Introduction to Political Theory

There are probably as many approaches to teaching Introduction to Political Theory as there are theorists teaching it. The choice of topics, texts, methods, pedagogical aims, etc. that undergraduates are likely to encounter in such a course are as varied as is the field (which is extremely varied indeed). This presents those first teaching the course, in particular, with an intimidating task.

In the Fall of 2020, I undertook to design a new approach to teaching Intro to Political Theory which takes what I think is a distinctive combination of approaches. I call the overall product the conceptual literacy approach. In the United States, students generally receive little to no exposure to philosophy or philosophical concepts before coming to university. This often renders them unable to coherently explain ideas like rights, democracy, justice, or liberty that are central to American political culture and institutions. This functional illiteracy is problematic for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that it leaves students ill prepared to responsibly discharge the office of democratic citizen which they occupy.

One approach to teaching students these ideas is to have them dive headlong into the complex texts of the history of political thought. This can be a fruitful approach in appropriately supportive environments, and I have extensive experience doing so in such settings. Yet a common problem I experienced at Murray State was that less prepared but still highly motivated students often struggled to make any sense of these texts, despite extensive efforts from me to scaffold the reading for them.

So I attempt a course design tailored for students with little or no familiarity with philosophical ideas and for whom a more focused approach to reading would be profitable. This course narrowly focuses students on a few concepts with the aim of giving them a basic understanding of what the concept means and a few of the ways it can be used.

This approach seeks to bring out some of the nuances attending those concepts, but eschews long, complex reading assignments from the classics of political thought in favor of brief and highly focused readings excerpted and adapted from them, as well as contemporary texts. The aim is a course that quite literally introduces them anew to concepts that they have probably heard a great deal about, to make those concepts three dimensional, and to suggest where the shadows within them may lie.

In terms of structure, the goal throughout is a discussion-oriented exploration of the ideas which helps students to draw straightforward connections to the wider world.  I want to share this first cut at the conceptual literacy approach to aid other instructors seeking guidance in approaching Introduction to Political Theory. I offer these materials freely to be used and adapted by anyone, so long as they are not privatized or used in a for-profit capacity.

Module 1: Liberty

Liberty 1 as Non-Interference (Hobbes)

Liberty 2 as Non-Interference (Taylor)

Liberty 3 as Self-Mastery (The Tyrant)

Liberty 4 as Autonomy (Frankfurt)

Liberty 5 as Non-Domination (Slavery)

Liberty 6 as Non-Domination (Pettit)

Liberty 7 as a Triadic Relation

Liberty 8 and the Workplace

Module 2: Rights

Rights 1 Introduction

Rights 2 in the Declarations

Rights 3 Natural Rights (Locke)

Rights 4 Bentham’s Critique Part 1

Rights 5 Bentham’s Critique Part 2

Rights 5 Burke’s Critique

Rights 7 Marx on the Jewish Question

Rights 8 John Stuart Mill on Utilitarian Rights

Module 3: Democracy

TBD

Module 4: Justice

TBD