Liberal Education

August 1, 1995

The following excerpts from a syllabus for "Understanding Politics, Political Science 101," articulate the Ashbrook Center’s mission in teaching political science:

Understanding Politics introduces students to the study of politics by raising and examining the most fundamental political questions. We use as our primary guides the profoundest philosophers. Their writings form a conversation about politics, a dialogue we can become part of if we only choose to listen carefully and speak. The philosophers speak to us, when we begin to take them seriously and speak to them.

Some of these fundamental, simple questions are: What is a good man (including women, of course)? What is a good country? How does a good man act under a wicked government? How should a good country try to shape the character of its citizens? What is the relationship between our politics and our faith? Between politics and the arts? Politics and economics?

The philosophers who have best addressed these intriguing questions still live in books we can without exaggeration call "Great Books." Some were written over 2000 years ago. Yet they are as alive as today’s newspaper. These are not books intended to let us fall peacefully to sleep. These Great Books make us more awake than we have ever been before.

Virtually everyone today–from Bill Clinton to Bill Bennett–speaks of "values" when they address issues involving character, morality, or ethics. Civilized people used to speak of principles, natural law, or religious commandments. What are values but "tastes"? And what are tastes but utterly subjective judgments? There is after all no accounting for tastes. But isn’t it the destruction of the very notion of character and ethics to reduce such judgment to the level of tastes? We will never be able to make sense of the deepest questions human life raises if we keep thinking of them as "values."