Photo by Mara Rait ’18, from The Mac Weekly

“Saying you are a liberal or a conservative means nothing because there are so many variations and categories within those political traditions.” — Livie Avrick ’18

On an early morning this last semester, the basement classroom in Carnegie Hall is filled to bursting. Due to the early nature of the class, many students are dressed quite casually (pajamas, anyone?).

Their teacher, on the other hand, is nothing if not dapper in a sport coat and perfectly pressed dress shirt, his beard neatly trimmed.

He takes his subject just as seriously as he does his apparel. For “Conservative and Liberal Political Thought” is one of political science professor Andrew Latham’s favorite courses, and he is dedicated to conveying its messages to these 30 students.

On this winter morning, Latham wakes up his sleepy students by regaling them with tales of the British writer and philosopher Mary Wollstonecraft, author of A Vindication of the Rights of Women, the book that introduced the concept of liberal feminism. “Her views (including the importance of educating women so they could be fully rational and fully human) were not very well received,” says Latham, “especially by male revolutionaries and liberal political thinkers.”

Wollstonecraft is one of many political thinkers covered in this wide-ranging class, which also examines the works of such political philosophers as John Locke, John Stuart Mill, William F. Buckley, John Dewey, and even Barry Goldwater.

It doesn’t take long into the semester for students to conclude, as Livvie Avrick ’18 did, that “saying you are a liberal or a conservative means nothing because there are so many variations and categories within those political traditions.”

Latham began teaching this class in 2015, after first offering one called “Conservative Political Thought” to fill a hole in the curriculum. Soon enough, however, he “realized students didn’t understand the history of liberal thought, either,” so the next year he planned the class to cover both sides, spending half the semester on each.

It has proven to be a popular course, always full to bursting with at least 32 students. Latham’s goal? “To teach the canon and make it as accessible as possible.” Using source materials from the class, each student must write one paper titled Why I Am or Am Not a Liberal and another titled Why I Am or Am Not a Conservative.

It was from a desire to learn more about conservatism that Jacob Trout ’19 was inspired to enroll in “Conservative and Liberal Political Thought.” “I realized during [the presidential election in] 2016 that I didn’t have more than a superficial understanding of modern conservatism,” he says. “I’ve really been surprised how much the course has forced me to critically analyze my own political beliefs.”

That’s really all a professor—or a college—can ask for.

May 15 2017

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