The Program in Political and Social Thought was launched over thirty years ago by a group of University faculty committed to the idea of broad social inquiry. It has graduated over six hundred majors since then, aiming for a class of about twenty students each year. The Program offers qualified students the opportunity to pursue the study of society and politics without being limited by disciplinary boundaries. With the advice of expert faculty, who can be located in any Arts & Sciences department as well as in other Schools of the University, self-motivating and capable students can fashion a program of study reflecting their own intellectual interests and goals.
The focus of the Program is on linking contemporary concerns to relevant theory, including classical moral, religious, and philosophical authors (such as Confucius, Plato, Aristotle, Augustine), classic political and social theorists (Machiavelli, Hobbes, Adam Smith, Mill, and others), provocative aesthetic works (such as Bacchae, War and Peace, and Austerlitz), as well as various 20th- and 21st-century theorists (such as Max Weber, Simone de Beauvoir, Thomas S. Kuhn, Michel Foucault, John Rawls, Albert Hirschman, Judith Butler, Anthony Appiah, Martha Nussbaum). But the focus is never on theory for its own sake. Rather, students in the Program characteristically seek to relate words and ideas to diverse scenes of practice, and to understand those scenes of practice in the light of appropriate theories and concepts.
The Program’s emphasis on the relation of theory to the real world, along with the fact that students are permitted to find thesis advisers throughout the University rather than limiting themselves to a single department or group, are two important distinguishing features of the Program. A third distinguishing feature is that all students participate, in their third year, in a year-long core seminar that has the effect of generating a genuine intellectual and social community.
In consultation with advisers, students devise an interdisciplinary set of classes geared toward their broader interests and to the preparation of a substantial thesis, running to around 30,000 words, in their fourth year. The range of topics among the thesis projects is extraordinary: most students, however, focus on an event or policy, whether domestic or related to other countries, of present-day significance. Some students choose topic with a more literary bent. Recent theses have investigated income inequality in the US, the availability of credit to low-income people, post-colonial African monument building, the work of a Palestinian poet, the role of American media in the Arab Spring, and energy policy in Japan after Fukushima. Encouraging students to explore their personal interests, the Program stimulates the production of thorough, passionate, and engaged theses.
The third-year core seminar focuses on developing the skills of disciplined discussion and persuasive writing on broad issues of social and political thought. Through weekly mini-essays and focused discussion, students learn to analyze texts and theoretical positions with both imagination and rigor and to convey their insights coherently, concisely, and correctly. Meanwhile, students take a mix of classes geared to their interests. A substantial number also pursue a second major.
Because of the intensive nature of this two-year program, study abroad during the school year cannot ordinarily be allowed during the regular school year, but many PST students study abroad in the summers or in J-term.
The Program is an outstanding major for a variety of future careers. PST majors often choose to pursue further study in graduate and professional schools, gaining admission to the nation’s top programs. Members of recent classes, for example, have been accepted to law schools at Harvard, Chicago, N.Y.U., Virginia, and Yale, and to Ph.D. programs at the same and similar institutions. Other students have gone on to careers in medicine, teaching, publishing, investment banking, fund-raising, labor organizing, and positions in NGOs and advocacy groups like Amnesty International. In short, PST majors find themselves well-prepared for careers in a wide variety of fields.
Over the years, faculty members from many parts of the University have contributed their energy and talents to the Program. Two currently active University faculty have served as Directors of the Program, Allan Megill (history) and Michael Smith (politics). Faculty who have advised PST senior theses include Ellen Contini-Morava, Richard Handler, and Ira Bashkow of anthropology; Herbert Braun, Claudrena Harold, Erin Lambert, Joseph Miller, and Robert Stolz of history; William Little, Siva Vaidhyanathan, and Bruce Williams of Media Studies; Mohammed Sawaie of Middle Eastern and South Asian Languages and Cultures; John Arras and Talbot Brewer of philosophy; Lawrie Balfour, Colin Bird, Robert Fatton, Herman Schwartz, and Denise Walsh of politics; James Childress, Charles Mathewes, Charles Marsh, Margaret Mohrmann, and John Portmann of religious studies; Krishan Kumar, Katya Makarova, and Milton Vickerman of sociology; Joshua Yates of the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture; Farzaneh Milani of women and gender studies; Rita Felski, Michael Levenson, Jahan Ramazani, and Carolyn Rody of English; and Brendan Richardson of the McIntire School of Commerce. The program’s high reputation often leads other faculty from throughout the University to agree to act as thesis advisors for PST students.
The program attracts able, creative, diverse, and independent students with strong interests, both theoretical and practical, in politics and society. Each spring about 18 – 20 rising third-year students are selected for the program from a substantial applicant pool. Students are chosen on the basis of strong grades, a writing sample, a faculty recommendation, and a short essay explaining the student’s interest in the field. Applications are available on the PST website and are normally due around March 6, or the Thursday before spring break. In the third year, PST majors experience together the rigors of the year-long core seminar. In the fourth year, they focus on their individual thesis projects, while sharing in a thesis seminar and workshop that are devoted entirely to the tasks of formulating, refining, researching, writing, and revising the senior thesis. In this way, they come to know each other, and their professors, deeply and well, creating a genuine intellectual community of students committed to learning.