Teacher: Leave Those Kids Alone

When some of Harry Jaffa’s students decided to mark his 65th birthday back in 1984, Peter Schramm and Tom Silver wrote an introduction to a festschrift in his honor that began as follows:

Imagine yourself marooned on a desert island with only ten books to read, but in this case books not of your choosing. Suppose them all to be books written by behavioral political scientists during the past twenty years. Question: Do you think that you would die first of boredom, or of self-inflicted wounds?

This was the situation of many undergraduates students of political science in the 1960s, including some of the contributors to this volume. Except that we didn’t realize we were living on a desert island. And although we had been intellectually starved to death, we never realized that we were dead.

From here the introduction goes on to explain the powerful counterpoint Professor Jaffa offered from the first moments in his classroom (I recounted the first 15 minutes of my first class with him in Patriotism Is Not Enough)—an experience that mirrored Jaffa’s own first encounter with Leo Strauss back in the 1940s at the New School for Social Research. To say that the contrast between Jaffa’s (and Strauss’s) kind of political science and conventional political science today is like the contrast between night and day is an understatement.

All of which is preface to this article in the latest issue of Political Science & Politics:

Mental Health and the PhD: Insights and Implications for Political Science

Nasir Almasri, Blair Read & Clara Vandeweerdt


There is a severe mental health crisis among graduate students in political science. We present findings from an original survey on the mental health of political science PhD students at seven US universities. Our results are concerning: 15.8% expressed thoughts of suicide in the two weeks prior to taking the survey. About 30% of respondents met the criteria for depression and only a third of those were receiving treatment. Approximately 32% met the criteria for anxiety and fewer than half were receiving treatment. We also found that students with poorer mental health were more isolated, had fewer friends in their department and fewer people to turn to for help, and were more likely to contemplate dropping out of their program. Our study raises important questions about the experiences of graduate students during the PhD program and serves as an urgent call to action to address the well-being of our colleagues.

Gee I wonder what might be behind this? Maybe too many graduate students are stuck starving on the intellectual desert island of most universities today, but don’t know it. They have no idea that once upon a time it was thought that “Political science investigates happiness first of all” (Al-Farabi). Try suggesting that as a starting point for political inquiry today, and watch the dumbfounded looks you’ll get. And if grad students are depressed, imagine how the students in their classrooms must feel. (One thing I hear consistently from political science undergraduates is how much they hate the required courses in political science methodology, which are all about how to construct soul-sucking regression models.)

Stay tuned to this space: “Lucretia” and I expect to be making an announcement soon that bears on this problem. In the meantime, cue Pink Floyd:

We don’t need no education
We don’t need no thought control
No dark sarcasm in the classroom
Teachers leave them kids alone
Hey! Teachers! Leave them kids alone!
All in all it’s just another brick in the wall.
All in all you’re just another brick in the wall.

UPDATE: A commenter asked for reading recommendations for students (or citizens) who want something better, and I thought my suggestions ought be to elevated here:

I’d actually recommend Kenneth Minogue, “Politics: A Very Short Introduction,” part of the Oxford University Press very short introduction series. It departs substantially from the “mainstream” on offer today. Also recommended: Harvey Mansfield, “A Student’s Guide to Political Philosophy,” just 54 pages!

This is only the merest beginning. More to come in due course.

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