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Evolution of the Major

THE CONVENTIONAL POLITICAL SCIENCE MAJOR is structured in terms of the discipline’s primary subfields: American, comparative, international, and political theory. At most institutions, majors are required to take an introductory course in political science as well as several courses in each of these subfields.

Until the mid-1980’s, Whitman’s political science major followed that form. However, around that time, the departmental faculty became convinced that this structure was not appropriate to the study of politics at a liberal arts college. More specifically, we were persuaded that this structure [a] did not furnish a clear basis for areas of inquiry, such as law and political economy, which are increasingly central to the discipline; [b] required anomalous and/or arbitrary subfield designations for various courses e.g., labeling “Politics and Literature” a course in comparative politics; [c] failed to encourage students to integrate material from their various courses and instructors; and [d] discouraged their instructors from teaching in ways conducive to cross-field fertilization. The structure of the present major program was designed to overcome these difficulties.

This larger purpose also explains why we elected to introduce a team-taught senior seminar. That seminar, we hope, gives students an opportunity to draw together and synthesize the material of their previous courses; fosters a greater sense of corporate identity amongst our majors; and, last but not least, gives department faculty greater opportunities to learn from one another.

Finally, the thesis is intended to ensure that the work of the senior seminar results in a substantial and tangible project.

IN CONJUNCTION WITH THIS OVERHAUL of the major, the department changed its name from the Department of Political Science to the Department of Politics. This title, we believe, more effectively conveys our view that many strategies, including those conventionally deemed “scientific,” are appropriate to the study of politics. The term “political science” is a product of the first two decades of this century, i.e., of an era in which the natural sciences, and especially that of physics, were held to exemplify the procedures of all genuine knowledge. This understanding is no longer dominant within the discipline; we believe that the name of our enterprise should reflect this fact. Incidentally, this move on our part is not without precedent. Many departments across the country (e.g., those at Brandeis University, Princeton University, Catholic University, University of Dallas, New York University, Allentown College, Assumption College, UC-Santa Cruz, Cornell College, Converse College, Fairfield University, Lake Forest College, Marymount College, Wake Forest University, Washington and Lee University, etc.) have used this title for some time.

Students wishing to read a more complete account of the history of and justification for this new major should ask Professor Kaufman-Osborn for a copy of his article titled “Whither the Political Science Major at the Liberal Arts College,” PS: Political Science and Politics 23:1 (March 1990), pp.56-61.

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