“I don’t think I’m going to vote, I don’t know enough,” Jessie said. I lowered my clipboard. We were standing on East Campus Mall on a Monday afternoon in October. It was sunny but cold and windy. People weren’t stopping to fill out voter registrations; they just walked by while I asked anyway. But Jessie stopped for a full conversation. She was blonde and she looked right at you when she talked and, for some reason, in my memory she’s taller than me. “How are we supposed to decide?” she asked. Maybe she didn’t, but I thought I knew who the right candidate was. But how did I know? What if I were wrong? And if I was unsure, who was I to register other confused young people to vote?
I started volunteering with WISPIRG’s New Voters Project, a non-partisan campaign, in September. I joined because I’d been told that’s what you’re supposed to do. The whole point of a liberal education, I’d heard, is to prepare students to be contributors to society. The idea was my college classes made me the kind of person who knows how to help his local homeless shelter or write letters to his congressman or, in this case, run a campaign to register his peers to vote. But I didn’t see the connection. I didn’t know then how my lectures on nineteenth-century history or computer data structures would help me lead the New Voters Project.
Less than a week after I joined, Courtney, WISPIRG’s Campus Organizer, asked me to head the campaign. I was honored, but overwhelmed. With a handful of other volunteers, I had to register thousands of student voters in Madison before the October registration deadline. I owe much of my eventual success to Courtney and the organization’s other leaders. But a lot of the tricks I couldn’t have succeeded without came from the classes I thought had nothing to do with politics or voting or leading.
I spoke to crowded lecture halls to recruit volunteers. I’d show up a few minutes before class and pass green paper cards to everyone there. Then I’d give a memorized statement from the front of the room to try to persuade them to put their names and numbers on the green cards and volunteer with us. I added a few of my own lines to the statement. I’d challenge my audience, saying, “We don’t just need you to do grunt work. We need people with ideas on how to plan fun events that motivate people to vote.” That public speaking strategy is something I learned from watching great lecturers like Bill Cronon. In his class, “American Environmental History,” to keep the attention of 300-plus college kids, he’d pepper his speech with challenges like, “You wouldn’t be able to survive in 1800s Alaska as did the Ahtna people,” or, “A few of you will forget this on the exam.” One volunteer would tell me she joined because I made a good pitch to her class.
By the end of September, we still had less than a thousand registrations. There was an absurd amount of work to be done. We’d been canvassing two or three days a week. We started canvassing almost every day. We offered our clipboards and our “hey-are-you-registered” to people on Bascom Hill and outside Van Hise. We knocked on doors in La Ciel, Embassy, and Equinox. We taped vote posters on a person-sized cardboard box and cut eyeholes so someone could wear it. We called it the Vote-bot and we brought it out with us when we canvassed. Fun though it was, we still had a long way to go.
About a year earlier, in 2011, Professor Guri Sohi gave a big programming assignment to my “Intro to Computer Engineering” class. We had to write a program for a clock that counted down from thirty-one. It was harder than it sounds. We had to code in assembly language, that is, one very particular instruction at a time. For example, to display numbers, our programs had to tell each of the screen’s pixels “turn on” or “turn off.” When we griped about the workload, Professor Sohi told us, in not so many words, to suck it up. He said we would lose weekends programming, but he promised it would be fulfilling. He was right. Despite my doubts, I made my clock work, and I learned that when there’s an absurd amount to be done, you just need to start doing it.
Back in October, 2012, midterms approached and volunteers started leaving the New Voters Project to study for exams. One night, a few of the remaining volunteers, Emily, David S., and Sohum, came to the office to help plan the week’s canvassing. To make it worth their while, I bought Ian’s pizza. I hardly thought about it, but I was applying the principle of positive reinforcement, which I’d learned in psychology, and self-interest theory, which I’d learned in microeconomics. We turned the radio on and ate mac-and-cheese pizza while we drew a blown up version of a voter registration form on a five-foot-long sheet of poster paper.
As I wiped a piece of macaroni off the “Are you a citizen of the United States of America?” field, it dawned on me. A liberal education is learning a lot of things from a lot of places. Along the way, you get really good at repurposing knowledge so that you can find a way to do something new using what you already know. That’s the special skill you get from a liberal education that you don’t get from more focused curricula. And that’s partly how I led the New Voters Project.
But beyond that, it’s how I did my homework on the recall and presidential elections; I repurposed scraps of wisdom from the corners of my transcript. I learned in Claudia Card’s ethics class about Kant’s moral absolutism, in which every minute action is right or wrong, black or white, like binary pixels on a screen. I learned about Bentham’s utilitarianism, in which the greater good can justify a lesser evil. Kant and Bentham helped me weigh right, wrong, and the greater good while I listened to candidates argue about health care and labor unions.
Learning in legal studies about how the media sometimes demonize falsely accused criminal defendants gave me a healthy skepticism for politics on TV.
Learning in environmental history about how a law protecting the Grand Canyon effectively doomed Glen Canyon to damming reminded me that the law is a blunt instrument and our politicians need to be accordingly careful.
Learning on my gap year in Europe that countries with socialist policies have strong economies and nice people to boot helped me judge some of the arguments against Obamacare (although that’s not to say, necessarily, that one system is better than another).
I could go on but I’m at the word limit.
We registered our two thousandth voter about a week before the deadline. That was the Monday I talked to Jessie on East Campus Mall. We were standing next to the blown up registration form. I said, “If there’s anyone qualified to make a decision about the candidates, it’s college-educated people like you. I think that’s the whole point, or at least one of the points, of a liberal education: to prepare you to make that kind of decision.”
“But I don’t know if I have time to do all the research.”
“Why don’t you register? Just in case.”
She took my clipboard.