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"Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has."
Margaret Mead

What is an undergraduate education for?

There’s a general expectation in society that the first two years of a four-year undergraduate education should prepare students for life as self-reliant, self-directing adults. Lower-division courses should provide students with broad knowledge and generally applicable skills (e.g., critical thinking, written and oral communication) that will enable them to succeed in their roles in the economic, civic, and personal arenas of adult life. In contrast, the final two years of undergraduate education ought to emphasize preparation for students’ careers by narrowing their focus and deepening their content knowledge in their disciplinary major.

Even at the upper-division level of undergraduate education, though, the question can be raised whether the university ought to be preparing specialists or well-grounded generalists. How many political science majors, for example, are going to become academic political scientists? Do most of them need to learn the same body of knowledge, and learn it in the same manner, as the few who will go on to obtain a PhD and a career as a member of a university faculty? Might the demands of careers in business, law, diplomacy, policy-making, private-sector research, nonprofit management, and public administration call for curricula and pedagogies that differ from those to which future academic political scientists are exposed, both as grad students and as undergrad majors?

What every college student needs to develop is judgment. The late historian, Paul Gagnon, believed that students need to study history and other disciplines that place humankind at the center of their concerns because doing so fosters the development of judgment. “We demand judgment of all professionals,” he says, “and we need it most in the profession of citizen.”

The need for judgment in practical decision-making is inescapable, for two reasons. First, when we have to decide how to act, often it’s not possible to choose a course of action that will promote one good or value without requiring a sacrifice in terms of other goods or values. If we decide to give one end or course of action priority over others, we may have to sacrifice the value that would be realized by pursuing the ends or courses of action we do not choose. The question of what we should give priority in a conflict between good things has no objectively correct answer—it calls for judgment. What’s right or best to do is not a fact that’s given, but rather a solution we must construct. The conclusion we reach is our best judgment. To reach this judgment, we have to deliberate—identify the various courses of action open to us, weigh (with reference to the goods or values that are in conflict) the considerations in favor of and against each option, and then together discern what seems to be the wisest thing to do, on-balance and all things considered.

The second reason why we can’t avoid judgment in political decision-making is that our beliefs about what is good and bad, right and wrong, relevant and irrelevant, true and false, etc. are generalizations. A generalization doesn’t cover—it cannot and will not ever cover—every situation that could or will arise. The difficulty of making tough choices is compounded by the fact that every set of circumstances is unique. Applied to specific situations, general principles do not yield definitive answers. They take us only so far. In the end, we have to exercise judgment.

Students thus need to see that value-based conflict is to be expected and is not some failure of the system that should run itself and leave them alone; indeed, it is intrinsic to self-rule. In a democracy, “ordinary people” are expected to comprehend and judge the intentions, plans, decisions, actions, and consequences of those whom they elect to represent them. As Gagnon says, “we…need an audience prepared and willing to listen to complications.”

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