Political Science Degrees Must End
Their holders do not understand how government works in basic terms, and their curricula are confused at best. It does not have to be this way.
Undergraduate programs in government, generally referred to as political science or polisci degrees, do not teach students how American government works.1 Universities must retire and replace them.
These programs take well-intentioned students who want to improve governance and turn them into generic humanities degree holders who possess a random assortment of ideas—but who can’t answer basic questions about government or give an account of its on-the-ground functions, let alone influence them. A proper government degree would have brilliant minds headed into government the way computer science programs have them headed into tech, with at least as much technical fluency.2
America’s most pressing governance problems at every level—local, state, and federal—demand a robust pipeline of talent to carry us forward into the twenty-first century. Our university system is a natural place to look for such a pipeline, but you will not find it there.
I’ve been through Harvard College’s government program, and I know plenty of others who’ve gone through government programs at a wide array of schools. They all have similarly configured requirements and course offerings that immediately fail any test with a standard of “Does this teach degree candidates how American government works?”
So: I am fixing these degrees, along with anyone else who wants to help me. The first step is developing a worthwhile curriculum in a new field called “governmental mechanics,” which I’m doing through Maximum New York. The next step is making the case to courageous universities to change their degree programs.
We do not have to shrug and accept broken political science programs. They will continue to operate, and possess cultural pull, for a while yet. Let’s make sure something useful sits in the gravity well.
The problem of taxonomy and “polisci”
First: the field of “government” is immediately confusing, because degree programs across universities use different terms—government, political science, politics, etc—to refer to the same basic curriculum.3 That curriculum generally looks like this:
Take one class in 4-5 subfields, including American politics, comparative government, political theory/philosophy, and international relations. No classes in particular, just options from a list.
Take a slate of classes to fulfill your college’s core curriculum requirements, none of which necessarily apply to your major.
Take a certain number of government electives out of a large list of classes, but no classes in particular.
Take one or two specifically required classes, like a certain tutorial.
So, while you will see different labels used for different degree programs, they often just have the above basic structure.
(You might already be able to tell why this degree program isn’t that useful. Not only does it provide no guidance for students, it requires essentially nothing specific.)
Second: despite the basket of different terms for a government degree, most people and universities use “political science degree” or “polisci” to refer to government degrees generally. This introduces its own set of complications, and must be addressed directly.
“Political science” is a red herring
What is political science?
Political science degrees are largely fake in their current forms.
When most people say “political science degree,” what they internally understand is something like “the degree that teaches you about how government works.” Most students enroll in these programs with the intent to learn about government, but they graduate without a command of the basics. Political science degrees do not, in fact, teach them about government.
And, strictly speaking, this is not what political science is. Political science is a social science that applies methods more traditionally found in the hard sciences to the analysis of political institutions.
This means things like field work and case studies, statistical and quantitative analysis, and computer modeling. An example of a political science question is: “Does the shift from a first-past-the-post ballot to a ranked-choice ballot influence how much of the ballot voters fill out?” You can imagine forming a hypothesis, and then looking at systems that switched from one form of ballot to another, controlling for various complications, cleaning data, etc.
Personally, I don’t think political science should be a common four-year degree. Compare it to biology: a degree in biology will definitely have classes that incorporate experimental methods, which are vital to understand the science itself: how it’s generated, and how the field has evolved over time. But being a dedicated researcher in biology is different than an applied version of the field, like veterinary medicine or forestry. And both of those are distinct from the practitioner who can marry both application and experimentation.
Alright, you might say, political science as a degree is properly different than governmental mechanics, just like a scientific researcher is different from a field practitioner. So what? Why don’t the people who want to be political scientists—a specific, niche field largely contained within academia and think tanks—get those degrees, and everyone else get GM degrees? And why do all the people who want to learn how the government works not realize that they’re not learning that in political science programs? Why don’t they switch to GM programs instead?
The lack of governmental mechanics destroys the modern political science program
The short answer: there is really no such thing as a proper governmental mechanics degree. Most colleges put the label “political science” on a mongrel degree program that lexically promises social science, and culturally promises technical government fluency, but delivers neither in the end. Students come to the political science degree expecting many things, and almost every single one of them comes away empty-handed.
The students who want to work in academia and be more dedicated political scientists do not get proper governmental mechanics training, or they have to backfill much of it themselves. The result: they do not learn how to effectively talk to actual policymakers who could use their research—see this firsthand account inby Santi Ruiz.
And the students who want to get right into governmental practice find that they have to learn everything in an ad hoc fashion while on the job; they must waste years of their professional life working at fractional speed because they do not understand the machine they’ve jumped into. Most of them will never understand it that well.
This and previous generations of students have been sold a bad bill of goods. They have caught a bait and switch. They, being young and new to the field of government, have been betrayed by professors and administrators who are supposed to be able to guide them well. And students have reinforced this dynamic: once they realize that they don’t actually know how the government works (if they realize), they do not seriously try to remedy the situation. They feel like they’re in too deep to start asking basic questions, or to challenge their university’s core structure. They will pretend that they know, both socially and on the job. They will comment on the emperor’s very nice clothes.
The thing that enables this whole state of affairs, from the academic malpractice of professors to the unachieved goals of students, is the à la carte4 structure of political science degree programs.
À la carte degrees
Political science degree programs have no specific starting point, no specific end, and no specific order of precedence in between. They are, by design, unintegrated. The result is not to gradually increase your context of knowledge by starting with basics and building up—but to pile up a certain number of credits. This à la carte structure means that the political science degree is nothing exactly—it is whatever someone wants it to be.5 And students often just take a somewhat random assortment of classes that fulfill various generic requirements as a result.
It’s like a math degree that says “there’s no real place to start; if you don’t understand the four basic arithmetic functions, just see if geometry is a good fit.” The problems with this approach are obvious in mathematics, but they are just as relevant if you want to understand how government works.
Harvard: an à la carte case study in failure
So how does the à la carte structure actually manifest? I’ll use Harvard’s undergraduate political science degree as an example (and because I went through it), but the degree is structured similarly everywhere.
To start with, the political science degree is offered through the Department of Government. Already there is probable confusion: the department is government, and your degree from this department will say “government” on it, but much of the degree—and its only universal requirement for all students6—is nominally aimed at political science. The department description does not begin in a promising way if your goal is a clear-eyed view of what the department means by political science, and what it means by government:
The Department of Government—like political science—is an umbrella for a remarkable range of political subjects and approaches them [sic]. It stands at the crossroads of history, law, economics, sociology, philosophy, and ethics, borrowing from these disciplines as well as constructing theories and methods of its own.
Students who choose to concentrate in Government are inspired by many things. Some are passionate about contemporary American politics; some are fascinated by models that explain, measure, or predict political outcomes; some are interested in the civic philosophy of the ancient Greeks, some in the moral challenges of contemporary global citizenship; some focus on the political culture of a particular region of the world; some want to grasp the more general interrelationships of ethnicity and civil war, or human rights and emerging democracy.7
This is word salad. This is not a coherent department. Its undergraduates will not, and do not, have coherent degrees.
I understand that academic departments are broad umbrellas, but they should be sensibly ordered, and there should be a taxonomic hierarchy insofar as possible. It’s fine to have many different fields under one umbrella, just as there are different species under the same genus. But the Department of Government is a grab bag masquerading as a properly ordered, integrated program.
First of all, there is no defined starting point, and no universally assumed prerequisite body of knowledge about government, not even what it is. No base level “here is what government is, here is what the law is, here is how they work together in basic terms.” Harvard’s advice to first years says: “There is no single course that begins a Government concentration.”8
Just as if one entered a calculus program without being trained in arithmetic, students must backfill an immense amount of governmental basics that their department will not give them, although most will not do this. They aren’t equipped to do it—that’s what universities are supposed to do. They will also face social pressure to already have these basics mastered, and “fake it til you make it” carries the day. The inevitable result: most will graduate without mastering the basics at all.
Second, there is no obvious order of precedence9 throughout the degree program. Aside from a barebones list of degree requirements, all but one of which are just required categories of class, rather than specifically required classes, there is no strong program guidance.10 Most students take what looks interesting to them, but there is no larger strategy at play, no larger learning program.
Third, there is no defined end point, or a definite piece of mastery that all students should come away with. Without a definite goal, it’s impossible to order a degree program in its entirety. With no universal exam on basic principles and mechanisms of government, there is nothing students can point to that approximates technical mastery. They will feel accurately insecure about what they learned. Even a purely political science degree should also have a basic program on how government works, because its presumes to apply scientific methods to it. It is not just possible, but probable, that students who graduate with a government degree from Harvard would fail a decent test on government.
Why does the à la carte degree persist?
I don’t think there’s one single reason why the à la carte political science degree, at Harvard and elsewhere, persists in its current terrible form. Some explanations:
People aren’t fully aware of the state of things, and they are not equipped to be. How do you explain chemistry to alchemists? You have to first disabuse them of their existing paradigm, which is difficult under the best of circumstances.
The à la carte program permits less interested, less hardworking, and less directed students to still get a degree. Most political science degree candidates are characterized by at least the third item. So they stumble through a bastardized version of political science that requires no math, no technical skill, and no retention of anything in particular.
There is a memetic cloud that surrounds anything close to “politics” that shatters people’s ability to think clearly, and undergraduates are often more susceptible than most. The anti-politics meme, the politics anti-meme, and the anti-concreteness meme are among them.
Inertia and status quo bias: it would be a lot of work to redesign a proper “how does the government work,” or governmental mechanics, degree program. Curriculum designers would have to make value judgements about what is best to learn, and in which order. They would also have to defend these choices. That all requires courage for oneself, and on behalf of one’s students.
Overturning the à la carte paradigm would require many professors, administrators, and more to admit how very wrong they are and have been.
Many people enjoy consuming political science degrees in their current form, for reasons that are not all bad! They have flexible standards, permit exploration, provide a socially beneficial signal11 when complete, and more. If you can afford one (both in money and opportunity cost), it can be a wonderfully enjoyable time, although not one where you learn how the government works.
Degree standards would have to become specific, which would generally mean raising them.
Even if none of the points above were true, it is still a good idea to reorder the political science degree. Why? Students quite literally do not learn anything that is useful for the furtherance of good governance, they get the impression that they know a lot, and they lock themselves into status-based social dynamics that prevent them from honestly saying “you know, I never really learned the basics. I’m just bullshitting when I don’t know. I really need to get a grip on how government really works so I can be good at it.” This is not the basis of a self-governing society.
Beyond the à la carte degree: governmental mechanics
What we need, and what I’m building, is a governmental mechanics degree. One that teaches you how the government works, and incorporates relevant political history and law. One that emphasizes learning what government is, rather than immediately asking students to focus on what it ought to be.
Political science as a dedicated field should be separate, not for most people, and should only come after at least a year of rigorous governmental mechanics training. Although I’m building my own civics school, I am actively looking for my first university partner to do the hard work of changing government education.
Government degrees are properly technical.12 Students should feel like (and be able to verify that) they know how to do something after graduating with a government degree, and the technical government degree should happily alloy as a minor with other technical degrees, like engineering and computer science. In fact, I’d guess that a properly constituted governmental mechanics department would mostly be serving people getting minors in the field, not majors. If you’re in tech (or another vocation) right now and wish you understood government, probably because of the frustrating ways it’s interacting with your field, you would have been well-served getting a governmental mechanics minor.
What would a governmental mechanics program contain?
The key classes of a good governmental mechanics program would include:
A class on the federal government
A class on a state government
A class on a local government that is within that state, to be taken as a two-semester pairing
A class on the state government that the university is within,
A class on a local government that is near the university, to be taken as a two-semester pairing with the class above
A class on legislation, parliamentary procedure, and legislative history
A class on budgets, to the extent that that material is not already covered in classes above
Elections, political parties, and party governance
Companies, corporations, public authorities, and private governance
Some key ideas of a good governmental mechanics program:
Real-world action: students should participate in the political process as part of their degree program, with strong preference for participation in actual lawmaking or law administration (as opposed to elections). They should attend legislative hearings regularly, and hear from professionals in the field about how to concretely implement law. To get an honors degree, they should have to demonstrate that they materially impacted the shape of a law.
Basic knowledge: students must be familiar with at least two local-state systems, as well as their relationship to the federal government. It is hard to construct good theories of government without this knowledge, let alone execute on them. This knowledge base will equip students to continue learning beyond their degree program.
Integrated content on political history and philosophy that contributes to contemporary ability to function in government.
A common set of exams that all students must pass to verify basic, but rigorous, understanding.
What to do, and where to go from here
If you’re currently in a political science degree program, and you recognize that you were never taught the basics, and that you probably won’t be, I’d like to hear from you. There’s probably something we can do about that. Your university is a large place, and with dedicated effort and good guidance you can get a useful degree.
If you have a friend in a political science program, no matter how prestigious their school, know that they are not really learning how the government works. At best, they are learning contextless pieces of that enormous system, but lack all fluency with the basics that make those pieces most worthwhile. Please do send this to them, because one of my goals is to help them take course-corrective action. They can stay in their political science departments, but not in the mode to which they have become accustomed.
If you have already graduated with a political science degree, or any number of related humanities degrees that are afflicted with many of the same problems, I’ll leave you with this.
You do need to get a new understanding, if your goal is to understand government. In many ways you need to start over, although there is possibly a lot of knowledge you can use from your extant degree if you worked hard. You’re also in a unique place, if you work with other alumni, to convince your university to course correct. I would like to help you with that.
This is a tough pill to swallow. But if you do, you can jump into the study of government at one of its most exciting moments: the birth of a new degree paradigm, governmental mechanics. Get in touch via email or Twitter if you’d like to be a part of it, or help MNY grow.
From “For Political Founders, the Bar of Minimum Viable Knowledge is High” (May 6, 2022):
If you’re worried that you might be one of these people, it’s easy to perform some basic checks. First, ask yourself if you know how the law actually works (or what it is). Like, where are all the laws written down? How would you change what’s written down there? What are the basic areas of law, and how do they interact? Second, ask yourself if you could confidently explain a basic outline of your relevant government (local, state, federal, etc), and how all its parts work and interrelate. Third, ask yourself if, given your policy priorities, you know which level(s) of government even control that thing, and how they control it.
[Note added after initial publication, 12:13am, Oct 13]: this is not a comment on the soundness of CS degrees necessarily (although I do think they are better than government degrees); but they do motivate career trajectory, and direct talent into tech. Government degrees don’t do this to anywhere near the same degree.
“À la carte” usually refers to food, and it means you can order whatever you want, in any order.
Unfortunately, college students are almost definitionally unequipped to decide what their own degree programs should be. That’s why they’re in college, to learn that.
Methods Requirement and Course Sequencing. All government majors must take Government 50, which is an introduction to data science for political science.
Also called “course sequencing”
The Government Department does offer advisors (and other undergraduate student advisors), but they will generally not be helpful in ordering a proper government degree program, themselves having been shaped by poor programs.
Further: Harvard does offer optional curriculum guides called “programs of study.” In the Government Departments’s own words, those are “…five optional curricular programs that enable students to explore themes around more specialized areas of political studies: Data Science, Tech Science, Public Policy, Political Economy, & Law and Justice.” If you click through to any of them, you’ll see they just require ~2-4 classes each beyond the basic government degree requirements. They are not comprehensive, integrated programs.
I’m using “technical” to mean “integrated mastery of a craft.” In the case of government, that means legal knowledge that can be deployed usefully, although this is different than a law degree. Believe it or not, law degrees have not been immune from the pedagogical corruption that afflicts undergraduate political science departments. The JD is not a great degree for learning about the whole of government.