By John von Heyking, February 19, 2009 in Pedagogy and Teaching
Editor's note: This post, inadvertently published out of order, should follow the as yet unpublished: "Introducing Political Science: What is Politics? - Part 2". Mea culpa.
In my previous posts, I explained how I try to introduce the activity of politics to students. Following my "great books" approach to introducing political science, I then turn to each of the subfields: political philosophy, Canadian politics (in the U.S., this section would obviously cover U.S. politics), international relations, and comparative politics.
There are numerous texts with which one can introduce political philosophy to first-year students. Moreover, any number of them can serve as a general introduction to politics, which I described in my previous posts on Huxley's Brave New World. I generally use either some of the Platonic dialogues covering the trial and death of Socrates, or John Stuart Mill's On Liberty. Numerous shorter Platonic dialogues open up the perennial questions of political philosophy for first-year students, including Gorgias, which discusses topics immediately pertinent to students including justice and democracy, or even a less well known like Laches, which deals with courage.
A selection from the Republic would also be useful. However, I need to be mindful of the fact that I teach the full Republic in my second-year Introduction to Political Philosophy class. The same goes for other great works, including Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics and Politics, Locke's Second Treatise, and Machiavelli's Prince. Any of these serve as wonderful introductions to political science and political philosophy. While any teacher can tell you multiple readings of these works are beneficial, in this case I defer to the prejudices of my students who think if they've read something once, then they need not read it again. Then again, if they only read Book One of the Republic, perhaps they will want to know "what happens" and they'll want to enroll in my second-year class. Perhaps I'll have to keep that option alive after all.
Even so, for the past two years I have taught Plato's Apology of Socrates and Crito. Both consider the nature of justice and whether philosophy or the city lays a higher claim upon justice than the other. Students consider whether the Athenian decision to convict and execute Socrates is just, whether Socrates is right to obey their decision (against the wishes of Crito, who wishes to help him escape to Thessaly), as well as the related considerations concerning Socrates' guilt or innocence.
Students find the questions about Socrates' guilt or innocence fascinating because they appeal immediately to them. Their first instinct is to view Socrates as an intellectual hero battling against prejudice, censorship, and an ignorant majority. The challenge as educator is to elevate their instincts to view the deeper, and possibly more troubling, questions about political order.