What Are the Formal Learning Goals of the Politics Major?

Aristotle wrote that politics is both the most comprehensive and most ennobling of disciplines. It is the most comprehensive because it contemplates the basic questions of power, conflict, and structure that underlie all human experience; it is the most ennobling because it points us toward the highest ends of human life, including equality, freedom and justice.

In practice, politics is the art and the rough-and-tumble of diverse persons attempting to live together in civil society. In a world characterized by uncertainty, scarcity, conflict and power relationships, politics enables us to make collective choices by debate and negotiation rather than brute force. As an academic discipline, politics is equally challenging and provocative. It demands that we grapple with fundamental questions: How are we to act as citizens? How do our public institutions, and those in other countries, actually function? What values inform, or should inform, public policies? What forces motivate or impede change?

At Pomona, the Politics Department is organized around four subfields: Political Theory, American Politics, Comparative Politics, and International Relations. We encourage our students to take a pluralistic approach to their studies, to take courses in each subfield, and to look at politics from a variety of angles, methods, and perspectives. In addition, we strongly encourage in-depth exploration in at least one area of the field of politics.

Upon graduating from the department our students should have attained: a college-level understanding of the rudiments of American government; a respectable understanding of the politics of at least one country/region outside the United States; a working familiarity with various social science methodologies common to the field of political science, including political theory and some quantitative methods; writing and speaking skills worthy of graduates of a premier liberal arts college.

These goals have been defined by the department as a whole, through past practice and through specific department retreats where we have considered our curriculum in its entirety and complementarities, the latest of which took place in the spring of 2008, thanks to a generous curriculum development grant from the College.

Formally, these learning goals are embodied in the requirements of the degree. These are:

  • Eight general courses, including one course from each of the four subfields;
  • A senior seminar;
  • A senior oral examination, based on a list of books supplied by the student and covering three topics chosen by the student, taken in the senior year (on which more below).

In addition, students desiring greater depth in a particular area of politics may elect to take a Subfield Specialization, which is a coherent collection of five courses, comprising three of the nine required courses and two additional ones, in one of the four subfields. Students are also eligible to write a two-semester senior thesis.

These requirements guarantee that students obtain exposure in all four subfields. By requiring a certain number of introductory classes, the department highlights the need for foundational knowledge in order for majors to more fully benefit from more advanced classes. While many advanced classes do not require the intro classes as prerequisites, Politics majors will have taken them and will develop a fuller, more coherent and vertically integrated knowledge of political systems and theory.