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New York City
October 2003

A New Column Examining Various College Majors:

So, You Want to Major in Poly Sci?

by Sarah N. Lynch

Lindsey Summers was active in government affairs long before she ever decided to major in political science.

A sophomore at Barnard College, Summers began her involvement in political events before she entered grade school. Most recently, she was accepted into a winter internship program where she will be working in New Hampshire for the John Kerry Demo-cratic campaign. Su-mmers said her parents helped to cultivate her interest.

“I feel like being political is the most basic level of self-determination,” Summers said. “When I was like four, my dad and I were going to Dukakis rallies in Boston. My parents are pretty political.”

“They’ve always been very aware of human rights issues.”

But working for the government is not the only option for political science majors. According to Kimberley Johnson, an assistant professor of political science at Barnard College, political science is arguably one of the most versatile majors.

“I have (political science) majors who are pre-med,” she said. “Then you have the standard people who go on to law school or business school. A number of them become filmmakers. They might work in government, non-profits, as activists, or in education.”

Johnson said that generally most people who major in political science have a strong interest in current events.

“I’d suggest the major if you have an interest in current events or if you’re interested in the age-old issues of inequality and power,” she said. But what exactly is political science and what kinds of courses does a student have to take?

Johnson defined political science as being the study of politics and government. Although curriculums will vary from college to college, students majoring in political science generally choose a sub field within the major. The sub fields offered at Barnard College and Columbia College includes American politics, which focuses strictly on domestic political issues, comparative politics, international politics and political theory.

“In comparative politics, you compare different political processes or systems,” Johnson said. “So you might look at democratization in Latin America and Eastern Europe, for example. What is it about specific countries or areas? What are the different political issues or processes?”

“With international politics, you’re looking at differences across countries as opposed to understanding the differences between countries.”

Political theory is the most traditional sub field within the political science major. In political theory classes, students read classic texts that range anywhere from Plato and Aristotle to Marx.

Before Summers transferred to Barnard from the University of Santa Cruz in California, she took her first class in political theory.

“We learned a lot of classical texts like Plato,” she said. “It was really interesting because it didn’t talk about political things—it talked about political freedoms and the quality of being political in a completely nonpartisan manner, which is very different from the way most college students think about politics.”

But while Summers has chosen to concentrate in American politics, other students find it more interesting to learn about political processes outside of the domestic arena. For Mike Ren, a political science and economics major at Columbia College, international politics has proven the most interesting.

“I’m interested in how the countries balance power and try to survive in this international anarchy,” Ren said. “It’s the idea that governments don’t have an over-arching authority to reinforce international rules, so everyone is just trying to survive at the expense of everybody else.”

“And also I think it’s [international politics] more interesting,” Ren added. “It’s very interdisciplinary. There’s a lot of economics, a lot of sociology, and you learn about different cultures.”

Ren said that one of the most important things students learn in political science is how to write well.

“Writing is important in political science classes,” Ren said. “Political papers have certain requirements that are different from other majors. You have to think deductively or reductively.”

But most importantly, Johnson emphasized that political science majors will graduate from college understanding how to think analytically. “In political science you learn to read for knowledge and meaning,” she said. “You learn to use your time effectively and you learn to put together all kinds of information into a logical and coherent argument.”#

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