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Politics is NOT a Dirty Word

I consider my American Government course a success if my students come to some understanding of the real meaning of "politics." Following Aristotle, I urge my students to understand Political Science as the architectonic science, or the master science, because its end, the good for human beings, individually and collectively, involves the directing of public affairs and the education of citizens. Politics, the art of governing humans and the science of human affairs, necessarily involves questions and opinions of good and bad, just and unjust, right and wrong. Stressing such “value-laden” concepts, I stress that politics begins with opinion. Our second week’s discussion forum, for example, treats the central tenet of what Lincoln considered to be our regime’s founding document, The Declaration of Independence. I ask: “Is it true that all humans are created equal?” This sets the tone of open dialogue, of questioning one’s own presumptions and, in the online forum where netiquette is observed, it allows the questioning of the opinions of classmates. Over the course of the semester, then, I urge my students to have an open mind about politics (most students enter my class with a rather jaundiced view of things political), political opinion, and our ability, as political animals possessed of reason and speech, to deliberate about political matters so as to make good political decisions.

My students constantly engage in critical thinking, beginning with the fundamentals. For example, I have my students consider a passage from Leo Strauss' What is Political Philosophy: “All political action aims at either preservation or change. When desiring to preserve, we wish to prevent a change for the worse; likewise, when desiring to change, we endeavor to bring about something better. So, all political action is then guided by some thought of better or worse. But, thought of better and worse, if it is to move beyond opinion, implies thought of the good. To begin with, though, the awareness of the good which guides our actions has the character of opinion: it is no longer questioned but, on reflection, it proves to be questionable. Now, the very fact that we can question it directs us towards such a thought of the good that is no longer questionable—towards a thought which is no longer opinion, but knowledge. Thus, all political action has in itself directedness towards knowledge of the good—of the good life, or of the good society. And the good society is the complete political good.”

Most of my students possess one of two attitudes regarding politics: first, they hold the cynical opinion that politics is nothing but the rule of the stronger, a clash of interests with no means to determine whether one interest or opinion regarding a political matter is better than another—in other words, all opinions are equal; or, second, some students are convinced they are possessed of the truth regarding many political issues, and thus are dogmatic. Unfortunately, both cynicism and dogmatism closes one’s mind to the possibility of the journey of politics. At the beginning of each course, I ask my students to be open-minded—to be open to the possibility that the exchange of opinions, an ongoing dialogue/and dialectic, is a quest for truth regarding political matters. Now, the journey may never be completed; we may never possess the whole truth of a political question. But, in undertaking the journey, we have at least come to more deeply understand the question.