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Criticisms of government department curriculum miss the mark

May 5, 2017

This piece represents the opinion of the author s.

Rachel Baron ’17’s op-ed in last week’s edition of the Orient criticized the Department of Government and Legal Studies  as “stuck in the past” and in need of changes that will bring it “into the modern era.” We believe this article is misguided and reflects a misunderstanding of the Government and Legal Studies curriculum.

Baron argues that Bowdoin’s government department “woefully undercovers issues of contemporary political importance.” She sees a lack of course offerings that focus specifically on gender and race as evidence of an “outmoded” department (but acknowledges, as we do, that the hiring of Professor Chryl Laird—a specialist in race and ethnic politics—fills this gap). Her assessment concludes that a more specialized curriculum will bring a supposedly antiquated department up to speed.

Race and gender are important topics in understanding contemporary politics, but they are only pieces of the puzzle. The American and global political climates are complex and therefore require a holistic approach of study. For example, Laura Henry, John F. and Dorothy H. Magee associate professor of government,  teaches “Post-Communist Russian Politics and Society,” which surveys Russian politics and examines present-day Russian ethnicity, the media, the economy and political parties. Associate Professor of Government Michael Franz’s courses, which integrate state-of-the art data analytics, are also good examples. These approaches are common in the department and hardly outdated; studying the many forces interacting within the political arena—including race and gender—is vital to our education. Topics relating more directly to race and gender are well-suited for courses in departments that specialize in studying identity. Government majors would be well-served taking them.

Baron writes, “Our political theory department only teaches Western political philosophy, the vast majority of which is from the 19th and early 20th centuries (or earlier). This seems to imply that the only political theory worth teaching is from a specific part of the world and a specific era, while ignoring contributions from a much more diverse group of individuals writing closer to today.” Even if the “vast majority” of texts taught in political theory courses were written in the early twentieth century or earlier, it’s a trivial point: that’s most of human history, a fairly broad “era.”

But many theory courses do include texts written closer to today. The last third of Gary M. Pendy Professor of Social Sciences Jean Yarbrough’s  “American Political Thought,” which is offered every spring, covers the rise of progressivism and modern conservatism; readings include Richard Rorty (1998), James Ceaser (2010) and Barack Obama (2012). Professor of Government Paul Franco’s “Contemporary Political Philosophy,” offered last semester, includes readings from John Rawls (1971), Michael Sandel (1984) and Pierre Manent (2007).

Even if we grant that the “vast majority” of assigned texts are older than the early twentieth century, we believe that foundational works such as Aristotle’s “Politics,” Thomas Hobbes’s “Leviathan” and John Locke’s “Two Treatises of Government” are essential for understanding the history of political thought that grounds the contemporary debates. Baron is correct: our political theory courses do focus on Western thinkers. But the tradition is in no way uniform: Western writers come from various cultures and languages, and their ideas are in perpetual contention. We would welcome courses on Eastern political philosophy as well as medieval philosophy from Islamic, Jewish, and Christian writers. Nevertheless, teaching these courses requires cutting others—an inevitable tradeoff (despite Baron’s claim to the contrary). Considering the political theory concentration has only 32 majors right now, our two professors offer a rich selection of courses spanning 2,500 years of political thought.

Finally, Baron claims that offering “classes that focused more on gender in the political theory department might attract more women to a concentration that is overwhelmingly dominated by men.” This statement implies that women actively seek out courses centered around gender, a sweeping generalization suggesting that a woman’s intellectual curiosity is confined to the study of her own identity. To assume that most women consider this topic pivotal in their course selection is dogmatic and wrong. Although it is true that most authors in the political theory concentration are male, students of their ideas need not be: the subjects of political theory—e.g., justice, freedom, and equality—are essential to the study of government and affect everyone.

We agree with Baron that the College’s departments should always be subject to review, but her criticism of the government department is off the mark. The department is not “stuck in the past.” Government students in all four concentrations learn to think critically about all aspects of political thought, both historical and contemporary.

Alex Westfall

Nicole Anthony, Samuel Lewis and Ben Ratner are members of the Class of 2019.


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  1. Theory Major says:

    All three authors of this piece have only recently declared their major, to say nothing of having taken enough classes to declare a concentration. Their point about women is facile, at best; actual real-life women have expressed that they’d like to see more discussions of gender in Political Theory courses. It is neither sexist nor “dogmatic” to assert that women’s experiences are not reflected in the department.

    Perhaps once these authors have taken more courses, they would see that “justice, freedom, and equality” are not the only subjects of political theory. From Book V in Plato’s Republic through Rousseau, Nietzsche, and Tocqueville, the family and the relation of the sexes have been hotly debated by political philosophers. Certainly, justice and equality play into this. But the idea that sex + gender concerns have to be silenced because we have Bigger (AKA More Manly) Things to worry about in political theory mostly shows a thorough lack of familiarity with the canon itself.

    I look forward to hearing from these authors in two years time, once they have spent enough time in the department to engage in a constructive analysis of it.

  2. Diana Furukawa '18 says:

    Why do you think that as three privileged, white students, you believe that identity is “just a piece of the puzzle” of American politics? Identity is integral, and understanding it– deconstructing its effects on the quality and length of peoples’ lives, should not just fall on the backs of the marginalized. It matters how white, male, and Western-centric the government courses, professors, students (and this school in general) are; it’s not a coincidence. It feels like what you’re really defending here is the tradition that your privileges rest upon. Take back your logic, your complicit shrugs, and your “tolerance,” and return with something truly progressive. It’s not enough to say that you “would welcome” more diverse courses if they came along– that you would welcome progress if it happened. You are responsible, and you must fight for it, in the context of this department and beyond.

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