A Practical Education in Politics: New Brunswick's Legislative Internship Program.

Date22 June 2022
AuthorBateman, Thomas M.J.

Programs like the New Brunswick Legislative Internship Program (NBLIP) are justified largely in terms of job- seeking --turning universities into high-end vocational colleges. The point of a B.A., in this view, is a ticket to a good job and the university administration promotes the idea that applicants get value for money. But the NBLIP is not simply concerned with employment opportunities. Rather, it is designed so participants learn what is involved in a good, proper and accurate education in politics and government. In this article, the author provides an account of the effort involved in establishing a legislative internship program for New Brunswick and why an internship's greatest purpose is to deepen a student's understanding of his or her subject, namely politics and government. He also offers some suggestions for other people who may be interested in starting an internship program elsewhere.


The Study of Politics

A colleague of mine had a cartoon on his door for many years. A man is applying for a job. The human resources officer asks, "Do you have any qualifications?" His answer: "I have a PhD in political science." The HR officer replies, "I take it that's a no?"

This captures our contemporary dilemma. A degree in political science is, as we say, "useless"; it will not get you gainful employment. In this sense, the political science conundrum is that of the liberal arts in general. In a world increasingly dominated by highly technical, mathematicized work, a general education in the humanities is useless. Disciplines studying humans have a chance only to the extent they adopt the mathematicized methods facilitating knowledge for the sake of control, and thus exploitation for commercial gain. George Grant examined this turn a long time ago.

As this view of the purpose of the liberal arts has taken hold, university administrators have feverishly tried to assure parents that their children's bachelor's degrees will in fact avail them a comfortable living. "Look," they plead, "B.A.s eventually make more than those with only high school education. A B.A. opens doors to advanced professional degrees and even better incomes. CEOs once were philosophy students. Doctors once studied literature." Arts students learn "critical thinking skills" and the ability to communicate. These are universal skills readily transferrable to other realms of endeavour and money-making.

Meanwhile, in a political science classroom, professors are in the grip of a paradox. They face students with little knowledge of politics as a practical activity and indeed little knowledge of history to support the myriad particulars that comprise the study of politics. There is a real sense that incoming students are too young, lacking the exposure to people, events, life, and discord that stimulate an appreciation of the possibilities and--more importantly--the limits of politics. Indeed, a surprisingly large number of undergraduate students in political science are essentially uninterested in politics. They do not read the news or political biographies, follow big crises and events, talk about political things with their friends, take up the opportunities afforded them to engage their elected representatives, and participate in any number of public policy processes.

The message many students get from their professors is that the actual practices and particularities of politics are not as important as the theoretical perspectives a student needs to analyze and understand politics. Similarly, for many English professors, reading literature is not nearly as valuable as learning the critical theories that are to be brought to the reading of literature. I have sat in many sessions at academic conferences in which the author of a paper begins by setting out his or her "theoretical perspective" and then proceeds to apply it to a political phenomenon of his or her choice.

This seems to me to put the cart before the horse. Once upon a time, the horse pulled the cart. Aristotle's Politics subtly combines a sense of the best regime with a steady attention to particulars and what is attainable and sustainable, not simply what is ideal. As he puts it in Book IV, "We have to study not only the best constitution, but also the one which is practicable, and likewise the one which is easiest to work and most suitable to cities generally." He followed a fundamentally comparative method, examining extant cases and thereby formulating generalizations.

How did we go off the rails? Isaiah Berlin suggests that the prominence and success of the natural sciences from Francis Bacon onward have tempted scholars to apply the same methods to the human things, hoping for the same outcomes of knowledge and control. Imagine a society whose movements were as predictable as those of the planets, or as those of bodily organs under the influence of this or that food or trauma. Writes Berlin:

Messianic preachers--prophets--such as Saint-Simon, Fourier, Comte, Marx, Spengler, historically-minded theological thinkers from Bossuet to Toynbee, the popularizers of Darwin, the adapters of this or that dominant school of sociology or psychology--all have attempted to step into the breach caused by the failure of eighteenth-century philosophers to construct a proper, successful science of society. Each of these new nineteenth-century apostles laid some claim to exclusive possession of the truth. What they all have in common is the belief in one great universal pattern, and one unique method of apprehending it, knowledge of which would have saved statesmen many an error, and humanity many a hideous tragedy. (1)

Of course, if the scientists know the inner laws of society, why should they merely advise the statesman? Why should they not themselves rule? The answer for Berlin comes from our experience. Rule by means of scientific "laws" known to an elite means the death of politics and the rise of totalitarian rule.

Berlin's main point is that politicians--the good ones, the ones we once called statesmen--"grasp the unique combination of characteristics that constitute this particular situation--this and no other." They are keenly sensitive to the particulars of political life and refrain from imposing on the social world a homogenized pattern touted by some scientific account, bogus or otherwise. They have a capacity for synthesis above that of analysis, "for knowledge in the sense in which trainers know their animals, or parents their children, or conductors their orchestras, as opposed to that in which chemists know the contents of their test tubes, or mathematicians know the rules that their symbols obey." (2) This corroborates Aristotle's account that polities are necessarily pluralistic, not homogeneous; if they were not, they would be families or hellish gulags, not political communities. In Bacon's New Atlantis, the scientific elites run the well-ordered society, but this technocracy is totalitarian: there is no freedom, no questioning of the direction of society, no politics.

I stand with Bernard Crick, for whom politics is not some epiphenomenon of class warfare or patriarchy or some other...

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