This semester I am teaching for the first time a course in Contemporary Political Theory. The course’s calendar description defines “contemporary” as WWI to the present. The back end of that period more or less coincides with the birth of “political theory” as a recognized academic field. And while I think “political theory” will continue to live on in one guise or another, between the adjunctification of post-secondary education, and the recurring struggles to preserve political theory as a field within an increasingly quantitatively-oriented discipline, it is not difficult to imagine that “the present” might be near the end of the period when “political theorist” is a viable career choice.
So what to do in a course like this? On the one hand, there is SO much to cover. I started making a list of 20th century political theorists that I thought students should know something about, and quickly got to about 20 before I realized that even the illusion of comprehensiveness was impossible. On the other hand, how to pick and choose among all the “really essential” readings? In fact, why should students, the vast majority of whom are not going to go on to study political theory at the graduate level, much less teach it, know about Rawls, Habermas, Foucault, Schmitt, Lenin, Dewey, MacKinnon, Sandel, Young, etc.? In asking this latter question, I am not saying that the impulse to theorize politics is unimportant or dying off, nor that there is nothing to learn from reading any of these theorists. But I do think it is increasingly questionable whether theorizing politics should or will be done mainly through the continued reproduction of cohorts of professional political theorists working in university political science departments.
In the course we’ll spend the first two weeks looking talking about what it means to “do” political theory (readings: MacIntyre, Strauss, Wolin). The question that I’ll be hoping to work towards or through, has to do with political theorizing at a time when “epic theorizing” (to use Wolin’s term) seems no longer possible, and the more traditional answers about the importance of political theory within political science, or about passing on canonical knowledge, are for various reasons increasingly unconvincing (at least to me). After that opening section, we’ll spend the rest of the term reading three books, all from the middle of the 20th century, and perhaps representing a last gasp of epic theorizing.
As we read those books, I’m going to try to get the students to think of political theory as a tool (essays will require them to connect each book with a contemporary political problem that is of interest to them). And to translate political theory into various other registers. Through exercises in class, we’ll try to bring the theories into other domains, contexts, and languages: postcards, skits, board games, etc… Inspired by Tim Kaufman-Osborn’s idea of political theory as a “mongrel” field, the idea is not to cultivate a few students who will want to become “political theorists” but that all (ok, many) of the students will see the importance (or even just possibility) of theorizing politics, whatever they do in their post-university lives.