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The Dec­la­ration of Inde­pen­dence, July 4, 1776

For most of Hillsdale’s history, stu­dents who studied pol­itics grad­uated with a degree in political science. Now, they graduate with a degree in pol­itics.

History and political science existed as one department until 2000. When Pres­ident Larry Arnn arrived, political science pro­fessors sep­a­rated from the history department and took on a new department name: pol­itics.

“Hillsdale makes the claim that its edu­cation is based on self-evident truths, which are thus old and new,” Pro­fessor of Pol­itics Mickey Craig said in an email. “The decision not to take a quan­ti­tative approach to the study of pol­itics is probably the chief reason for calling our major pol­itics rather than political science. We take a great books or clas­sical approach to the study of pol­itics and reject the method­ology which dom­i­nates the study of pol­itics in higher edu­cation today.”

Many uni­ver­sities study pol­itics through sta­tis­tical and math­e­matical models, which are designed to predict and produce political out­comes. These depart­ments do not make value judg­ments about what con­sti­tutes the good life.

“We want to dif­fer­en­tiate our­selves from more common models of political science that claim to be describing behavior without raising the question of justice,” said John Grant, assistant pro­fessor of pol­itics.

He said political science has, in many ways, received unfair crit­icism. Grant dis­agrees with political science insofar as it tries to quantify human behavior. There is, however, another way to view political science: as an appli­cation of political phi­losophy to real world sce­narios. In this sense, Grant said he thinks political science is vitally important to the study of pol­itics.

“I think we have to demon­strate the rel­e­vance of the theory,” he said. “If the theory doesn’t connect to reality or practice, then I don’t know why we’re doing it. Knowledge should serve life in my view.”

Grant said the original ancient Greek word for pol­itics — politika — carries the meaning that the study of pol­itics is both philo­sophical and sci­en­tific.

“It can be hard for stu­dents to know why they should study Plato, Aris­totle, or Aquinas. It’s a rea­sonable objection,” he said. “We need to work to make sure that stu­dents see why they’re studying these texts.”

Here, a slight divide arises in the pol­itics department. Some pro­fessors emphasize political phi­losophy, while others con­cen­trate on applying theory to con­tem­porary issues. It depends on the professor’s pref­er­ences but also on the content of each course.

Grant said it’s easier to connect thinkers like Machi­avelli and Marx to real world pol­itics but more dif­ficult for ancient philoso­phers like Plato and Aris­totle. This dis­tinction plays out depending on the course.

For example, in Intro to American Foreign Policy, Grant will spend most class time exam­ining spe­cific foreign policy deci­sions, with con­tem­porary examples of America’s current involvement in the Middle East. But in Modern Political Phi­losophy, con­tem­porary appli­ca­tions are less per­vasive.

Senior Ian McRae, a pol­itics major, said stu­dents who study pol­itics should always begin with political phi­losophy.

“The department’s decision to call the major ‘pol­itics’ allows for stu­dents to be able to have a greater variety of what they can study,” he said. “The better thing to study as an under­graduate and have a foun­dation in is political phi­losophy because pol­itics is informed by it.”

He said quan­ti­tative methods of political science do not provide an accurate view of pol­itics.

“Trying to use quan­ti­tative methods to predict and control out­comes in pol­itics is only so useful, and it’s really only useful ret­ro­spec­tively,” McRae said. “Just look at 2016. Political science led people to believe that Brexit would fail and Clinton would win. And look at what hap­pened.”

Asso­ciate Pro­fessor of Pol­itics Kevin Slack tends to focus on political phi­losophy in his classroom.

“In my expe­rience, there is a core of pol­itics stu­dents who excel in abstract thought, and enjoy reading more dif­ficult political philo­sophical texts, but most come to Hillsdale looking to par­tic­ipate in a debate over con­crete policies,” Slack said.

In this semester’s 20th and 21st Century Political Phi­losophy class, Slack guides stu­dents through the complex texts of Martin Hei­degger, Leo Strauss, Michel Fou­cault, Noam Chomsky, and more.

On a regular day the class won’t mention Pres­ident Donald Trump or lam­baste the federal gov­ernment. But the stu­dents’ con­stant immersion in the per­plexing ques­tions raised by modern philoso­phers sup­plants the lack of con­tem­porary political dis­cus­sions.

The debate over whether stu­dents should study prac­tical policy ques­tions or political phi­losophy often­times comes down to the professor’s pre­ferred teaching style and the student’s pre­ferred way to learn.

Despite dif­fer­ences in teaching styles, the department rejects the math­e­matical approach to pol­itics that most uni­ver­sities take. The pro­fessors are unified in the belief that nor­mative ques­tions, such as the meaning of justice, must set the foun­dation for a study of pol­itics.