Picking on Plato

CMC should reevaluate its classical approach to political philosophy

Emphasizing Greek classics and pre-Rousseau thought, Claremont McKenna’s Government Department teaches introductory political philosophy differently than most. Whereas CMC prides itself on close reading of primary texts with no secondary interpretation, most schools expose students to a variety of mostly post-1900 secondary sources on subjects like civil responsibility and controversial government actions.

Introduction to Political Philosophy at Scripps, for instance, is more mainstream, incorporating various schools of modern thought and exposing students to valuable secondary interpretations. In her course, Professor Rivka Weinberg explores the divide between the public and private spheres that defines the scope of state power. This, she says, is “a modern question that should be informed by modern texts.” While canonical thinkers like Rousseau and Locke do handle this question, 20th-century philosophers better address the modern state.

CMC Political Philosophy Professor Christopher Nadon disagrees: “There is no new and complex way of thinking politics that supersedes the classics like a new scientific theory does.”

Nadon thinks that the discipline’s origins reveal most clearly the radical character of philosophical thought and its political implications. “The first thinker who stakes out a new claim often has a better understanding of its foundations and implications,” he says. “He can’t accept that premise as part of any tradition, but rather has to establish it and think it through for himself.”

So, rather than reading derivatives of Rousseau in order to understand critics of bourgeois, commercial society, Nadon advocates studying Rousseau because his analysis is more radical. Likewise, Nadon thinks that “no work challenges contemporary prejudices so much as Plato’s Republic, most especially the prejudice that ‘philosophy’ and ‘tradition’ can easily co-exist.”

But if modern applications are possible, CMC professors generally fail to contextualize theories and explicitly highlight their contemporary significance. “Students should do that for themselves, and will do it better for having done it themselves,” says Nadon, who does not think it is his job to profess or preach.

Many college students, however, need help understanding and evaluating dense philosophical texts. Weinberg believes that it is the professor’s duty to connect contemporary events to theory, allowing students to truly understand the material.

Whereas the Scripps class is more accessible, CMC’s tailors to a certain type of student. CMC professors seem to assume that undergraduates have the same level of critical thinking skills as graduate students. Though lecture-based courses may be the manifestation of professors’ high expectations, they often result in disinterest.

Yet we should not eschew the classics altogether. They are worth learning.

Pomona sophomore Michael Vassilevsky thinks that only few noteworthy political thinkers, like John Stuart Mill, came after Rousseau. He sees a contemporary split in political philosophy into two areas: political science, “which has some interesting insights but isn’t exciting,” and post-modern “critical” philosophy, “which is excessively influenced by Marxism.”

If we truly want to educate well-rounded future leaders, we should give them the opportunity to learn all approaches. At CMC, that might mean incorporating an alternative to the current Government 80 course, required for all government majors, or even changing the original syllabus to better reflect the breadth of philosophical traditions. A mixture is needed.

Wendy Qian is a junior at CMC declared as government and media studies dual major. She is a staff writer ("Beijing correspondent" :) for the Port Side and loves critical theory, postmodern philosophy, and rock music.

2 Responses to “Picking on Plato”

  1. Solomon Hume says:

    Is what the rightmost the most right?

  2. lover of wit says:

    I have never felt that a classical philosophy class did not incorporate elements of modernity. This is CMC – a class could not succeed unless it had some practical implications. Read any work of classical philosophy and it’s striking how many similarities there are to our current political affairs. It’s not that modern philosophers don’t have anything to offer, it’s that classical thinkers give an eternal analysis of human nature, which makes them so worth studying in depth. The reason why we study classics is because they got a lot of things right, and that is why they remain so relevant to modern times.

    I feel that this article was written with a clear goal in mind. As a liberal student, it’s upsetting that my liberal counterparts are so biased at times toward the government department. It makes sense to study the foundation of political thought, and to do that well means to give it the time and attention the texts deserve. To suggest that the government department is deficient in the sense they care too much about Plato and Aristotle is an absurd claim to make – those works are plainly relevant to anyone interested in politics (which is most of CMC). It’s a shame the Portside doesn’t do a better job at picking their battles.

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