The How-To Guide to Politics

Politics is one of the enduringly popular humanities majors for Arts students at the ANU. Yet the way many students go about filling their 7 subjects leaves them largely unqualified and knowledgeable about only a handful of topical global trends. To avoid finding yourself unskilled and ignorant at the end of your degree, consider the following suggestions.

There are, broadly speaking, three types of courses that you can study in politics at ANU— political science courses, political theory courses, and case study courses.

Political science emphasises formal modelling and empirical methodologies, especially statistics. As the name implies, political science is non-normative and is principally concerned with trying to discern how things actually are to predict future outcomes. As the ANU had almost no political science courses until recently, now is a great time to test the waters.

Political theory tends to be more normative, and is concerned with ideas in politics. The objective of such courses is to provide students with a historical perspective on the development of political thought, and equip them with the ability to analyse and critique political notions like liberalism, totalitarianism, and the veil of ignorance from a priori positions.

Finally, case study courses look in depth at current, trending subjects, like nuclear politics, the Middle East, or refugees. The best try to apply tools and perspectives from political theory and science to unpack these case studies

. Limit your number of case study courses. Why? Because theory and science courses give you the tools you need to conduct an analysis, while case study courses just give you something to analyse. Without these tools, you will simply apply your prejudices to your case study courses and come out of your degree neither smarter nor wiser than you were going in. That seems like a waste of $20,000.

Yet another reason to avoid case studies is that they are extremely specific: you will rarely have an opportunity to apply what you learn from them in your life. How many of you will actually go on to work in nuclear politics? What about the Middle East? Your specialist knowledge is likely to become redundant and you will find that you have very little to bring to the table. Not only are employers going to be hard pressed to consider you useful, but you yourself will have little that you can apply to understand the world as it changes over the coming decades.

The main reason people avoid political science courses is that they fear the math. This is understandable; but the world is moving inexorably towards formal models and empiricism, and this is a trend that will only accelerate. You are better off learning these techniques at the relatively easy undergraduate level, rather than coming back later in life when you are burdened with more pressures and less time.

The easiest way to waste your arts degree is to spend 3 years applying your prejudices to new topics and becoming ever more confirmed in your biases. If you enrol predominantly in case study courses, form cliques with like minded individuals, and debate along well-worn lines of political debate, you won’t learn very much at all. Instead, stick to courses that provide tools, skills, and analytical lenses. There will be life and postgraduate studies.