Over thirty years ago, the Program in Political and Social Thought was launched by a small group of University faculty from several departments who were committed to the idea of broad social inquiry. Since its first cohort of six majors in 1981, the Program has graduated over 600 undergraduates. Currently, the Program aims for a class of 18-20 students each year.
The Program is interdisciplinary. It offers diverse and qualified students the opportunity to study social topics in the context of politics — conceived both in its narrow and its broad senses — without being limited by the boundaries or the methodological preoccupations of one discipline. With the advice of associated faculty, independent and capable students can fashion a course of study that reflects their intellectual interests and goals, while also giving them the opportunity to learn from faculty members who have expertise related to those interests.
Instead of a traditional division between “theory” and “practice,” the Program prepares students to engage with their subject from a broad perspective of critical inquiry, where the analysis of thought and thinkers serves as an overall grounding in writing, and, in the fourth year, in research. The year-long third year seminar develops the skills of disciplined discussion and persuasive writing on various issues of social and political thought. Through weekly mini-essays and focused discussion, students learn to analyze texts with both imagination and rigor.
In the fourth year, in consultation with advisors and with the Director, students devise an interdisciplinary set of classes geared to their broader interests and to the preparation of a substantial (80-100 page) thesis.
The range of topics among the thesis projects is extraordinary. Most students focus on a topical event or policy, whether domestic or international. Occasionally, a student chooses a topic with a more literary or philosophical bent. Recent topics have included income inequality in the US, access to credit in the US, the status of art in post-colonial African monument building, the role of American media in the Arab Spring, Islamic lending, attitudes toward wealth in Christian theology, energy policy in Japan after Fukushima, and race dialogue in Charlottesville. Encouraging students to explore their personal interests, the Program stimulates the production of thorough, passionate, and engaged .
Among the departments and programs that have played a considerable role in this program are: History, Politics, Sociology, Anthropology, Studies in Women and Gender, Religious Studies, and Philosophy; more recently, students have included courses in Bioethics, Economics, English, and Media Studies.