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What will your first semester look like? What will you learn in your very first politics classes?

The first year for a politics major is more than just learning about the basics. The classes that many first-years take provide important lessons that will teach students about the rest of their college careers.

Most likely, your first few semesters as a politics major will contain an American Government Class, a First-Year Seminar, and our History of Political Thought class. These and others make up our core politics curriculum.

We talked to some currents students about their experience taking these courses, even asking some professors to give us an inside look. We thought it would be interesting to see what these classes are like for those who are looking into the politics major and for past students to go down memory lane.

Part 1: History of Political Thought

“The unexamined life is not worth living.”-Socrates

Students participating in this course are taken on a journey through the major political philosophers Thought like Plato and Aristotle, Locke and Rousseau, to Milton and Marx. As students read through these philosopher’s books, they participate in class conversation and write and present on their readings. As a core class it is indispensable in future course work, establishing many skills of critical thinking and open-minded debate and discussion.

What is the class format like?

We interviewed John Harles who teaches the course. He said the class style uses a “modified Socratic way of asking opposing questions to students.” The hope is that “. . .by pursuing these questions, student will slowly understand the ideas the authors are getting at.” Professor Harles commonly opens each class with a question relevant to the philosopher they’re learning about to get discussion going, and then follows with a lecture and presentations in the following classes. As the class moves through each of the readings, the process starts over again. The main goal of this format, Harles says, is “getting students involved in the material. . .because it  [political thought] was important 2,000 years ago and is important now.”

What do you hope students learn?

“The most important thing is not that students remember every bit of the works of Plato, Hobbes, or Aristotle, but that students engage with these ‘guys’ in a relevant way.” “From Hobbes, for example, you might remember his question about ‘What is Justice?’ or about the distribution of wealth—all these ideas that drive political thinking today.”


Many students come out of the class with a deeper understanding of the issues of justice and morality in the modern world. While each student approaches the class differently, History of Political Thought is a great preparation for the topics they will discuss in future politics classes. One student, HoSu Chang ’14, described his experience:

“History of Political Thought sounds really boring—full of reading of classic figures and old-fashioned ideas. Yet those philosophical problems and issues still matter today they did in the past.  And as one who understood the importance of the materials I learned, I really liked the discussion-based class where you could just listen to others and share your deepest thoughts that you couldn’t even address in any of an everyday/normal conversation.”

Do any of our other students have memories of this class? Feel free to share in the comments below. Part 2: American Government coming soon!

Written by Havilah Mendez