Sunday, February 19, 2012

Why politics?

I'm often asked the question, 'Why politics?' and my short response is why not? But on the eve of the commencement of a new academic year I thought I might put some thoughts down for students to consider as we embark on another semester of study. It has also been the sort of weekend, politically, that really has those who don't follow politics, shaking their heads at me wondering why I do what I do. 

Over the next three months, I will encounter first year students who must do a required course in politics (and find it unbearable, at first). I will meet those who came to uni in order to study politics. Some of them will be curious, some will be committed party members, some will be idealists who seek to make the world a better place (I will introduce them to Kant, in time). I will teach a course 'About Japan' through a socio-political lens, when a number of students probably would prefer manga and anime. I will also be convening a fourth year honours group and we will consider some of the political philosophy canon--Machiavelli, Hobbes, Kant, Mill, de Tocqueville and others--as we engage in discussion which has antecedents in centuries past. These are the 'big' questions we keep pondering...why do we keep at it? 

I will, however, start classes this week in a week that kicked off with the now infamous Rudd video outtakes of a speech he made some time ago. The vid came out in the context of leadership tensions between the Prime Minister and the Foreign Minister, caused a bit of a storm on Twitter on Saturday night (disclosure: I participated in that), turned into Sunday morning TV programs (as the twitterati predicted the night before) and news of the video has reached Japan...Oh, and did I mention the Queensland Premier went to see the Governor, and so began the Queensland state election campaign, officially. 

In the week teaching commences...and the students wonder, 'Why politics?'

It is hard to explain sometimes, after a weekend like that. Most people tend not to care. A fair bit is governed by self-interest--if I'm right, then everything's aawriiight, maaate. People tend not to like the way Mr Rudd was removed from his position as PM but really, does it matter who leads the country? A weekend like that presents challenges for me in the classroom, certainly, but that's why I teach politics.

I enjoy the challenge of taking that self-interest and channelling it towards the greater good. I tell students that they may not get the point of their politics classes until three, five or ten years after they leave university. Studying politics is about learning to navigate life and that goes on beyond the university gates. Fifteen years ago, I joined the office of a Queensland senator, initially for six weeks but stayed for two and a half years, until his retirement. I often convey to students that those years in Parliament House taught me more about human nature that perhaps it is healthy to know. I returned to the academy after that stint, determined more than ever to really get to the bottom of what makes people do what they do. Can we understand human nature? I think if we take a step back and take time to reflect on the 'big questions', we might just eventually put the weekend machinations in perspective. You might begin to understand why I teach, live and ponder politics. 

To those of you I will have the pleasure and challenge to teach, welcome to Politics 2012. We have so much to learn.