Virtually every year for the past twenty I have taught two introductory-level political science courses. Because the courses fulfill a social sciences core requirement, typically they are moderately large classes with a mix of students, not all of whom have an interest in politics. Many students have not taken a high school course in politics, so they may not even know what it is they are there to learn. Students in my introductory courses generally fall into three categories.
The first group is composed of those who take no interest in politics when they come into the course and have no interest once it is over. They will have fulfilled the requirements by coming to class, taking the examinations, and by completing the assignments. For them it is just one more core requirement to get out of the way so they can get into their chosen field. I have no way of finding out if my teaching has made any impression on them.
Students in a second group enroll without knowing what they are getting into. They may be undecided on a major field of studies or they may intend to major in an area other than politics. Yet once they are in the course, they become excited by what they are learning. A new world opens up before them and they plunge in head first, eager to immerse themselves in the larger questions of the discipline, especially what justice is and what it requires. These students are the ones I most enjoy teaching, because I can see that I’ve had a discernible impact on them. Often their studies prove to be life-changing, not only for them, but in some cases even for me in my mentoring role.
The third group of students enters my courses intending from the outset to study politics, and they follow it through to the end four years later. They may have grown up in politically-minded families, or they may have been exposed to someone in their younger years who sparked their imagination with a vision for justice. They might well have been affected by one of the momentous events of recent years, such as the September 11th attacks or the war in Iraq. These are the steadfast ones who have a strong sense of direction and determination. They are the backbone of my courses—reliable, responsible, and, quite often, possessing leadership potential.
Concern for your community
The numbers of students majoring or “minoring” in political science at Redeemer University College—the school where I teach—have never been large. But even in my first years of teaching it quickly became apparent to me that political science majors tended to move disproportionately into student leadership positions. Indeed, a university can be said to possess some of the characteristics of an Athenian-style polis or body politic, particularly insofar as it is a community characterized by face-to-face relationships and developing friendships. It is not, of course, a very accurate microcosm of the larger society, because its members are all of a fairly narrow age range. Moreover, at “Redeemer” virtually everyone is a professing Christian with a connection to a church community.
In other respects a university can function nonetheless as something of an incubator of citizens, where the virtues of citizenship can be developed and practiced in an experimental setting. If an undergraduate cannot summon up enough concern for her university, whose welfare affects her directly, it is unlikely that after graduation she will do so for those communities, including the state, in which she will then find herself. On the other hand, if students undertake to better their university, which sooner or later they must leave behind, there is a good chance that they will replicate this concern outside the academic environment, where they will have a personal stake over the longer term.
So how should you, as an undergraduate student, go about preparing for focused political service or, more modestly, for responsible citizenship? First and foremost, take advantage of the academic resources available where you are. Attend classes, not merely to fulfill requirements, but to enter into an ongoing conversation transcending the course you are in at the moment. Plato’s celebrated dialogue, The Republic, tells the story of what must have been an all-night exchange between Socrates and several friends over the nature of justice. Of course, the dialogue eventually comes to an end, but the larger conversation it sparked has continued in some fashion and in many settings for two-and-a-half millennia. We are still arguing and debating about justice, and we are unlikely to give it up this side of the Second Advent.
If you are at a university where the larger questions of right and justice are posed, and where discussion of them is encouraged, throw yourself into the dialogue. Ask your own questions and consider thoughtfully the questions of others. Be daring and don’t be afraid to put forward your own ideas. That’s what you’re there for. From my own time at Redeemer, I’ve discovered that a Christian university can provide an especially fertile ground for nurturing such discussions. This is because students are often given the tools to see through reductionist explanations—say, Marxism, Freudianism and Darwinism—for the complex phenomena of God’s world. But it may also be that Christians are more aware than others of participating in an ancient tradition of reflection and a larger conversation that started long before they were born and will continue long after they are gone.
On the other hand, if you are at a university where the study of politics is narrowed to what can be addressed by the scientific method, then discussion of the larger questions is not likely to be encouraged. In fact, it might be actively discouraged, and you may find yourself being advised to switch to the study of philosophy or religion rather than politics. If this is your situation, it will be up to you to round up like-minded fellow students and to jump start the conversation with them on your own time. I know from personal experience that sometimes meeting regularly with an extracurricular discussion group, especially when accompanied by a shared meal, can be more life-changing than the formal courses offered by the university.
Make time for wrestling
No matter what sort of university you are enrolled in: Read! Read everything you can get your hands on, especially works addressing the larger questions of political life. Start with Plato and Aristotle. Read the Bible on justice and political authority. Grapple with Augustine and Thomas Aquinas. Wrestle with Machiavelli and Hobbes. Enter into the worlds of Locke, Rousseau, Kant, and Marx. And, although you may not find such writings in a “Great Books” programme, read Christian political thinkers like Abraham Kuyper, Herman Dooyeweerd, James W. Skillen, Paul Marshall, and Bob Goudzwaard to acquire a firm grounding in a biblical approach to politics.
Of course, a university offers other avenues of service apart from academics. If you aim to assume a leadership role in the larger society, you might involve yourself in student government. Forms of student government differ, of course, from one university to the next, but they usually require a would-be officeholder to stand for election, with the electorate’s consisting of perhaps the entire student body or possibly a subset of the whole, such as a graduating class.
The parallels to a political democracy are not exact. For example, student government elections are not generally contested on a partisan basis. However, one of the distinguishing features of student elections at Redeemer is that an absolute majority of voters is required to put someone in office. If this is not achieved on the first ballot, a second runoff vote is held between the top two vote-getters from the previous ballot. I have found that reference to this mechanism in the classroom provides a useful way to educate my own students on a variety of electoral systems other than the first-past-the-post used in Canada, the United States, and most other English-speaking democracies. Experience with one of these alternatives may well whet the appetite for genuine electoral reform once they themselves enter the larger political fray.
The responsibilities of student government also vary according to university. Generally, a student senate and its executive are authorized to address student concerns and, perhaps, to disburse funds for student-led campus groups, such as a political science club. They may also plan social activities. But they could also be a jumping-off point for undergraduates to expand their service to the university beyond student concerns alone. There may be student representation on a board of governors of the university or, in the case of Canadian universities, on a senate overseeing its academic side.
Don’t lose sight of the rest of the world
Most universities have a student newspaper which can be another training ground for political service. Once more our own political science students at Redeemer write articles in The Crown to stimulate readers’ interest in issues either internal or external to the institution. They have also assumed editorial positions, taking on responsibility for the overall planning of each issue. Recently, one of our majors wrote an article on the cost of textbooks, something that makes an impact on virtually all students, whatever their chosen fields. Other articles have dealt with such issues as the administration (a perennial bone of contention for students everywhere!), the student senate’s activities, the physical properties of the campus, and internet access.
Yet the concerns of the larger world receive their due attention as well. Student writers may tackle such issues as the war in Afghanistan, terrorism, climate change, global poverty, and the persecution of Christians. In so doing they are serving to educate their fellow students on how to tackle issues that affect not only themselves but their more distant neighbours beyond the university. This is important because, in a close-knit academic institution, students may be tempted to focus their energies on their immediate social setting and to lose sight of the concerns of the rest of the world. Many universities have their own independent student newspapers, such as the Dartmouth Review, begun in 1980 by students dissatisfied with the official paper, The Dartmouth. Such an effort may be worthwhile, particularly if your university does not encourage conversation on foundational issues and the larger questions.
If you plan to write for your student newspaper, you first need to hone your writing skills. There is no line of work for which an inability to write is an asset. The only way to learn how to write is to read. Learning one or more foreign languages is also helpful, since it can have the effect of imprinting the grammatical structure of your first language in your head, which was my own experience in my youth. It will also enable you to carry on “the conversation” with others not conversant in English, and to increase your awareness of other cultures.
There are less formal ways of preparing for political service. You and your fellow students could establish a political science club, either under the auspices of student government or simply on your own. Many universities in the United States have their Young Republican and Young Democrat organizations. In Canada, there are campus clubs for the major political parties—Conservative, Liberal, and New Democratic—as well as for the smaller parties. If you are uncomfortable with overtly partisan groupings, you might set up a good government club, an environmental awareness club, or a group advocating a specific political reform, such as term limits for Members of Parliament or Congress, or the adoption of proportional representation.
It nearly goes without saying that the internet can be both an obstacle and a boon to preparation for political service. It can be an obstacle, in that it can tempt students to immerse themselves in the trivial or even the destructive. As we all know, the internet contains much that is actively stultifying. On the other hand, it is also a tremendous source of information about political events around the globe. Keeping informed has never been easier. In my youth I listened to the international shortwave radio broadcasters, such as the BBC and Deutsche Welle. Nowadays one can access these and much more at any hour of the day via the internet. But be sure to use the internet properly and steer clear of its misuses. Blogging can be a mere diversion, but it can also facilitate your carrying on the conversation with those outside your university.
Finally, if you do not plan a career related to politics, here is what I tell my own students in my introductory courses. Whatever your ultimate career goals, as one created in God’s image you have a multifaceted calling. We are called to be sons, daughters, siblings, husbands, wives, parents, church members, employers, employees, and citizens. The early Christians were urged to pray for their Roman rulers (1 Timothy 2:1-2), and God commanded the people of Judah to seek the welfare of the city to which they were about to be exiled (Jeremiah 29:7). Today most of us live in constitutional democracies, in which citizens’ participation is actively encouraged. Thus there is any number of ways to exercise your responsibilities as citizens, as indicated above. But the most important thing to bear in mind is this: in all of your callings you act foremost as servants of God’s kingdom, living and carrying out the command to love God and your neighbour.