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Introduction the Subfields of Political Science: Big Questions for Contemporary Politics

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 present in light of the past or under the light of what Leo Strauss called the permanent questions that 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.  .

For the latest iteration of my Introduction to Political Studies, I assigned a few articles dealing with the contemporary state of liberal education as a way to get my students thinking about the political problems set forth in their assigned introductory reading of this class, Huxley’s Brave New World, and in their assigned political philosophy readings, Plato’s Apology of Socrates and Crito.  While these readings focus on liberal education, the primary readings of Huxley and Plato also suggest contemporary readings on individual freedom or resistance.  I chose liberal education as a focus because those other topics tend to flatter too much the sense undergraduates have of their own assertiveness.  They might already be identifying too much, and for the wrong reasons, with Bernard Marx and Socrates.

I assigned three article length readings to three separate groups.  The first article is Travis D. Smith’s “Education and Citizenship,” a reflection on a study on civic literacy in the United States by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute.   As one might expect, civic literacy is abysmal in the US.  Smith, a Canadian who teaches at Concordia University in Montreal, offers an outsider’s perspective and also reflects upon the lack of civic literacy in Canada.  Despite the smugness that Canadians frequently have of American “stupidity,” Canadians fare no better – and frequently worse – when it comes to having a basic understanding of their regime. Indeed, Canada’s Dominion Institute frequently issues reports on Canadian civic illiteracy.  Part of the problem, according to Smith, is that Canadians (and Americans to a large degree), have bought into the progressivist myth whereby knowledge of political history is passé and irrelevant to contemporary concerns.  The brighter among my students will recognize affinities between that attitude and the progressivist disregard of the past in Huxley’s Brave New World.   More difficult to figure out is whether Socrates’ approach to civic education, which refuses to identify liberal education with civic education because the latter is of the city, and the city executed Socrates.  Does the Apology and Crito show Socrates promoting civic education?  What is the purpose of a civic education?

The second article is Christopher Flannery’s “Liberal Arts and Liberal Education,” which discusses the limitations of careerist or vocational education and the benefits of liberal education.  He provides a brief history of liberal education and contrasts its purpose with the technical education that has become celebrated today.  Again, affinities of a technical education with Huxley are identified.  Flannery’s article also helps clarify the meaning of liberal education.

The third article is Leo Strauss’s “What is Liberal Education?”  Students are a little unsure of what to do with this reading because Strauss makes them consider what liberal education is, instead of the previous readings that focused more on what it is not.  The students are also invited to consider what liberal education has to do with politics.  They seem attracted to Strauss’s conclusion that liberal education supplies them with experience in things beautiful, but their relativism prevents them from taking this too seriously because they believe beauty is in the eye of the beholder.  Strauss sounds to them like a bit of a fuddy duddy and snob.  The Beastie Boys are as good as Bach, for example (they really do not like it when one mocks their music). It’s hard to argue against their relativism since they really have never listened to Bach or contemplated the work of Michelangelo or read Dante.  With the exception perhaps of some of the more thoughtful religious students familiar with the Bible, they have nothing yet with which to compare popular culture.  However, they would still recall from Huxley’s Brave New World that there was something about the beauty of Shakespeare that appealed to the novel’s tragic hero, John the Savage.  They would also recall in the novel that Brave New World did its best to suppress works of beauty – things made for their own sake.  Is the relativism of students also the result of such suppression?  The students are unsure. I ask them whether Socrates is beautiful.  Some laugh at this suggestion.  Others are unsure.

Our reading of Canada’s Founding Debates is focused on the meaning of responsible government and its structure, at least as articulated by Canada’s Founders.  That was in the 1860s, but what does it look like now?  I have my students read three articles that consider the current crisis of responsible government.  Donald Savoie, a political scientist from New Brunswick, has documented the pathologies of our political executive.  His article, “The Broken Chain of Answerability” (Globe and Mail, 16 May 2008), provides a synopsis of his view of how political power has become overly concentrated in the Prime Minister, leaving Members of Parliament and Members of Cabinet even as little more than a focus group.  Students are asked to consider the causes of this concentration of power, and the degree to which our contemporary political situation provides incentives to remove independent power and judgment from Members of Parliament, which is the backbone of responsible government.  C. E. S. Franks’s speech to the Churchill Society on the same topic raises many similar issues and suggests institutional reforms aimed at improving the situation.  Finally, “Why Canada Needs Conservatives, Though it Tends to Imagine Otherwise,” by Travis Smith considers the problematic result of the political predominance of liberal ideas under many years of Liberal Party rule in the 1990s and early part of the 21st century.  If liberal thinkers going back to J. S. Mill argued responsible government requires a balance between liberal and conservative voices, then in a time when Canadians seem incapable of even conceiving of non-progressivist ideas, it’s time to reconsider conservative ideas.  Smith’s provocative argument has less to do with the institutional basis of our contemporary political crisis than with its intellectual foundation. Is there a link between a powerful executive (Prime Minister) and narrow ideological spectrum?

The second week of readings from Canada’s Founding Debates center on questions of political culture and federalism.  The former at least is linked to responsible government because many of Canada’s Founders argued that responsible government presupposes a political and economic culture capable of sustaining self-government.  Can self-government be practiced when the population is sparse, the economy simple, and the population poorly educated?  These concerns were raised by the representatives of British Columbia when they deliberated joining Canada.  These are concerns, along with others, that get raised today when we discuss the possibility of non-Western cultures practicing democracy.

The first reading is an exchange of views on Alberta’s place in Canada between political scientists Leon Craig and Roger Gibbins (“Let’s get while the gettin’s good,” Calgary Herald, July 17, 2005, D6 & Roger Gibbins, “Alberta Better Off in Canada,” Toronto Star, August 4, 2005, A15).  Craig asks whether joining Canada was good for Alberta, and answers it has not been. He concludes that it is in Alberta’s self-interest, and self-respect, to separate from Canada.  It could form a country within North America with about the same population and economic clout as Norway.  Not big, but better off than being in Canada.  Gibbins counters by arguing that while it may not be in the economic self-interest of Alberta to remain in Canada, Albertans feel an emotional attachment to Canada.  What binds a society together?  Self-interest (a Lockean view)?  Feelings of attachment and memories?  Perhaps because politics appeals to the head (self-interest) and heart (feelings of attachment), the Canadian Founders argued that while it was in the interest of Canadians to have their own country, they, in the 1860s at least, would remain British.  For instance, Canada would not have its own flag (at least one without a Union Jack on it) until 1965. It seems culture has something to do with self-government.

But when the British heritage is less relevant, what culture defines Canadians?  I call this the “going to the dentist” question for students of Canadian politics.  They have all, in high school or elsewhere, undergone the agonizing ordeal of having to debate “what is Canadian?”  It is an ordeal because there really is no answer.  Americans seem to have an easier time of it.  As clichéd as the American answer tends to be, Canadian clichés tend to focus on hockey, beer, Tim Horton’s doughnuts, and not much else.  The infamous “I am Canadian” advertisements for Molson’s beer only remind Canadians of how quickly this discussion becomes a way of asserting that Canadians are not Americans.  Can Canadian culture express anything other than ressentiment?

Two additional readings deepen this problem.  “The Canadian ‘Garrison Mentality’ and the CBC” by Barry Cooper and Lydia Miljan and “Surprise, Canadian Pluralism is Working” by pollster Michael Adams (Toronto Star, November 10, 2007: ID1) address different aspects of Canadian pluralism.  Cooper and Miljan argue that sentiments and symbols of Canadian nationhood are in fact central Canadian (Ontarian) and have little relevance to other parts of the country.  If there is no such thing as Canadian culture (but rather regional cultures – Maritime, Quebec, Prairie, British Columbia), then in what sense can we call Canada a country?  For his part, Adams takes high levels of support for tolerance and multiculturalism as signs not only of the healthy state of pluralism in Canada, but for the very identity of Canada. Is pluralism an adequate way of uniting a country?  Adams also notices that Canadians have different political opinions from Americans about various topics (e.g., health care). He takes this as a sign of Canadian identity.  Does this mean that Canadians who hold the minority viewpoint are somehow less Canadian?  Defining culture seems extremely difficult.  Just as difficult is pinpointing why it seems important for self-government.  Do we need to feel different from others even when our minds tell us we’re not?

Part of what makes Canadians think they are progressive is that their original 1867 Constitution did not give them responsible government, and that subsequent efforts, especially since the inception of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, have brought them closer to genuine democracy.  According to Janet Ajzenstat in, “Did We Get a Good Constitution in 1867?:  Popular Sovereignty in the Canadian Founding,” this argument is bogus.  As one of the editors of Canada’s Founding Debates that the class reads, Ajzenstat explains the meaning of responsible government and summons evidence, from the debates, on why Canadians originally had responsible government (or “democracy,” as we so opaquely put it today).  She also raises the question of whether a constitution, in order truly to be democratic (or republican), should be ratified by the people at large or whether parliamentary ratification is sufficient (or simply elite-driven).

The final two readings reflect perhaps a fundamental ambiguity of the Canadian regime. In “A Question of Trust:  Parliamentary Democracy and Canadian Society,” David E. Smith provides a nuanced critique of recent efforts to “democratic” Parliament by explaining its unique fabric.  Parliament (or any political regime) cannot be changed without inadvertently altering something else that might do more harm.  Pull on a thread and the entire garment is distorted.  For example, he argues referenda are inherently un-parliamentarian and reflect a fundamental misunderstanding of parliamentary authority in the regime.  Parliamentary authority, Smith argues, derives from the fact that Canada is a monarchy.  All authority flows from the monarchy. Smith’s argument cannot be confused with superficial observations that Queen Elizabeth does not actually rule on a daily basis.  Smith’s argument points to structures of authority that underpin the Canadian polity.

Rubbish, says historian Christopher Moore, who, in “Our Canadian Republic,” argues that all authority in Canada flows from the people, which, he argues, is the foundation of responsible government.  Moore wrote a wonderful book, 1867: How the Fathers Made a Deal, in which he explains how their deliberations were in keeping with popular sovereignty (indeed, more so than today’s politicians can achieve).

Who’s right:  Smith who locates sovereignty in the monarchy? Or Moore who locates it in the people?  Maybe both?

To encourage students to think seriously about Thucydides, I assign three provocative articles dealing with issues arising from the war in Iraq, terrorism, and the place of the US military in the world.  In “Thucydides and Us,” Joseph Knippenberg of Oglethorpe University considers Pericles, the first man of Athens during the Peloponnesian War, and the problem conducting war for democracies.  Knippenberg reads Thucydides as teaching us that democracies take a short-term view of things, which makes it difficult for them to develop a prudent course of statesmanship and strategy because they are always tempted to seek short-term benefits.  A thoughtful statesman like Pericles can overcome this shortsidedness by acting vigorously to promote one’s interests and to establish arrangements that can outlive his term of office.  Unfortunately, Pericles’ life was cut short by the plague, and his death left Athens rudderless, and subsequent leaders were more demagogues interested in their own glory than prudent statesmen.  This produces a dilemma for democracies, for they seem caught either to encourage demagogues or to encourage leaders to act rashly.  Is this a genuine dilemma, or do both alternatives end up being the same, namely, that democracies, in order to survive in the international arena, end up producing demagogues?

Angelo Codevilla, in “American Statecraft and the Iraq War,” points to further problems democracies have in waging war, namely, even defining its purpose.  Codevilla argues that the US approach to the Iraq war was confused from the beginning, which necessarily perpetuated problems.  As Machiavelli might say, half-measures, which the US frequently took, produces the greatest of evils.

Andrew Bacevich’s “Twilight of the Republic:  Seeds of Decline, Path to Renewal,” considers the relationship between US domestic politics and what he sees as its imperialism.   It invites students to consider the Thucydidean point that domestic politics influences international behavior.  The point is not so much which rulers are making imperialistic decisions, but, rather, that the ethos of a people gets expressed in its foreign policy.  For instance, the Spartans believed the Athenian love of innovation made it imperialistic because its love for new things meant it needed new lands to find the materials to make those new things, which meant they required an aggressive foreign policy to secure its domestic consumption habits.  Bacevich makes a similar point of the US, especially in the wake of the sexual revolution in the 1960s and consumerist revolution of the 1970s. The point is difficult to verify, but it’s interesting watching students see a connection made between their own souls – for they have inherited the customs of their boomer generation parents – and US foreign policy, of which many of them are highly critical.  Does this help explain why Canadians can be simultaneously critical of US foreign policy while accepting of its benefits?  To use an image I have used before, are Canadians the moral equivalent of the mafia wife who does not ask where how her husband could afford to give her so much jewellery?

We examine the documents of international law that were inspired to a large degree by the vision of Kant’s Toward Perpetual Peace.  The students read Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points speech to consider how, in Kantian fashion, he saw the link between a democratic constitution (Kant prefers the language of republican constitution) and international treaties.  As implied by Kant, the US Constitution, as the template for the Fourteen Points, was to act as a spark for perpetual peace, inducing out of self-interest other states to join.  A streak of benevolent imperialism ran through Wilson.  I tell students the story of how, during the Paris Conference, he and Colonel House (the Karl Rove of his day) stayed up late at night in their hotel room redrawing maps of Europe so borders corresponded to the nations living there (as a way of envisaging a Europe without monarchies for whom such concerns are less important).

With the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights, we see the principle of non-intervention that Wilson extended to nations extended to the individual, which is now the subject of international law.  Of course, the tension between national sovereignty and the rights of the individual can be found in Toward Perpetual Peace.  Do democratic nations have an obligation to protect innocents living in tyrannical regimes.  In the wake of World War Two, the UN Declaration serves as an attempt to protect individuals, but also bears the mark of its framers who understood the dilemma.

While the United Nations serves as the primary example of an international institution established along Kantian lines, its shortcomings have led some to look in other places for an alliance of democracies to secure international peace. In “A Premier League for Democracy?”, Philip Bobbitt and David Hannay debate the prospect of a league of democracies working in concert to promote peace.  Unlike the United Nations, the apparent advantage of such a league is that common democratic values would make it easier to act in concert.  But, as their debate shows, the reality would be more complicated.  For example, there remain some major non-democratic regimes, including China and Russia, that any league of democracies would have to think twice about before intervening to protect human rights.  And what counts as a democracy?  Nearly all countries have elections, but what should be the standard for a legitimate democracy that could then be included in such a league?  It turns out this proposal, which seems like a more “realistic” alternative to the United Nations, has some real problems.

For our discussion of Islamic politics, I assign readings on radical political Islam.  Many of these consider the difference between radical political Islam and the way politics has traditionally been understood by Muslims over the centuries.  Even so, the focus is on the radical side in order to gain a deeper understanding of it.

I assign three chapters from the most important book of radical Islam, Sayyid Qutb’s Milestones.  The students learn how he tries to identify his project with the earliest generation of Muslims.  They also learn how Qutb’s vision for an Islamic society is defined in terms of revolutionary movement under the leadership of teachers.  As much as Qutb criticizes the West as the house of war, and defines jihad as a preemptive measure against the inherently violent West, his own vision of Islamic society, or milestones, are difficult to pin down.  Qutb himself says Islam is a practice and not a doctrine, which for him means that Islam gets realized in its movement, that is, by its revolutionary teachers.  This looks a lot like the vanguard of revolutions idea seen in Marxism.  Only they seem to know the stage of revolution, which gives them a privileged position in an ostensibly egalitarian society.

In “Extremist Reeducation and Rehabilitation in Saudi Arabia,” Christopher Boucek details attempts by Saudi authorities to use methods of persuasion against radical Islamicists by reeducating them in the orthodox teachings of Islam.  To a degree, their efforts echo efforts by a Yemeni judge who promises freedom to any radical Islamist who can effectively debate his case, on the basis of the Quran, against the judge.  While defining Islamic orthodoxy is difficult, one common element is that adherents of radical Islam frequently lack much of a background in their own faith.  They’re the dispossessed who grasp onto radical Islam, sometimes from a lack of having anything better.

Barry Cooper (“’Jihadists’ and the War on Terrorism,” Intercollegiate Review, Spring 2007) and Laurent Murawiec provide complementary interpretations of radical Islam.  Cooper provides an interpretation of terrorism in general that includes the ideas of Sayyid Qutb as well as the Japanese cult, Aum Shinrikyo, that bombed the Tokyo subway.  What the two have in common is what Eric Voegelin referred to as a “secondary reality.”  Ideological terrorists knowingly perpetuate a lie that creates an imaginative apocalyptic dreamworld disconnected from the world of common sense inhabited by nonideologues.  For example, the leader of Aum Shinrikyo, Shoko Asahara claimed his life on his bet that the attacks would bring about the end of the world. What a sleight of hand! As if we’d be around to verify his claim if he’s right!  Similarly Qutb, who gives a peculiar spin to the Quranic claim that there is no coercion in Islam.  For Qutb, every religious and political system except Islam is inherently coercive, so one is “liberated” when one is coerced into accepting Islam.  In Qutb’s hands, the Quranic claim superficially sounds like Western tolerance.  It is not.

Finally, Laurent Murawiec provides another look at the failure of Western analysts who try to impute regular ends-means analysis to terrorism.  Such a rationale does not grasp apocalyptic violence which, by definition, has no end in the sense that one can intend a purpose within historical time.

These are brief summaries of articles the students read and issues that get raised in their presentation.  The articles complement the primary readings in the class, and go some ways to satisfying the students’ desire to use their new skills of political thinking to use on contemporary concerns.  There is some challenge developing a set of readings along these lines because the instructor must scour various media, think-tank, middle brow scholarly journals, and the Internet for readings that are both relevant and interesting for students.  A while back, a publisher asked me whether a textbook containing such articles would be useful.  I think it would.  The major problem with it, however, is that things change so rapidly that it would be extremely difficult to identify readings that are relevant for more than two or three years.  One would have to sell a lot of textbooks to make it worthwhile and profitable to produce such a textbook, whose use would only supplement the primary readings.


Also see “Ditching the Textbook,” “What is Politics?” “Political Philosophy,” “Canadian Politics,” “International Politics,” and “Comparative Politics.”

John von Heyking

John von Heyking is a Board Member and Book Review Editor of Voegelinview as well as a Professor of Political Science at the University of Lethbridge in Canada. He is author and editor of several books, including The Form of Politics: Aristotle and Plato on Friendship (McGill-Queen's, 2016) and Comprehensive Judgment and Absolute Selflessness: Winston Churchill on Politics as Friendship (St. Augustine’s, 2018).

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