Giving Politics its Due
story | Ng Qi Siang, Guest Contributor
photo | Lucy Kuo
“Man is a political animal,” declared Aristotle in his Politics, compulsory reading for every Yale-NUS College student. Indeed, power is an inevitability in all human relations. As students in the liberal arts, we are called to study the human experience comprehensively in order to live as responsible citizens in the twenty-first century. Politics, as our common curriculum acknowledges, is key to the human experience. Yet, its study is diluted within the Politics, Philosophy and Economics (PPE) major instead of having an individual major befitting such a broad and popular field.
Granted, there is nothing wrong with students having the choice to study these three subjects together if they wish. Yet, while the Philosophy and Economics components have their own majors and minors, politics does not enjoy the same luxury. In an earlier interview, President Pericles Lewis responded to these queries saying, “We wanted to find majors that were interdisciplinary, sort of the way that the common curriculum is interdisciplinary, for making connections across disciplines. So it’s not only PPE: if you look at Environmental Studies, Urban Studies or Global Affairs, those are all interdisciplinary majors.” President Lewis also argued that the reason for there being no politics major is that the Global Affairs and PPE majors add an interdisciplinary dimension to the study of politics, both in the comparative and international relations perspectives, with sufficient interchange from people in both majors to fully capture both angles of the field. Yet President Lewis conceded that majors like Literature and Psychology were exempt from this on account of being either broad or popular. Implicit, therefore, is the assumption that politics is a field too narrow and niche to constitute an individual major.
The assumption that politics requires Philosophy and Economics to be studied with sufficient breadth is flawed. As a social science, politics synthesizes the empiricism of science and the subjectivity of the humanities, applying itself across different contexts ranging from local government to international politics. If a field must be broad to constitute an individual major, politics more than meets the requirements. Even if politics were a narrow subject, it does not stand to reason that it should be studied only, as conducive as they are, with philosophy and economics. Politics can be combined with many other fields as well. History is no less suitable a bedfellow as Philosophy and Economics – prominent thinkers from Henry Kissinger to Kishore Mahbubani have argued that history provides an excellent complement to political and policy thinking. Politics and psychology allow students to see how the human psyche affects political relations. Clearly, politics does not require philosophy and economics to be a viable field of study.
Diluting politics with philosophy and economics, therefore, hinders our college’s many would-be politics majors during PPE from combining the study of politics with other areas of study. Politics is traditionally a very popular major, ranking third on Princeton Review’s ranking of the top ten college majors. We can infer that a significant number of Yale-NUS undergraduates are similarly excited about majoring in politics. Yet, not all of them necessarily want to study philosophy and economics as well; some may also wish for a more specialized alternative to PPE. Global Affairs fares no better as a substitute, since it focuses primarily on globalization rather than politics,involving significant non-political science content. Moreover, it only covers international politics and thus does not cater to those also having an interest in comparative politics such as economics. Having no individual politics major, therefore, fails to cater to a large number of students with needs that diverge from the objectives of the PPE and GA majors. Many of our fellow students are thus deprived of the opportunity to fully explore an area of fascination for them because of these restrictions.
This is a significant problem especially when it comes to tailoring one’s major to one’s future aspirations. The original PPE degree was devised by the University of Oxford as a replacement for Classics to train civil servants. Not all Yale-NUS students, however, are wannabe civil servants—some students may feel that politics is key to their careers outside of the political realm. For instance, if one were to be an environmental activist, a politics minor would be extremely useful in teaching one how to lobby for green policies. In fact, policymakers in niche fields may feel the need to develop different skill sets to succeed—urban planners are arguably better off studying Urban Studies together with politics than Philosophy and Economics. Students know best which majors and minors best fit their aspirations and should thus have the flexibility to tailor their degrees accordingly. This is contrary to the spirit of the liberal arts—students are encouraged to explore the human experience through greater freedom to choose subjects of their interest in any direction their curiosity chooses to go within reasonable limits. The college, despite its good intentions, should not be overly prescriptive as to what subjects ought to be studied alongside politics.
Yale-NUS should establish a separate politics department with its own major and minor as soon as possible. This would require minimal resources aside from a slight restructuring of faculty organization structure. While PPE could remain a major option, I doubt its relevance after the creation of a separate politics major, since PPE only requires that two of the three component fields be covered to fulfil major requirements. Majoring in one of these fields and minoring in another will probably better serve student by allowing them to focus on their chosen fields in greater depth. The liberal arts are about allowing students the opportunity for self-discovery by tailoring a broad curriculum according to their needs. The expanded choice of academic tracks provided by a separate politics major would be a significant step in this direction.
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