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Teaching the Liberal Arts in the American Context
Introducing The Subfields of Political Science: Big Questions for Contemporary Politics, Part I
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By John von Heyking, September 30, 2009 in Pedagogy and Teaching

The general goal of my Introduction to Political Studies class is for students to develop the capacity to think critically and insightfully about political reality. Thus, they read a selection of “great texts” or at least noteworthy texts, including Platonic dialogues, speeches of statesmen, works of literature, history, and pamphlets by political activists, that get them practiced in this skill. I have described how I go about this for each of the four subfields of political science—political philosophy, Canadian politics, international relations, and comparative politics—as well as using literature to provide an introduction to political thinking generally.

From the perspective of the student, a major weakness of this “great texts” approach is that it fails to provide them with much information on current events. While I do my best to explain to them that political science is not the same as current events, there is an element of truth in their criticism, because political science strives to understand what is going on now. Of course, students are impatient when it comes to understanding the present in light of the past or under the light of what Leo Strauss called the permanent questions, which require a lifetime of painstaking study. Alas, the whole point of the class is to inspire students to devote themselves to a lifetime of such study, or at least reflection.

Thus, I try to meet my students halfway by assigning short readings, including newspaper editorials and articles by intellectuals, that enable them to relate their readings of Plato or Kant to contemporary concerns. Fortunately, a little bit of searching will uncover useful and sometimes thoughtful articles, sometimes even written by political scientists for a popular audience, pertinent to the topics of the class.

I integrate these readings by assigning them for group presentations. My university lacks a budget and sizeable graduate program to hire teaching assistants to lead tutorials. My first-year class is also too big to carry on sustained discussion and debate. Thus, I find group presentations are a decent way to get students interacting with one another over an assigned reading.

Each group usually has about four students. They are required to produce a Powerpoint presentation for the class that covers the main points of the article and shows how the article illuminates points raised by the primary readings of that subfield. For example, how does Kant’s To Perpetual Peace help us understand Woodrow Wilson’s "Fourteen Points" speech? Or how do the Canadian Founders help us understand the current crisis of parliamentary government? I don’t consider myself a slave to Powerpoint presentations. However, students seem to like using it, and it also offers the advantage of forcing students to organize their presentations more effectively than if they had nothing to display. They also quickly learn that if their presentation contains more shiny pictures and graphics than substantive points, then their grades will suffer and they will have to withstand my long critique of their work while standing in front of their classmates.

The other advantage of group presentations is that students gain the opportunity to meet one another. Taking a first-year class frequently means they are in their first year of university, and meeting new friends by discussing permanent questions is not only beneficial socially, but is actually the very essence of a liberal education. Liberal education is conducted among friends, as I discuss in this article.

Tags: Political Science, Education

about the author

John von Heyking
John von Heyking

I teach political philosophy at the University of Lethbridge, Alberta, as well as religion and politics. I received my Ph.D. from the University of Notre Dame in 1999.

My publications include Augustine and Politics as Longing in the World (Missouri, 2001), Civil Religion in Political Thought:  Its Perennial Questions and Enduring Relevance in North America (coeditor; published by CUA Press, 2010), Friendship and Politics: Essays in Political Thought (coeditor, published with U. of Notre Dame Press, 2008), two edited volumes of The Collected Works of Eric Voegelin (Missouri, 2003), as well as articles on Aristotle and friendship, political representation, citizenship, republicanism, just war, Islamic politics, politics and prophecy, leadership, the place of America in contemporary political thought, religious liberty under Canada's Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and the political philosophy of rodeo. I am also at work on a book-length study on the relationship between friendship and political order. My editorials have appeared in the Globe and Mail (Toronto), Calgary Herald, C2C: Canada’s Journal of Ideas, and the Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs. I am currently Associate Editor for History, Theory, and Law of the journal, Politics and Religion, published by Cambridge University Press. His work has been translated into Italian, German, and Chinese. I have delivered invited lectures to audiences throughout Canada and the United States, as well as in Germany, France, Switzerland, and Russia.