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.