Tuesday, August 30, 2016

The History of Political Thought: Looking Back at the Year

This year I had the great pleasure of teaching a sequence of courses in the history of political thought: “Ancient and Early Modern Political Philosophy” in the fall and “Modern Political Philosophy” this spring. Even better, nine students took both courses, creating a terrific group of youthful political philosophers dedicated to the “big questions” of political philosophy and conversant with writers from Herodotus to Frantz Fanon.

I still have my doubts about the adequacy of the canon, but I had a little faith restored this year. Witnessing how students not only responded to these great books but took them up with vitality and excitement reminded me why such courses exist. Contemporary writers such as Charles Taylor or Shulamith Firestone simply mean more when one has worked through Marx. The student of ancient political philosophy’s politeia can discern the fallaciousness of the liberal-communitarian debate as it’s typically posed. A serious reader of the Stoics sees anarchism as part of a tradition of political critique insisting on the integrity of the individual rather than just one more radical movement.

I ended the courses this year with some outstanding work by Glen Coulthard and Audra Simpson on indigenous refusal and interruption that also called attention to the often silent externalities of modern political theory, namely the “other” against which the state has consistently defined itself. Grappling with “the politics of recognition” through Fanon, Taylor, Honneth, Fraser, Coulthard, and Simpson, students confronted colonialism as an ongoing set of situations that complicate liberal stories of inclusion but also don’t admit easy answers. Students had their liberal inclinations challenged. They came to reflect on their complicity and participation in the regimes of settler colonialism.

That said, I think I ended this semester a little too much on the anarchist note, leaving students without a strong enough argument on the other side. Anarchism was far more popular than I predicted. Even Emma Goldman’s condemnation of women’s suffrage, which I thought would repel many students, became a defense of radical politics writ large. While Joel Olson’s terrific Abolition of White Democracy moved our conversation toward participatory democratic politics, anti-institutional sentiment overshadowed him.

I had as a goal this year to include more space and time for reflection in my history of political thought courses. Too often I have emphasized learning content over integrating the questions and ideas of this content into students’ preexisting beliefs. I want political philosophy to matter to one’s political beliefs and dispositions. I have found that worrying about what a course “covers” leads students to view learning as a matter of ingesting information. This can often end up providing more arguments to rationalize students’ unreflective principles without actually interrogating them.


How to encourage deep reflection? One strategy for encouraging reflection used “big questions” to place students as thinkers in conversation with the texts of the course. (I described this in a previous post.) This semester we used barometers and silent discussions (described in pervious posts) as well.  Yet above all else, I found that building strong relationships with individual students helped to promote the kind of reflection I sought. As I came to know students across the semester and the year, I could raise questions and elicit deeper self-reflection about their commitments in ways that would be simply impossible in large lecture courses where students remain anonymous to the instructor.