Dr. Robin Lauermann, professor of politics, edits this series

(What is From the Field?  Check out the introductory post for the series here.)

This spring’s segment features posts sampling the work and experiences of a first year student in our program, Isabella Farrington.  Over the course of the segment, you will have the opportunity to read her academic analysis of the debate over mandatory vaccines for children, the democratic challenges faced by the Philippines, as well as her retrospective on her first year in the program.

Some background for her first post: At Messiah University, currently all new (non-transfer) students enroll in a First Year Seminar, which helps students cultivate critical thinking, information literacy and writing skills.  One of the several topics offered by faculty in the Politics and International Relations program is Democracy in America: The Critical Citizen.  In addition to discussing the classical and American roots of representative democracy, students delve into the complexity of issues.  Reading John Stuart Mill’s On Libertyone of several works that has become a cannon for understanding the foundations and norms for democratic systems – students wrestle with the idea that civil debate brings many benefits in uncovering truth and, in the realm of government, making policy decisions.

For their second paper, which required students to write an analytical paper using academic resources from the library, students completed an analysis of the debate around a specific public policy, using the lens of arguments that Mill raised.  Whether focused on the partial perspectives that many stances hold or the dangers misrepresentation of opponents perspectives in ways that do not support decision-making based on logic and evidence, students found that each issue had its own level of complexity, including trade-offs that weigh down the potential benefits of a policy.

In this post, distilled from a larger essay, Bella provides a thoughtful and effectively written analysis applying these ideas to California legislation that required mandatory childhood vaccines.  Note that the goal is not to take an issue stance, but to evaluate a specific debate to improve understanding of the issue and learn ways that we can improve decision-making.

Through their writing, students learned that while it is easy to focus on winning the argument, identifying solutions to collective problems is much messier.  However, it allows a society to see the issue within a larger perspective.  Effectively policy-making often requires evaluating consequences for multiple stakeholders; not all may be satisfied with the outcome, but valid issues should, when possible, be addressed within the process.  Doing so can not only make for better policy, it can also lead to greater legitimacy of decisions within the public.  After all, the intent of a democratic system that handles decisions through established institutions is intended to provide a peaceful means to reach decisions and resolve conflicts.


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