Editor’s Note: Jakob Hollenbeck was formerly a Opinion Columnist at the Daily Emerald.
Editor’s note: This article reflects the opinions of the authors and not those of Emerald Media Group. It has been edited by the Emerald for grammar and style. Send your columns or submissions on our content or campus issues to [email protected]
As we returned to in-person classes last term, many students celebrated the end of virtual learning. Journalism students could conduct in-person interviews, language students could practice speaking in class, and chemistry students no longer had to get creative with home labs. As political science students, however, we were just as insulated from politics as we were on Zoom.
Distance or face-to-face, political science courses ask us to theorize on democracy. They don’t ask us to participate.
Eitan Hersh, a professor at Tufts University, calls this phenomenon political hobbyism: the consumption of political information to satisfy emotional needs. Rather than engaging in political activism, many Americans treat politics like a football game: they check scores on Twitter, cheer when they win, and quit when they lose. These amateurs happily engage in online debates and pride themselves on being informed. They are obsessed with national news from afar but do not wield power in their own communities.
We will get our political science degrees doing the same. Our introductory political science program reads like an amateur manifesto; it emphasized “respectful debate” and “comparison of political phenomena”, but made no mention of community organizing or engagement with local authorities. This is the norm for the major. The courts rarely teach us how to engage ourselves in politics.
Frustratingly, the department also confines political science to the classroom. It only offers two credits for internships, which do not qualify for graduation. One of the writers of this letter was recently offered an internship at a law firm that litigates civil rights lawsuits on behalf of marginalized Oregonians. Due to the high workload, this author asked if he could receive four internship credits.
“The credits we give are not for the internship itself but for the PS-specific work involved: ie the weekly journal entries and final paper. There are no exceptions,” the ministry replied. “I hope this helps you.”
The message summarizes the shortcomings of the ministry. For the department, political science is a weekly newspaper. It’s writing an article for a professor to read. It is study without practice. The idea that serving marginalized communities is not “PS-specific work” speaks to the ministry’s fixation on the hobby.
Ultimately, this approach means fewer students will engage in politics. More students will leave college with only a vague idea of how to apply their degree. How can a political scientist effect real change without being able to knock on doors, talk to members of their community and support grassroots movements?
Of course, the analysis of political phenomena is important. Studying political science has enhanced our writing, our thinking, and our knowledge of the American political system. The ministry itself, however, claims to do more. Under “Why major or minor in political science?” on the department’s website, it claims it teaches “how collective decisions are made – and how you can play a part in them.” After four years, we still don’t know how the department helped us find this role.
By separating academia from action, the department appeases some of the university’s most politically active students. We live in the city with the highest homeless population per capita in the United States, but our teachers insist that we read Locke’s social contract theory for the third time rather than fight Eugene’s housing crisis. When teachers present problems without connecting us to solutions, cynicism replaces hope. Twitter jokes replace mutual aid. Distant academics replace community organizers.
The UO’s political science department has the opportunity to lead a national movement to change its curriculum. Data on college admissions in 2018 shows that high school seniors are increasingly invested in political activism. Birthplace of CAHOOTS and Cradle of Earth First!, Eugene has a rich history of community research and activism. The university is in a unique position to connect students to their neighbors. It should make community involvement a graduation requirement. It should offer credit for internships that engage in local politics. It must get students out of the classroom, out into the streets and ready to fight for the causes they care about.
Under the model of amateur education, the “knowledge is power” platitude crumbles. Knowledge without action is powerless. The abstract study will not feed the hungry or protect the undocumented. The study is valuable, but it is meaningless without the relationships that sustain American political life.