By John von Heyking, February 6, 2009 in Uncategorized
When I started my first job, I was encouraged to teach the introduction to political science with a textbook. There are several introductory textbooks on the market. The one I ended up using for several years does its job very well. However, it is limited by the fact it is a textbook. Its chapters cover everything from the different ideologies (but no political philosophy), different institutions (e.g., judiciary, legislatures, etc.), and political actors (e.g., interest groups). The textbook contains a wealth of information, and, unlike others on the market, avoids reducing politics to ideological ax-grinding. However, like most other textbooks, it fails to provide students with a standard of judging the significance of the details. It fails to provide a narrative of what politics is about and that could enable them to see what the various ideologies, institutions, and political actors were all trying to accomplish.
In the subsequent years I tried to fill the gaps by assigning supplementary readings. Some years I assigned pivotal essays by figures like Leo Strauss who could address fundamental questions of political science. Other years I assigned readings that addressed contemporary political issues, and that enabled students to see how the concepts they learned in the textbooks play out in real life.
However, all those approaches fell short of my desired goal. The “big picture” essays did not integrate well with the myriad of details in the textbook. The articles on contemporary issues were more popular, but it was difficult for students to move beyond the details of the textbooks. They could see concepts in action in contemporary affairs, but they lacked a big picture “hook” upon which to hang those affairs and concepts.
Finally, I abandoned the use of textbooks. Instead, for the past couple of years I have adopted what I call a “Great Books” approach to introducing political science. Instead of assigning a textbook with a wealth of information, I assign a “classic” text from each of the four subfields in political science: political philosophy, Canadian politics (which would be U.S. politics in the U.S.), international relations, and comparative politics. Instead of getting introduced to political science with a waterfall of textbook information, the students read accessible “classics” of the field to learn what it means to think about politics. To borrow a formulation of Michael Oakeshott, they gain information, but, more importantly, they gain judgment. Of course, along the way they learn necessary information about justice, international law, responsible government, and so forth. However, they learn to integrate that technical knowledge into a whole. The other advantage is that they still receive an introduction to the discipline, and not to a specific regime, though not one as overly generalized as the textbook approach.
Even so, the students need a way of seeing a thread among those subfields. It is insufficient to get a handle on Canadian politics or international relations as separate subfields. They need to come out of the class with a basic question of what politics is as a distinctly human activity. I have found that before entering into the subfields, it is helpful to assign a reading that opens up some fundamental questions about politics. The assigned readings for the political philosophy section usually do this. First-year students find Plato’s Apology of Socrates or J. S. Mill’s “On Liberty” both appealing and accessible, and they open up important political questions that they can pursue in various ways in the readings for the other subfields.
However, I usually like to start the class with a work of literature. For example, for the past couple of years I have assigned Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. In a subsequent post, I shall explain how I use Brave New World to “unify” my introductory political science class. In future subsequent posts, I shall explain the other readings. I have also posted my course syllabus to illustrate this approach (and I hope readers will suggest ways I can improve my introductory class).