke on national television about the state of our country.
President Barack Obama’s State of the Union Address aired first followed by a response from Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels (R). I bring this up because when you spend every day on a college campus, it can be hard sometimes to remember that the rest of the world is still there. It is understandably easy to worry mostly about your immediate surroundings, to let things that you don’t see every day fade into a few hazy afterthoughts. Now more than ever, however, it is important to pay attention.
The upcoming election is the first Presidental election in which many students at the College will be old enough to vote in. You’ve heard a million times about the importance of taking advantage of your freedoms, having a voice, declaring your opinions and staying informed.
Your responsibility, however, is greater than simply picking a candidate. It is easy to just pick a side. It is easy to see the benefits of any one argument, to form an opinion, to become deeply invested in a set of values or beliefs. Having strong beliefs is wonderful, but before you wholly devote yourself to specific causes or ideals or beliefs, take a step back. Abstract yourself, figure out where those values and beliefs come from. Could it be possible that you have certain opinions because they are your family’s beliefs? The beliefs of your friends and the people by whom you are surrounded? There is nothing wrong with agreeing with the people around you: There is something wrong with agreeing with the people around you because you’ve never tried to understand the other side.
I am not saying that you shouldn’t have opinions. As many of you approach your first presidential election, a well-defined set of values that you are strongly invested in is absolutely necessary. However, you should understand why you have those values and make sure that they are fundamentally sound, and you should know what you are against in addition to what you are for.
Furthermore, don’t limit this scrutiny to yourself. As you hear from and read about the presidential candidates in the coming months, be skeptical. For instance, Tuesday’s State of the Union Address, President Obama said of taxes on the rich, “When I get tax breaks I don’t need and the country can’t afford, it either adds to the deficit, or somebody else has to make up the difference — like a senior on a fixed income; or a student trying to get through school; or a family trying to make ends meet. That’s not right. Americans know it’s not right.”
It sounds nice (quotable, even) but remember that if Americans truly “know it’s not right,” this wouldn’t be such a controversial issue.
On the other end of the spectrum, Mitch Daniels spoke about government regulation in response to President Obama’s speech: “In word and deed, the President and his allies tell us that we just cannot handle ourselves in this complex, perilous world without their benevolent protection. Left to ourselves, we might pick the wrong health insurance, the wrong mortgage, the wrong school for our kids; why, unless they stop us, we might pick the wrong light bulb!”
Of course, statements like these are arguments and oversimplifications, not facts. It seems like a basic distinction that most should be aware of — and yet these are too often the arguments that work.
So step back. Check your opinions, check your reasoning. Read a newspaper. And when you cast your vote next November, make sure you know exactly what you are advocating for and why.