Teaching Political Philosophy to the Millennial Generation: Is it Possible?
By Gregory S. Butler, March 13, 2011 in Uncategorized

The possibility of teaching political theory to the current generation of undergraduates certainly has its challenges.  Our students are often poorly prepared in high school for serious literary work, and are highly preoccupied with technological gadgetry, social networking, and other amusements that deliver high levels of stimulation designed to ward off the cardinal sin: boredom.  Nonetheless, I do believe that they are not only capable of learning political theory, but of doing so with relish.  While I cannot speak for all sub-disciplines within political theory, I am convinced that in my area – traditional political philosophy – we instructors have a distinct advantage.  I hold this view in part because of the student’s techno- lifestyles.  So many of their indulgences are by their very nature incapable of providing genuine satisfaction and proper stimulation; they have next to nothing to do with what Aristotle considered to be the most lasting forms of pleasure, those that are “marvelous for their purity and enduringness” (Nicomachean Ethics 1177a).   In my experience, I have often found students remarkably receptive to the suggestion that the life of the mind might actually offer up a superior form of happiness.  Many seem to sense intuitively the emptiness of contemporary culture, and are both surprised and intrigued to learn that intelligent people can indeed order their lives according to standards that are grounded in something other than arbitrary will.  As they study the great political thinkers of the Western world, they encounter individuals that actually believed that some things were true and other things false, even in matters of morality and ethics.  Such thinkers were preoccupied with exploring the enduring questions of humanity and its order.  If they have been at all successful in uncovering the truth of human existence, they can speak to any generation and find an audience.  We must remember that, no matter their culture or upbringing, our students are human beings.  As such they are often refreshed by the encounter with political philosophy, particularly if they have taken enough other social science and humanities courses in which nihilistic postmodernism or revolutionary activism seem so often to take the place of genuine academic inquiry.  Moreover, I have found that most undergraduates (at least in my area of the country) naturally possess rather traditionalist, common-sense instincts just waiting for encouragement and cultivation.  With a sound pedagogical approach, the instructor can instill an appreciation for the discipline in spite of any generational challenges.

In keeping with this conviction, I do not use textbooks, online sources, or eBooks in any of my courses.  Rather, I emphasize the importance of purchasing, reading, and keeping real books in the history of political thought.  While the recent trend on campus has been in the direction of more efficient and cost-friendly academic sources, I have resisted it, sometimes to the consternation of my students.  But in the end most of them appreciate it.  On more than one occasion students have told me that almost all of their courses, including those in literature, utilize textbooks or readers that often become commodities in the used book market, rather than valuable additions to the student’s permanent library. To counter this trend I adopt what might be loosely termed a “great books” approach, which works well in theory courses.  But with a little creativity it can even work in courses on American political institutions. For Political Parties and Interest Groups, for example, I assign Hofstadter’s classic work The Idea of a Party System, Olson’s Logic of Collective Action, and Riordan’s edition of Plunkett of Tammany Hall.  But perhaps more importantly, I also assign some attention-grabbing titles one might not expect: Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, Kazin’s excellent biography of William Jennings Bryan called A Godly Hero, and one of historian Thomas Fleming’s novels called Mysteries of My Father.  Of course, there are many novels that easily lend themselves to courses in political theory.   There are many out there that not only teach the right themes, but are highly dramatic and powerful enough to engage any student’s attention.  A few of my favorites include Hawthorne’s The Blithedale Romance, Golding’s Lord of the Flies, Bellamy’s Looking Backward, Rand’s The Fountainhead, Wendell Berry’s Hannah Coulter, and of course the classic dystopias (Brave New World, 1984).   I try to present this literature in such a way as to impress upon the student the enduring value of these works well beyond the course itself.  I often ask myself: what will these students remember from my course five, ten, twenty years later?  I have found that this approach helps connect the course literature to my more general pedagogical theme of emphasizing what Russell Kirk called “the permanent things” in education.

I must admit, however, that I have conceded certain things to the current generation’s technological obsessions.  But I can honestly say that I have done so with a clear conscience.  I learned from the wonderful historian and lecturer Patrick Allitt at Emory University to use slide shows of photographs as a way to introduce topics.  I often begin a section of a political theory course, say on classical liberalism, with a few portraits of Hobbes and Locke.  This doesn’t provide much academic content, of course, but if one adds a few anecdotes along the way it can capture their attention at the beginning and perhaps raise the possibility that this stuff does not have to be boring.  Indeed, I have recently taken the Allitt idea a step further: YouTube videos.  You might be surprised at what is out there; most of it is not very serious from an academic point of view, of course, but the funny ones always spark interest.  I also assign extra credit for any student that produces a video related to that semester’s thinkers or themes.  Students can be highly creative with this sort of thing, and the better productions can make for good class openings in future semesters.  Of course, movies can also be valuable additions to the course material, provided that they are selected with care.  One of my favorites is Sean Penn’s adaption of the nonfiction book Into the Wild.  The film is a wonderful portrait of the Rousseauistic personality, and we watch it in conjunction with a reading of the Discourse on the Origin of Inequality.  I have also used a PBS-produced documentary of Stalin, and a short History Channel film on the French Revolution, and several others.   One of the lessons I have learned is that any creative literary application in the classroom that is able to ramp up the dramatic quotient in the classroom works very well.  And this can be done with conventional literary sources, too.  Students love political drama, especially when it involves revolutions and violence.  They are fascinated by Lenin and the Bolsheviks, the Brownshirts, Robespierre and the Jacobins, John Brown, General Sherman, and the Ayatollah Khomeini.  Spend a little time discussing the dramatic, at key intervals, as you instruct them in theory and philosophy.  Violence and revolution are never boring, and I have found that I am more successful if I can drive home the point that ideas have consequences.

Finally, I have learned that the quality of the instructor’s classroom demeanor is a very important way to separate what you are doing from other instructors on campus.  Once I gathered together a student focus group and simply asked them what constitutes good teaching, in light of the current generation’s expectations.  I was surprised to learn that these expectations don’t seem particularly different from own from almost thirty years ago.  The students are highly appreciative of instructors that are well organized, because that enables them to focus their energies on the material rather than on figuring out when assignments are due, what reading is to be done and when, how to meet with the instructor, and other administrative matters.  My syllabi are remarkably detailed, with every class period’s topics and reading assignments clearly indicated, with all assignment due dates and exam dates marked and set in stone.  At the beginning of each section of a course, I distribute a list of study guide in question format, and this serves as their own organizational anchor for exam preparation.  I also distribute a detailed term paper assignment description that lays out the grading criteria very clearly, which enables them practically to grade their own papers before they turn them in.  I don’t keep any secrets from them, and I don’t play any sort of authoritarian or ego-driven games.  I never pop anything on them that is not on the syllabus, and I always let them know on the first day of class that I will call on them cold.  They always know exactly what their academic responsibilities are, what to study, and when and where I am available for help.  One of my principle pedagogical rules is “predictable organization, unpredictable presentation.”  The former reduces anxiety; the latter keeps them on their toes and grabs their attention.    Also, I always make a point of learning every student’s name, even in a class of thirty or forty kids, and when I call on them I do so by name.  I never realized until my focus group how valuable all of this is.  Finally, I have found that a sense of humor is almost indispensible.  Unfortunately, this is perhaps the most difficult of all pedagogical skills to acquire if one does not have it instinctually.  In my case it has become almost second nature after twenty years, largely because I have actively cultivated it.  I collect anecdotes related to my discipline, practice storytelling with my wife and kids, and pay attention to the delivery and timing techniques of professional comedians.  But perhaps the most important factor here is confidence.  The point is not so much to elicit laughter (although that is great when it happens), but to keep their attention using proper rhythm and unpredictability.  Even bad humor can accomplish this.  In the end, there is no reason for any young professor to find the prospect of teaching these kids to be a daunting task.  There are exciting challenges present that may prove in the end to be a recipe for becoming one of the most popular professors on campus.   

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Lee Trepanier on Mar 13, 2011 at 6:55 am

A great post on the importance of teaching primary texts and how to teach in the classroom. I would only emphasis what was said in the post that setting the correct expectations and fulfilling them are critical for success in the classroom. Even if the students may not care about the subject matter or your teaching style, as long as you establish reasonable expectations and hold up your end of the bargain, students will respect you for that.

Thaddeus Kozinski on Mar 13, 2011 at 2:51 pm

Excellent post! Thank you very much, Dr. Butler. I have never found a student, no matter how technologically embroiled, that doesn't find the political ramifications of Plato's cave startling and fascinating.

Joe Holland on Mar 17, 2011 at 5:18 pm

What a wonderful piece, and no doubt wonderful classes! Many thanks, JH

Gregory S. Butler on Mar 18, 2011 at 8:55 am

Thanks to all for your kind comments!

T. S. Hyatt on Mar 26, 2011 at 8:03 am

I wish I could view the current crop of university students as favorably as do you and your posters (commenters, commentators) and be as sanguine as you are about the prospects for teaching political philosophy and theory.

But I've been there, and elsewhere, and all over, and I'm not.

Indeed, when I read your statement that "In my experience, I have often found students remarkably receptive to the suggestion that the life of the mind might actually offer up a superior form of happiness," I couldn't help wondering what planet you have been living on, Professor Butler.

Perhaps college students are different in the Land of Enchantment. I concede that's possible, given that, though I've been almost all over, inside and outside the classroom, I haven't yet explored New Mexico. Then again, if I may be permitted a dollop of cynicism, perhaps you are a bit enchanted yourself, Professor Butler, whereas I am completely disenchanted.

I am familiar with your work on Eric Voegelin, Professor, and I admire and am largely in accord with the body of your work and the content of your philosophy. Furthermore, I wholeheartedly approve of your excitement about the life of the mind. But far from seeing that excitement shared by students, professors, instructors, and intellectuals, I have witnessed a genuine love for the life of the mind alienate those burdened with it. It's a liability. The philistinism of the student body and the administration, an adaptation to the popular culture that long ago swamped the university, is simply an insuperable barrier to the enlightenment and edification of the students.

This will sound terrible, I know, Professor Butler (I'm a terrible guy, Professor), but I must say it: When you write "We must remember that, no matter their culture or upbringing, our students are human beings," I couldn't resist the snide retort, "Prove it."

More than a decade ago I too diligently prepared syllabi, in much the same spirit that you have and recommend, Professor Butler. But I put more thought and work into the heading of a syllabus than the students would put into the class all term long. I fell into the same trap that perhaps you have: I ended up teaching the course in the syllabus, leaving little for the student to do. The thorough job, in fact, did not establish a model that the students might emulate to a degree but gave them, rather, an excuse to indulge their primary vice: sloth. Why bother cogitating when our faithful instructor has gone to such lengths to work things out for us?

I marvel that in the early spring of 2011, when you are beginning the last leg of a long year of teaching, you remain so sunny about your charges. Your students are lucky to have you at the head of the class, though I daresay none will realize it for decades, if ever. I commend the pedagogical approrach to political philosophy that you present in your ISI blog. You've obviously got it covered, Professor Butler. I simply do not and cannot see students and the academic world generally the way you do. It could be, moreover, that privately you harbor more reservations about the teaching of political philosophy than your public, political self is willing to admit.

In any case, even if the academic world would have me, I wouldn't want in. Thus, the only life remaining to me is that of the commando scholar, a bare-boned, hardscrabble existence that few can endure and none desires.

Call me jaded, if you like, Professor. Heck, everyone else does.

Sincerely, T. S. Hyatt

PS: Just to confirm what a deeply unpleasant and impertinent fellow I am, allow me a correction: You write, "Finally, I have found that a sense of humor is almost indispensible." "Indispensible" should be written "indispensable." It's a common mistake.

I know: I'm an insufferable wiseacre. But I still appreciate your scholarship, as do many others.


Gregory S. Butler on Mar 28, 2011 at 1:02 pm

Given your character self-description (cynical, disenchanted, jaded, unpleasant, impertinent, insufferable), I am not suprised that you have abandoned teaching. Students do not respect these qualities.

Corey Shelton on Apr 9, 2012 at 10:16 am

I just stumbled across this blog...and I completely agree with Dr. Butler. As a student I can't stress how important it is for the professor, teacher, tutor, etc. to be engaged with the students, wholeheartedly. I remember every teacher who made a difference for me since grade school. There are still students out there who value humanities, the arts, philosophy, etc. and it's the good teachers who can add a spark of interest in the (seemingly) dry topics. Even subjects that I didn't care for were somehow made interesting when I had a teacher who was passionate about the subject.

@ T.S. Hyatt, perhaps you just weren't meant to teach. In my college years I've come across many professors who were much better suited to research than teaching, but unfortunately the job came with the added responsibility of teaching and I'm assuming that's what happened to you. Either you connect with your students or you don't. I once took a soils class and it had nothing to do with my major (journalism) but my boyfriend at the time wanted us to take a class together. I'm not really into soils, but I tell you - the professor was so engaged with his students...he was so passionate about his profession and had the ability to relay the information in a way that was easy to understand. Who knew I'd be so engaged on the topic of dirt! He made it fun and interesting. Perhaps you lack this attribute.

about the author

Gregory S. Butler
Gregory S. Butler

Dr. Butler teaches political philosophy and American government at New Mexico State University.