The necessity of political philosophy arises because most policies are good for some people and bad for others.
That’s Harvard economist N. Gregory Mankiw, writing in the New York Times today.
I don’t agree with any of the conclusions that Mankiw draws about particular policies … but I like this sentence. It’s a good one for some of my colleagues in political science, who are often rather dismissive of political theory as a subfield of study.
HT: Ted Goodman.
It’s starting to seem like Nicholas Kristof had a bad break-up with a political scientist at some point in his past or else that he’s never actually read anything written by a political scientist.
But, anyhow, here’s a real world application of my training as a political scientist: I know a bunch of Greek words that prevent me from embarrassing myself when I’m lazily throwing shade at an entire academic discipline.
Here’s my lone (and pretty tongue-in-cheek) contribution to the wailing and gnashing of teeth inspired by Nicholas Kristof’s Sunday op-ed about the lack of real world engagement by university professors (especially political scientists).
No word yet from Human Rights Watch’s Kenneth Roth or Kristof on their reactions to my argument. I assume I’ll hear back once they’ve had more time to read and digest the points I made about the way a philosophical grounding that works in a pluralistic society impacts people who want to shore up the idea of human rights and prevent real world abuses.
Last semester’s course evaluations are in for my contemporary political philosophy course and I thought I’d post some of the highlights. As is the case every semester, students reported that they were overworked but that they enjoyed themselves. In fact, there wasn’t a single negative evaluation. In response to the question, “What, if anything, did you like about the instructor?,” several students wrote, “The cult of personality.”
So, this semester the results were crazily positive; this might have something to do with the fact that all the students who despised me, my class, or political theory more generally dropped or withdrew before the end of the semester:
- “He is amazing. He was upbeat and could banter with the best of them. He also could break down the challenging info.”
- "He’s cooler than he looks."
- "Could sometimes be a little arrogant. But the attitude worked well for the class. He was every bit a philosopher."
- "It’s a course you can apply to all other courses."
- "I always knew that if I didn’t understand the reading, I could come to class & get my questions answered."
- "The instructor was younger [than I expected]."
- "Maybe slow down a little so students can type the important parts of the lecture, many holes in my notes (and others) because we were all too busy listening to ask him to slow down — which is hilarious."
- "I thought, from what I’d heard, that he was an angry old man.”
- "Pushed students to work harder and think about their life and passions in addition to the material."
- "I didn’t know if I was going to like this class. I ended up loving it. It challenged me to think in ways that I haven’t before."
- “It was insightful, challenging, and captivating. I will never view the world the same.”
- “Dr. Kohen is the best prof. I’ve had in my 4½ years at UNL. The last three semesters w/him have changed me for the better.”
Unlike previous semesters, where one student would recommend one change to the course and another would recommend the exact opposite, students agreed about changes they’d like to see. They universally hated the 50 minute/3 day a week format, as I do, because our discussions were constantly interrupted just as they got underway, and they want the political science department to offer more political theory classes rather than fewer:
- Give him longer class periods. Maybe a seminar or TV show.
- Switch back to Tuesday/Thursday schedule.
- It will be very sad if this class is no longer offered.
- Make it longer than 50 minutes.
- The classes seemed a little more rushed than previous courses he teaches due to the 50 minute class length.
- The instructor would be more effective if he were allowed to teach more political philosophy classes.
Finally, there’s one question on the evaluation sheet that always makes me laugh; it asks, “Did the instuctor’s lectures, comments, and interactions with students display respect for (sensitivity to) differences in gender, race, ethnicity or other characteristics?” This semester, a bunch of students answered with a reference to the veil of ignorance in John Rawls’ A Theory of Justice (which we read at the very beginning of the semester).
That might be the best measure of the success of the class.
Technically, no one is required to take any of the courses I teach (at either the undergraduate or graduate level).
There is a political theory requirement for undergraduate political science majors, but it’s only one course and it can thus be fulfilled by taking the introductory course (which is taught by one of my graduate students) rather than one of my upper-level courses.
For the past six years, undergrads in political science at the University of Nebraska who wanted to make political theory one of their three subfields of study would have to take at least one course with me because the subfield requirement called for at least two courses. This won’t be the case any longer, as my department voted to eliminate political theory as one of the subfields of undergraduate study last semester. My suspicion is that, over time, the number of students in my courses will dwindle as more and more students simply elect take the intro course and steer clear of the upper-level courses (less because of my grading practices and more because they don’t fulfill any sort of degree requirement).
There might still be one or two students who choose to take all of the classes I offer. In his or her final semester, I might buy a weekly doughnut for such a student.
One of the reasons I get so worked up about gun rights wingnuts is the connection so many of them draw between owning guns and protecting themselves from government tyranny.
Especially odd, I think, is the notion that the Federalists — reacting to the weakness of the Articles of Confederation — created a more powerful federal system and then, with the 2nd Amendment, immediately undercut everything they’d just done by creating an expansive right to own all manner of weaponry without regulation for the purpose of undermining (and possibly overthrowing) a more powerful federal government.
Joshua Horwitz and Casey Anderson, in their Guns, Democracy, and the Insurrectionist Idea, capture this bizarre way of thinking about the legitimate use or threat of violence in a democracy, as well as its consequences:
In light of the extensive work by political scientists on the conditions that are most conducive to democracy and freedom, the Insurrectionist insistence on the primacy of a link between the unfettered access to guns and political liberty is not only wrongheaded but dangerously counterproductive. The gun rights groups tell their members that they should participate in politics but only to maintain the political leverage needed to keep government in a condition of perpetual weakness. By insisting that the ability to use private force is the best check—and ultimately the only guarantee—against overreaching by the state, the Insurrectionist idea encourages the misconception that a well-maintained gun collection is a substitute for the hard work of citizenship in a democracy (162).
There are lots of fine reasons people might have for owning a gun; taking on the “tyrannical” federal government when you disagree with decisions that have been arrived at democratically isn’t one of those reasons.
As dysfunctional as Washington is these days, change is still possible when ‘We the People’ get engaged, run for office themselves or make their voices heard. After all, how else could a country doctor from Muskogee with no political experience make it to Washington?
Coburn’s question is a good one. How indeed can a country doctor with no political experience make it to Washington and participate — some might even say participate in a way that’s directly responsible for some of the dysfunction — in what many people would suggest is the most dysfunctional Congress in anyone’s memory? How indeed. I can only imagine that when the good people of Oklahoma sent Dr. Coburn to Washington without a shred of political experience, they expected precisely what they ended up getting … like the blockage of the LRA Disarmament and Northern Uganda Recovery Act, or holding up passage of legislation to create the Lewis and Clark Mount Hood Wilderness Act, or placing a special hold on the Veterans’ Caregiver and Omnibus Health Benefits Act, or protesting NBC’s decision to air “Schindler’s List” in prime time because it contained nudity, violence, and profanity.
Anyhow, fare thee well, sir.
Now which brave soul will step into the breach and take up the mantle of desperately trying to stop political scientists from receiving federal funding to study American politics?
Duck of Minerva, a group blog filled to the brim with some of my favorite political scientists, is hosting its second annual Online Achievements in International Studies Awards and it seems that, like last year, I’ve been nominated in the Best Blog (Individual) category.
This is quite an honor and I’d be further honored if you’ll all decide to vote for me. One catch: You have to register to vote by email.
Even though the other nominees are surely more deserving of this award, I’m hoping that my audience — and the power of thousands of Tumblr users who generally seem to like to vote for things and can share this message far and wide! — will register to vote and overwhelm those more worthy bloggers to steal the prize for me!
This is what I get if I win:
You know, if half the people who read this actually register and vote for me, I’m a lock. So, please, help me out!
As I did yesterday, I’m once again linking to the top blog posts of the year. These are the posts that drew the most unique eyeballs; the list doesn’t include the About page, where several thousand people each year go to find out whose writing they’re reading, the Ask page, where people write in with questions or to say kind and unkind things to me, or the front page, which is always the top draw since it’s the way that people access the site directly (rather than via some referring site).
Perhaps you missed some of these posts. Or maybe you just want to have another look since it’s been a little while. Feel free, of course, to share them with friends and loved ones because each click tells me that you’d like for me to keep writing these sorts of things.
Here, then, are the Top 5 most viewed posts of 2013:
#4. “Whither Aristotle?,” a reflection on the decision of my colleagues to eliminate political theory as a subfield of undergraduate study in the Department of Political Science at the University of Nebraska (10/3/13)
#2. “Twitter Assassins,” in which a whole bunch of people went online to reflect on President Obama’s inauguration by calling for someone to assassinate him (1/21/13)
It’s been a fun and fascinating year of writing for me, full of arguments and thoughtful exchanges of ideas. I plan to have a brief reflection tomorrow that looks back at some of the things I learned from blogging this year and looks forward to 2014.
Thanks for reading, for engaging with my ideas, for sharing my blog posts with your friends, and for asking for my thoughts on issues or events as they’ve come up.
Happy New Year!
This claim, from Jodi Dean’s book Democracy and Other Neoliberal Fantasies, is a particularly interesting one to try out on the audience of this blog (who almost exclusively arrive at this blog via Tumblr, Twitter, and Facebook).
Are you reading this?
And are you engaging with the things written on this blog (or on blogs generally)? Do you debate and discuss these ideas? Do you share them with others or do you just click “Like” and move on to the next thing?
And, especially for the Tumblr audience, why are you blogging? Knowing that there are millions and millions of Tumblr blogs, do you think your posts matter and, if so, in what way?
Or is Dean right that we’re just engrossed in the whole idea of consumption and contribution, leading us to believe that we’re participating in a national (or even global) political conversation when, in fact, we’re not?
As of 8:34am on Monday, December 23 … I am on sabbatical!
My grades for this semester have been submitted; I’ve checked out an entire shelf of books from the university library; and my laptop is all charged up.
I feel so free, I almost don’t know what to do first.
But it’s time to learn some new things and write about them, which is one of the two things I love most about my job. So I’m going to just grab the first book I borrowed from the library — Jodi Dean’s Democracy and Other Neoliberal Fantasies —and jump in.