Introducing Political Science: What is Politics? - Part 1
By John von Heyking on Tuesday, Feb 24 2009
In previous posts (here and here), I outlined some of the challenges in teaching an introductory class in political science. In this and the next few posts, I shall describe what I have learned to do in addressing these challenges. I have also posted the syllabus on LASC Online if you want more information.
One of the biggest challenges in this day and age is providing a unifying thread that enables students to consider some essential attributes of politics. Borrowing a point I think Harry Jaffa once made, I tell students that just as athletics is what athletes do, politics is what the polis (or nation-states or other entities) does. But this description does not go very far because first-year students need a way of assessing what that activity is.
As I mentioned in my previous posts, I like to teach my introductory class by assigning a "great text" from each of the different subfields of political science. In order to give students a sense of what unites these subfields, I also assign a novel, play, or general treatment of politics that raises fundamental questions of political order. The text should not be too long, it should be relatively entertaining, and it should speak to the concerns of contemporary students.
For the past two iterations of my class, I have started out by assigning Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, a dystopian story about a society guided by the principles of biological reductionism and technology. I tell my students that Brave New World is more interesting than its dystopian counterpart, 1984, because while 1984 portrays a society based upon what we fear, Brave New World portrays a society based upon what we desire. As a result, the novel gives students a clearer window not only into some of the political currents of modernity and technology (e.g., consumerism, a society based on a Hobbesian pains-pleasures calculus), but it also provides a window into their souls. All of the students can identify the role that light entertainment plays in maintaining social control. They can all identify with the forms of "shallow" affection and manipulation displayed by the characters, and with the frustrations of those characters who rebel against the system. But the book also challenges them to reflect upon what a thoughtful and moral response to these disorders would have to look like.
Brave New World focuses on two characters, Bernard Marx and John the Savage, who dissent from their society's political ideals. The drama of the book consists in their endeavor to understand what they do not understand. They understand that their civic education has been inadequate to their humanity, but their education has failed to provide them with a means of understanding what it is they lack. Their problem is not only the problem of a spiritually shallow but frustrated subject of a benevolent tyranny.
Their problem is also the problem of Socratic ignorance and of education in general. The prisoner of the cave in Plato's Republic knows he is in chains, and knows he is being transformed. But he is bewildered because he does not understand what he is experiencing and how even to describe this experience. Kierkegaard, reflecting upon Plato's Meno, concisely states the paradox of education: "a person cannot possibly seek what he knows, and, just as impossibly, he cannot seek what he does not know, for what he knows he cannot seek, because after all, he does not even know what he is supposed to seek" (Søren Kierkegaard, Philosophical Fragments/Johannes Climacus, trans., Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1985), 9).
Their first reading for their introductory Political Science class introduces them to the problem of liberal education. As they follow the drama of Bernard Marx and John the Savage groping in the dark toward what they think is the light, the students look within to consider their own condition. As they recognize the similarities between the benevolent tyranny in Brave New World and their society, they also recognize the similarities between the characters and themselves. Their next reading will be in political philosophy (e.g., Plato's Apology of Socrates). Before I discuss that in a subsequent post, a few more reflections about the pedagogic value of Brave New World are necessary.